Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Late Afternoon in Echo Park

     ECHO PARK LAKE is a water reservoir in the middle of Los Angeles just off the  Hollywood freeway, technically, the 101. A cement path loops around it. Grassy border lawns,eucalyptus and palm trees separate it from the streets. A Japanese bridge arches over one corner of the lake. The bridge looks like the one in Monet’s garden at Giverny although this one is painted a Chinese red instead of green. There is a lotus garden here, too, filled today with magenta blossoms. This patch of water is home to migratory birds. I see wild ducks, geese and coots. Park visitors delight in feeding them, despite a sign advising against it. Two fountains soar in the middle of the lake. There is a boathouse from which one can rent pedal boats. Today the boathouse is closed.
      A man wearing a rumpled Hawaiian shirt sprawls lazily on the grass. Two motionless terriers watch over him. A nylon cord attached to a fishing pole secures one mutt by the neck. They look expectant and forlorn.
     A small-boned girl briskly walks past me, setting off a slight disturbance in the air that softly touches my skin and then flaps away like an invisible moth. 
     Three men, gang members from the looks of them, pause from their chatter as I walk by them. They cast expressionless eyes at me, and then fall back into their conversation. I am no threat to them. A friend has cautioned me not to walk here after dark. I could be mugged, even murdered, here, he warned. I have been in the park at 10 at night, and not come to grief. Perhaps the crime here is merely perception, or the result of the roll of the dice.
     Echo Park is a haven for artists and artisans. The eclectic mix of architecture present in the neighborhood, the brightly-colored murals adorning the walls of commercial buildings, and the appearance of an art gallery here and there proclaim as much.
     Once, while strolling among the surrounding hills, I came upon a small house with a Palladian portico. Only an architect versed in Venetian architecture could have come up with such a sophisticated and knowing design. 
     The area of Echo Park avenue towards Sunset Boulevard out into Freeway 101 seems to be an area of working-class Mexicans and Asians. Up towards the hills Echo Park has a contingent of attractive, upscale abodes. One particularly palatial villa rises on a hill above the far end of the street. It is visible from the Glendale freeway. A movie producer is said to live there.
       When I first moved into my apartment here, I heard a vague rumor that a Vietnamese family living nearby had been robbed and killed by a gang, also Vietnamese. I never could verify the truth of the story. At night I’d hear popping noises, but they sounded to me like cars backfiring. Maybe that's what I wanted to believe. I learned to ignore them. 
        The park is bordered towards Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado by the domed Angelus Temple where  Aimee Semple Macpherson used to preach her fiery brand of gospel back in the 1920’s.  Across Echo Park Avenue is an Orthodox church that looks like an office building. Facing it, on Alvarado, is a hillside crowned by apartment buildings. Before his movie star days Leonardo di Caprio used to live hereabouts. A new bunch of artists searching for cheaper digs are spilling over into the Echo Park district from nearby Silverlake. Right now they could be toiling in their studios, their gentrifying presence enriching this pulsing world of bodegas, gangs and Latinos. 
      There is activity all around the park today. A vendor is selling roasted corn. A dark-skinned man dispenses ice cream (helados) from a cart. Sweet bread (pan dulce) delights the niños and niñas. Something celebratory is in the air. Tomorrow is 4th of July. 
     I meet a couple who seems to have wandered out of  a Botero painting. The man takes a sympathetic look at me, exchanges knowing smiles with his companion, rubs his ample belly and mutters: “Gorditos...” 
      I meet a woman pushing a pram with a baby in it. The baby is chewing its right foot, leg bent clear up to its mouth. 
     A man in a worn dark suit pushes a grocery cart filled with empty cola cans. He shuffles towards a garbage bin, peers into it with the air of a connoisseur, and delicately, almost apologetically, rummages inside it. 
     A yellow bicycle piloted by a growling boy of probably four or five careens wildly down the path. It misses me and other promenaders by a hair. I hear muttered curses, including mine, all around. 
     On the corner of the lake where the lotus bloomed, two girls in Gothic black sit on the grass. Only the wind hears their whispered secrets. 
      A young man leans against a tree, shut off from the world by his Walkman. As I pass by him, he turns his face slightly towards me and our eyes meet. A word seems to be forming in his mouth and he gives me a half-smile. Perhaps he's just thought of a joke, but can't quite come up with a punch line. 
    I encounter the Chinese girl again. She has turned around and is walking towards me. She turns out to be a middle-aged woman, her face crinkly with crow’s-feet. Sixtyish and looking like a teenager from the back! Good for her, I thought. 
     The sun washes over a gentle poem on the wall of the building housing the park’s restrooms, a mural that I found on a later visit to have disappeared under  scrawls of lurid graffiti. The mural features Mexican botanica and anthropomorphic renditions of the sun and the moon - El Sol y La Luna. A poem in Spanish describes the painting. In brief it says that somebody has travelled everywhere only to find that what he was looking for was right back there where he started from. It looks and reads much better in Spanish, but I forget the actual words. 
    I make two circuits of the park and then wend my way back to the public wash where I must fetch my laundry from the dryer. People along Echo Park Avenue are outside their houses, sitting on stoops, hands draped over their fences, engaged in talk. The sounds of punta and norteño fill the air. 
     In a moment like this, you’d think you were in Mexico, and not in the heart of the second largest city of the United States of America.

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