37

Echo Park

EP intro

 

Week two in LA and we’re heading just north of downtown to Echo Park.

A neighbourhood that, pre-WWI, was the Hollywood of LA, the place all the film studios called home. Charlie Chaplin, Westerns etc.

After the ‘white flight’ post-WWII, Latinos and gangs moved in but more recently in the last decade it’s been artists and hipsters, seeking a cheaper alternative to neighbouring uber-hip Silver Lake.

Echo Park’s main drag is on Sunset Boulevard, which, despite all the romantic imagery those two words conjure up, is pretty run-down in parts, with the occasional hipster-friendly shop or cafe. Much like Sydney’s Paramatta Road, around Annandale, for example. The hilly bits above Sunset, on the other hand, reminded me of some parts of Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

Now, apparently it’s still a real mix of people but truly, everyone we met – the non-Latinos at least – were all writers, musicians or actors.

But by “everyone” I mean, ooh, maybe ten people. As the guy in the bookshop explained, LA isn’t a “sidewalk culture” (okay, maybe Venice Beach is, but not here).

In other words, people were very thin on the ground, literally.

So, given the lack of bods and the fact we’re in the land of make believe – and that Echo Park has some relationship of one kind or another with various LA writers like Raymond Chandler and Bukowski – I decided this post would be a little different…

Lights, camera, action…

 

FADE IN

Irene, a passionate landscape architect and vintage collector from Arizona, has arrived in LA to pursue her dream of becoming a famous actress. She narrates her story…

 

 

I had come to LA to become a big time actress

I had come to LA to become a big time actress.

 

 

 

 

Sure, I loved my plants and my vintage clothes but I wanted fame

Sure, I loved plants and my vintage clothes but I was hungry for fame.

 

 

 

 

I got me a place in West Hollywood, just big enough to fit me and my precious wardrobe

I got a place in West Hollywood, just big enough to fit me and my precious wardrobe.

 

 

 

 

But lady luck didn’t do me any favours and I had to move my stuff to cheaper digs at Echo Park

But Lady Luck didn’t do me any favours and I had to move my stuff to cheaper digs at Echo Park.

 

 

 

 

I liked Echo Park more anyway, the folks were less uptight there.

I liked Echo Park more anyway, the folks were less uptight there.

 

 

 

 

But my dream of making it in Hollywood was going nowhere fast.

But my dream of making it in Hollywood was going nowhere fast.

 

 

 

 

Then one day I got a call from a big shot agent. Come up to Silver Lake and we’ll talk, he said.

 

 

I tossed my vintage bag in my 1965 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and headed up Silver Lake Blvd

I tossed my vintage bag in my 1965 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and headed up Silver Lake Blvd.

 

 

 

 

Soon as I stepped out of the car a hideous creature lurched at me - “Can I give you a hand, muhahaha!”

Soon as I stepped out of the car a hideous creature lurched at me – “Can I give you a hand, muhahaha!”

 

 

 

 

Then a woman who looked scarily like Frida Kahlo came out of the house but when I looked back she wasn’t there

Then a woman who looked like Frida Kahlo came out of the house but when I looked back she wasn’t there.

 

 

 

 

Suddenly from behind the Golden Barrel cactus a man leapt out with a gun.

Suddenly from behind the Golden Barrel Cacti a man leapt out with a gun.

 

 

 

 

The light was blinding but I could see he meant business.

The light was blinding but I could see this fella meant business.

 

 

 

 

I kicked him where it hurt and the gun landed near the cactus. I ran to the car and spe

I kicked him where it hurt and the gun landed near the cacti. I hightailed it to the car and sped off.

 

 

 

 

Who wanted me dead? Was it the Karate Kid, the proud Chicano who didn't like the hipsters moving into Echo Park?

Who wanted me dead? Was it Karate Kid, the proud Chicano who didn’t like the artists moving into Echo Park?

 

 

 

 

Or was it one of my ex-lovers, like moody Mike?

Or was it one of my ex-lovers, like moody Mike?

 

 

 

 

Or his jealous girlfriend who lived down the road at Silver Lake Palms?

Or his jealous girlfriend, lonely Lola, who lived down the road at Silver Lake Palms?

 

 

 

 

Or my other men, Eddie, Bill, Jack (I'd been busy).

