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J.L. Sirisuk

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La Vida Loca in Echo Park

Posted: 02/ 7/2012 11:24 am

Having lived in different cities, I'm used to people asking me about my varied experiences -- some of these questions have included whether I was ever mugged in New York, if the markets in Salamanca actually close during siestas, and did I drink pints of beer with all my meals in Oxford including breakfast. My answers were twice, yes, and yes occasionally. As a ridiculously nostalgic person, I'm always excited to share stories about the places where I've lived -- however, I was recently surprised by the question thrown at me after I told someone that I live in Echo Park.

With eyes bulging this person asked: "Have you been shot at?" I stood there confused. "It's super dangerous there," they insisted, continuing to assume the worst about my neighborhood. Maybe they watched Mi Vida Loca far too many times and found themselves trapped in a '90s time warp -- who knows, but I think of my community as having a sense of humor, its residents making up a cocktail of diverse personalities like whiskey and tequila all thrown into a single shot. This place is full of wonderful qualities and shouldn't be dismissed so easily.

What attracted me to this neighborhood is its authenticity. I need to live in a town that's still rough around the edges and remains unpretentious. There is a mixture of ethnic and social backgrounds in Echo Park and the Latin roots of the community remain a strong part of its culture. While walking near my house on Sunday afternoons I occasionally encounter the same group of men who sit on their porch playing the guitar and singing Spanish songs, and they always nod hello as I check out the old '70s Chevy Nova parked in their driveway.

When I first moved to the area, I spotted a Dodge Valiant, a Ford Maverick and a few classic pick up trucks all in one excellent afternoon. As the owner of a 1974 Chevy Impala, I felt at home and knew this place had character. I imagined myself riding down Echo Park Ave in my boat of a car, in good company with the locals. Dudes sporting blue Dodger t-shirts, hipsters in plaid, girls in sundresses, children on bicycles, working class families, affluent families, poor artists, starving artists, rich artists, people of different colors -- this town is home to a variety people, and that is why I love it here.

Echo Park has many wonderful qualities overlooked by people who have never even set foot here. This town is full of surprises with its numerous stairways, rolling green hills, and roads with extreme declines that confuse, horrify, and excite people. One night while taking a cab home, I momentarily passed out in the backseat and awoke to the cabbie asking, "My friend, what are you doing to me? What is this place?" as he drove hesitantly up Baxter Street, one of the steepest streets in all of Los Angeles. As we slowly made our way to the top of the first hill, it was impossible to see what was on the other side.

The natural landscape of Echo Park is impressive and its steep hills may be unforgiving, but they make for one hell of an exciting rollercoaster ride. Fargo, Elderidge, and Baxter are three of the steepest streets in the city, and all within close proximity of one another. Getting my Impala up these roads can be a pain in the ass, but it's always entertaining to watch the horrified yet bemused expressions of those who experience these streets for the first time.

Both the Baxter and Avalon stairways are in the Elysian Heights area and offer magnificent views of Echo Park. While wandering aimlessly, I once spotted a stairway in the distance, its beginning and end obscured by houses and palm trees. I have since developed a strange obsession with stairways, as I like to explore my town as much as I can by foot, seeking shortcuts over the hills and feeling like an explorer in my own backyard. Walking up the stairways can be exhausting, but it's a fantastic way to experience the terrain of Echo Park and to catch some spectacular views.

The architecture in the area is also charmingly eclectic, reflecting the assortment of colorful characters that live here. You can find modern houses, cottages, bungalows, craftsman and Mediterranean style homes, and uniquely designed structures throughout the neighborhood. There are also quite a few houses that look haunted, including one that looks like the Amityville House, and another that resembles an abandoned boat.

Echo Park certainly has a sense of humor. I once saw a caveman while walking down Sunset Blvd. He was standing next to a robot in a shop window. I had to stop in my tracks and figure out what had led to such a magnificent encounter. It turned out that I had found the Echo Park Time Travel Mart where I can buy items such as robot milk, time travel sickness pills, and neanderthal erasures. The Time Travel Mart sells wonderfully eccentric items to help support 826LA, a non-profit organization that supports local students with their writing skills by providing after school tutoring. I can now purchase loads of robot milk, knowing that I am positively contributing to my community.