Or my other fellas, Eddie, Bill and Jack (I’d been busy).

 

 

 

 

Maybe it was Philip, the landscape gardener who felt threatened by my knowledge of Euphorbia cacti

Maybe it was Philip, the landscape gardener who felt threatened by my knowledge of Euphorbia cacti.

 

 

 

 

I started having nightmares of finding a skeleton in the boot of a car.

I started having nightmares of finding a skeleton in the boot of a car.

 

 

 

 

I'd recognise those teeth anywhere, it was sweet John, the musician who lived next door to me!

I’d recognise those teeth anywhere, it was sweet John, the musician who lived next door to me!

 

 

 

 

My nightmares were also filled with ghoulish faces.

My nightmares were also filled with ghoulish faces.

 

 

 

 

I saw ancestors I didn’t know I had, and made offerings like they do in Mexico.

I saw ancestors I didn’t know I had, and made offerings like they do in Mexico.

 

 

 

 

In the nightmares I was Cuban so I set up coffee and a cigar for my dad.

In the nightmares I was Cuban so I set up coffee and a cigar for my dad.

 

 

 

 

And chrysanthemums for my mum.

And chrysanthemums for my mum.

 

 

 

 

And I prayed and wept at their graves.

And I prayed and wept at their graves.

 

 

 

 What did it all mean?

 

 

What did it all mean? One night at the Gold Room I met a woman with a quote from Bukowski tattooed on her arm, 'Don't Try'

Then one night at the Gold Room I met a woman with a quote from Bukowski tattooed on her arm, ‘Don’t Try’.

 

 

 

 

Suddenly it all made sense. Later that night I met a man who smoked a pipe. It was love at first sight

Suddenly it all made sense. Later that night I met a man who smoked a pipe. It was love at first sight.

 

 

 

 

The fact he smoked a vintage Corn Cob pipe just made me love him even more.

The fact he smoked a vintage Corn Cob pipe just made me love him even more.

 

 

 

 

On a stormy night over a bottle of bourbon at the Olive Motel we made plans to live a life together

On a stormy night over a bottle of bourbon at the Olive Motel we made plans to live a life together.

 

 

 

 

Two days later we got hitched at the local church.

Two days later we got hitched at the local church.

 

 

 

 

We invited everyone from Echo Park, including Juan the fruit guy.

We invited everyone from Echo Park, including Juan the fruit guy.

 

 

 

 

We both loved vintage as well as plants so we decided to start up a business together combining the two

We both loved vintage as well as plants so we decided to start up a business together combining the two.

 

 

 

 

Unlike my acting career, our business, ‘vintage + plants’, took off like my Cadillac up Sunset Blvd

Unlike my acting career, our business, ‘vintage + plants’, took off like my Cadillac up Sunset Blvd.

 

 

 

 

And we bought a pug too. ‘Cos you gotta have a pug when you live in Echo Park.

And we bought a pug too. ‘Cos you gotta have a pug when you live in Echo Park.

 

 

 

 

The End.

The End.

 

 

 

 

CREDITS

Cast, in order of appearance:

Maya Stein (student and fifth generation of the original Mexicans in LA from the 1700s) in intro image

Irene (vintage mannequin), appearing as herself

Andy (musician) and injured dog Whelan, as themselves

Maria (unknown career), as Frida Kahlo

Matthew (pathology assistant), the guy with the gun, as the hit man (Yes, real gun, he has… three)

Gerado (17 year old student), as Karate Kid

Ned Casual (musician, actor, painter), as moody Mike

Rosie (from England, out here with punk rock dad), as lonely Lola

Unknowns as Eddie and Bill

Manuk (actor, photographer), as Jack

Unknowns as Ghoulish faces

Dominga Perez Padron and Jose Ramon Padron as dearly departed Mexicans in photographs at an early Day of the Dead celebration in Echo Park

Eric (stage actor, newly arrived from Chicago) as the Man who Smoked a Pipe

Unknown as Juan.

Bronson the pug as himself.

 

COSTUME

All vintage clothing by Flounce Vintage, Echo Park.

 

The Wrap

Pretty kooky huh? Well, silly it may be but it was kind of fun to do. I didn’t have the idea until after I’d shot 99% of the shots so it was like piecing a storyboard together, albeit with limited images.

To anyone who I photographed, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve cast you as a character in this strange little production. As I said, I didn’t know at the time that I was going to use your photos like this. Please email me if you’d prefer not to be involved. (I may then have to kill you off… oh dear, it’s all getting rather complicated…)

Anyway, to round out the picture of Echo Park, I should say that it has more than just seedy, run-down motels/apartment blocks (which I personally love for some reason). There’s a range of architecture there, from the grand Victorians in the area called Angelino Heights, to some nice Modernist homes. It also has a major sports stadium, a huge park and a lake that would be filled with lotus flowers if it weren’t for the fact it’s currently under renovation and looks more building site-ish than anything lovely.

 

 

 

playing dress-up at Flounce

playing dress-up at Flounce

 

 

 

On the ‘home front’

Coco had a ball at Echo Parks’ Flounce Vintage, trying on pretty much every pair of shoes in the place as well as all the lovely old hats. And she also loved all the dancing at the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration we stumbled on while we were in the neighbourhood.

But the real highlight of the week? Disneyland! She has my friend Fiona to thank for that – if it’d been up to me, we’d never have gone. But Fiona offered to take Coco and then I felt I had to go too, so off we all went, with Fiona’s 13 year old, Katie, in tow. How was it? Hugely fun. Except for Space Mountain. It was terrifying. Not the spooky imagery but the way you hurtled through complete darkness at unbelievable speed, violently jerking this way and that at every turn. Coco and I clung on to each other, me screaming “JUST SHUT YOUR EYES!” and Coco screaming back, “IT DOESN’T HELP!”, totally convinced she was about to be thrown out of the cart at any moment. I swear it was the most freaked out either of us have been since we left Sydney more than 10 months ago – at Disneyland!

This suburb has been brought to you by Triscia from Fresco Creative

See you next week.

 

36

Boyle Heights

BH intro

 

From that most vertical of cities, NY, to one of the most horizontal, LA…

I know it conjures up images of celebrities and Hollywood to some, but to me LA is what the moon would look like if ever it were colonised. Something about the scrubby hills and the endless yet low-lying sprawl that’s sprouted despite the odds (desert, earthquakes, fires, etc), overlaid by a massive set of tentacles (freeways) that seem somehow wildly malevolent. A desolate place in other words, save for the thousands of impossibly tall palm trees (how do they not fall down?) that soften the landscape immeasurably and bring to mind Hawaii…

Anyway, LA.

To be honest, other US cities like Chicago, Memphis and Miami drew me far more. But I suspected they’d be easier pickings – oddly enough, considering my weariness at 10 months in, I was up for a challenge. LA was it.

Those other cities also didn’t have Fiona, a dear friend of mine as well as provider of accommodation, gratis – a not unimportant consideration given my rapidly shrinking budget (thanks Fi!).

Aside from that, I was interested in finding out a little more about Mexican culture before we hit the real thing; LA was once Mexican territory and still has an enormous Mexican population. Considering I know zilch about their world I thought by visiting LA I could avoid landing in Mexico City in a few months time completely clueless.

Hence my choice for week number one here – a very Mexican neighbourhood called Boyle Heights, just east of LA’s downtown.

Some facts: Like all of LA, the area was originally populated by Native American tribes before becoming part of the Spanish Empire in 1542, Mexico in 1821 and finally America in 1848. Named after an Irishman, Andrew Boyle, it’s had a number of different cultures pass through it since then (including Jewish and Japanese) but today the area is overwhelmingly working class Hispanic/Latino – Mexican Americans (Chicanos and Chicanas), Mexican immigrants, and Central American residents.

Seat belt on? Let’s cruise…

 

Part 1: Play it again Juan

While NY felt overwhelmingly black to me, LA’s population of almost four million (18 million in the Greater Los Angeles Area) is almost half Latino – and getting more so by the day.

A huge percentage of those live and work in Boyle Heights and East LA, including the musicians we met on the main drag, Cesar E Chevez Avenue.

They were the first thing that caught my eye on our first drive there last Monday – men in Stetsons sitting on a bench surrounded by accordions, guitars and woah, a double bass?