Next door to the Time Travel Mart is a bookstore. Yes, I thought I had actually gone back in time to a period when physical books were sold in stores and not downloaded onto tiny devices. Stories, Books and Cafe has a wonderful selection of books both new and used, and overly caffeinated book lovers can enjoy the outside seating area. I advise people to take a time travel sickness pill before entering.

Driving down steep declines, climbing stairways, reading books, drinking coffee, and preparing for time travel are certainly not the only activities that can be enjoyed in Echo Park. Having lived in the U.K. for a number of years, I developed a taste for beer and found a few spots that have satisfied my need for quality pints. The Sunset Beer Company is a shop that sells nearly 200 different kinds of fabulous beer. It also has a cozy tasting area with leather seats, benches, and a bookshelf lined with beer bottles, glasses, and books that visitors can borrow while drinking their pints.

El Prado is a beer and wine bar I found when my friends from Barcelona came to visit. "Mira! El Prado!" they excitedly said, pointing out the sign. We were so impressed that we stayed for hours and I have since returned many times as I am particularly impressed with their selection of Belgian and German beers. It's the type of bar that most people visit before heading elsewhere, but I like to show up with a book and relax over a dark German lager.

As much as I enjoy taking public stairways for the shortcuts, I also relish the exercise because I love Mexican food and some of the best can be found in Echo Park. Whenever I find myself at Walgreens in the evening, I always stop by the Tacos Arizas food truck -- you can't miss its blinking red sign or group of happy customers putting salsa verde on their food. My favorite items include the tacos de lengua, the sopes, burritos con carnitas, and quesadillas de pollo. In the mornings it's enjoyable to stop by Celaya Bakery for a jalapeno and cheese tamale, a cup of coffee, and a concha sweet bread. Down the street from Celaya is Rodeo Mexican Grill which offers excellent horchata and enchiladas con pollo and salsa verde. After enjoying such appetizing meals, I become grateful for streets like Baxter whose steep decline allows me to burn off just enough calories after a strenuous walk so that I can eat yet another satisfying meal of tacos de lengua the following day.

Just when I thought I had developed an intimate relationship with my town, I was thrown yet another surprise. Wandering aimlessly as I sometimes do, I recently found myself on Carroll Avenue, facing an old Victorian mansion with bright green trimming. I continued walking in childish awe of the Queen Anne and Eastlake style homes surrounding me -- each one had its own distinct character and charm. Great round windows like the eyes of an owl, golden accents, vibrant shades, and iron gates -- these homes transported me to another time and place, and for a second I felt like I had entered H.P. Lovecraft's Providence, except this was Echo Park.

Many of the homes on Carroll Avenue are considered historical monuments and are located in Angelino Heights, one of the oldest suburbs in Los Angeles. Walking up a bit further I found myself on Kellam Avenue, which also has a number of impressive Victorian structures. Angelino Heights stirred my imagination, and with its grand historical homes and wonderful views of downtown, it's perfect for exploring by bike or foot, as the surrounding roads are not terrifyingly steep.

Recently I was on Sunset heading towards Echo Park Ave, and saw a police car with blinking lights parked in front of a burger joint as shirtless, bald, tattooed men angrily walked towards each other in the parking lot. The two groups approached each other like urban, tattooed cowboys preparing for a showdown. Moments later the men started laughing and in my confusion I noticed the police car didn't have a license plate. A man suddenly appeared from behind the police car holding a large camera and the groups approached him, smiling and chatting. This wasn't real life -- this was a movie being filmed, one that is perhaps meant to reflect a time when violence was much more prevalent in the area. However, just as people change, communities change as well.

I welcome people to visit my neighborhood and encourage them to experience the diversity that Echo Park has to offer with its varied landscapes and diverse community of residents. Echo Park may be perceived as having a bit of a tough exterior, but it also possesses a creative spirit, a sense of humor, and ramshackle charm.