As soon as I could find a park we whipped back to see what the deal was. Tricky given that most of the guys didn’t speak much English (and I speak even less Spanish). But from what I could gather they were waiting for people to drive past and hire them for between $150-$200 an hour. Either that or they’d hit the local restaurants at lunch and dinner, playing for loose change from those enjoying their enchiladas.

They seemed like lovely guys (who doesn’t love a man who can play an instrument?) but I felt kind of sorry for them. When I asked them, do you like LA, they all said absolutely. But it can’t be easy; given the tough times, how many people are prepared to fork out for live music?

 

 

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 1

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 1

 

 

 

 

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 2

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 2

 

 

 

 

Cesar on tololoche, from El Salvador

Cesar on tololoche, from El Salvador

 

 

 

 

"I decorated it myself"

“I decorated it myself”

 

 

 

 

may you and your tololoche be blessed with many open wallets

may you and your tololoche be blessed with many open wallets

 

 

 

 

minimalist, not

minimalist, not

 

 

 

 

Mexican waves

Mexican waves

 

 

 

 

Part 2: Chicano power

It was a very different experience the next time we visited the neighbourhood, when we met a few American born and bred descendents of Mexican immigrants – called Chicano/Chicana. While they speak fluent English and sound like any other Angeleno, Chicanos are hugely proud of their Mexican heritage and aware of the struggles their families have been through and still face.

This was at Estrada Courts, a public housing estate in Boyle Heights that I’d heard had a handful of significant murals relating to the Chicano Movement in the 70s, when Mexican Americans united to end the discrimination against them and improve their political and economic rights.

Coco and I were checking out one of the murals when 18 months old Ashley tottered up to us. Her mum’s cousin, the delightful Omar, then took us and Ashley around the estate to look at his favourite murals.

 

 

yeah, what he said - Ashley and Omar in front of 'We are NOT a minority' Che Guevara mural

yeah, what he said – Ashley and Omar in front of ‘We are NOT a minority’ Che Guevara mural

 

 

 

 

up up and away?

a fantasy of flight?

 

 

 

 

the next generation of Chicanas and Chicanos

the next generation of Chicanas and Chicanos

 

 

 

 

Omar's other favourite mural

Omar’s other favourite mural

 

 

 

 

watching Coco do cartwheels

watching Coco do cartwheels

 

 

 

 

By the time we’d seen them all, the strong LA light was starting to fade and it was time to hit the road. I don’t know how the subject came up but Omar told me that there were gangs in the area and that, yes, some of the members probably lived in Estrada Courts, and that, yes, they would’ve been watching me – but that if they were going to do something, it would’ve already happened.

Gangs in LA, okay, sure (this is after all the ‘gang capital’ of America with 450 of them scattered around the place). But gangs in the neighbourhood we were standing in? Cripes.

 

Part 3: Weird and wonderful

“Well, I call her a witch.”

34 year old Mexican American, Yisel, was telling me about Hortencia, the woman inside Botanica Sagrado Corazon, one of a handful of ‘spiritual shops’ along Boyle Heights’ main drag, Cesar E Chevez Avenue, that I stuck my head into on our last visit to the neighbourhood.

She was there with her wife – “wife, partner, friend, you know, depends who I’m talking to” – for a “cleansing”. “Yesterday I came here to see Hortencia for a tarot reading ‘cos someone busted my car window and I wanted to know who it was. Then Hortencia told me I needed a cleansing for bad energy that’s blocking me in my life. I had to rub my body with lemon, egg, a white candle and flowers, then wash with this nice smelling oil. Then you write your name and birth date on the egg, lemon and candle. Now I’m back for more.”

Witch? Cleansings? White candles? I didn’t have a clue what it all meant but I loved how this tough born and bred East LA Angeleno, tattooed to the hilt and proudly gay and Chicana, was so into what I assumed was ancient Mexican spirituality. We talked outside the shop while she waited her turn to see Hortencia – there’s always a queue to see Hortencia – about LA and her life. “My dream? To leave my job as a food production assistant at a school and get a well paid job so I can support my wife and her four daughters. Maybe at the jail – the pay is good. But I keep getting turned down. That’s why I’m here, to clear the blockages.”

 

 

Yesil, here for a 'cleansing' from Hortencia

Yesil, waiting to see the “witch”, Hortencia

 

 

 

 

"It's pretty weird, you have to rub yourself with lemon, egg and a white candle"

“It’s pretty weird, you have to rub yourself with lemon, egg and a white candle”

 

 

 

 

inside Hortencia's healing room

inside Hortencia’s healing room

 

 

 

 

While Yesil was waiting, she explained what the various soaps in the shop were meant for. There were soaps to make people follow you or love you or whatever.

 

 

 

for example, to dominate a man like Louis, you need to use this soap

for example, to dominate a man like Louis, you need to use this soap

 

 

 

 

"I pray for the blockages in my life to be removed"

“I pray for the blockages in my life to be removed”

 

 

 

 

Speaking of blockages, I wondered if anyone ever came to Hortencia and asked to be saved from LA’s horrendous traffic. Probably not – I suspect the clogged freeways are above any sort of divine intervention.

 

 

 

not even she can save you from LA traffic

not even she can save you from LA traffic

 

 

 

 

Before I left Hortencia’s shop I asked Yesil for her phone number so I could check back and see how her cleansing went – I’ll update you next week with any news.

 

 

 

"to me LA stands for unity, hope and beauty"

“to me LA stands for unity, hope and beauty”

 

 

 

 

Part 4: Our Lady of Guadalupe and other passions

Our Lady of Guadalupe is Mexico’s ‘it’ girl – the Virgin Mary with streams of light radiating out behind her. She’s everywhere in Boyle Heights and East LA, from churches to shops and garage doors.

 

 

floral border

floral border

 

 

 

 

Our Lady of Guadalupe - she's everywhere, from churches to garage doors

Our Lady of Guadalupe – she’s everywhere, from churches to garage doors

 

 

 

 

potential life changers

potential life changers

 

 

 

 

Aside from Our Lady of Guadalupe, there are loads of other painted images in Boyle Heights, ranging from the utilitarian to the political.

 

 

doing the shopping - for the practical vs the spiritual

doing the shopping – for the practical vs the spiritual

 

 

 

 

that looks so good

that looks so good

 

 

 

 

bred from tough stuff - Eileen

bred from tough stuff – Eileen

 

 

 

 

And lastly, a  few more images from around the neighbourhood, because I like them…

 

 

after dancing they always went to George's

after dancing they always went to George’s

 

 

 

 

let's go drivin'

let’s go drivin’

 

 

 

 

Part 5: Random walls, fences and a freeway

 

 

fun and games

fun and games

 

 

 

 

6pm, somewhere in East LA

6pm, somewhere in East LA

 

 

 

 

lawn's overrated anyway

no lawn but lots of palm trees

 

 

 

 

little Latino League

little Latino League

 

 

 

 

the calm before the storm

the calm before the storm

 

 

 

 

The Wrap

If Boyle Heights is anything to go by, I think I’m going to love Mexico City. The musicians, the pride, the Hortencias (yes, I did get a tarot reading myself – all good but Hortencia told me to watch out for a “Negro woman” and a “short, wide man”.)

And my ‘introduction to Mexico’ worked a treat. Above all I learned that I need to brush up on my Spanish and that really, I should steer clear of beans.

 

 

 

a Chicano, a Chicana and a Coco

a Chicano, a Chicana and a Coco

 

 

 

On the ‘home front’

It was a wrench leaving NY I have to say (and while I’m at it, to our friends in NY who were incredibly generous with their hearts and homes – Chris, Mary K, Bill and their kids, as well as Craig, Anna and their small ones – many thanks!).

But LA is warm and spacious and Coco has kids to play with here too. We’re staying with my good friend Fiona and her family in Pasadena, right at the bottom of the San Gabriel Mountains. A lovely place to come back to after the hours we seem to spend on LA’s freeways, either getting lost or sitting in traffic.

We’ve both been sick with filthy head colds – first Coco, now me. But as soon as my head doesn’t feel like cotton wool we’ll be back on the roads, full of fight and ready to explore our second LA hood, wherever that may be. Until then, adiós!

This suburb has been brought to you by Eugene

See you next Monday-Tuesday.

 

52 Suburbs Around the World Book

52 Suburbs Around the World Book

New & improved price of $49.95! Click here to purchase!

Order my first book online

Buy the 52 Suburbs Book online

Find out more about the Sydney book here

Sponsors

Momento_180x150 copy

Advertisers