The people behind the Avenue of the Athletes--sports-minded Echo Park's answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame--chose four names to honor last week with sidewalk plaques: Tommy Lasorda, Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and L. Andrew Castle.
L. Andrew Castle?
Who's that? Some Olympian whose achievements predated television? A golfer who lived in the neighborhood? A jockey who raced under a nom de saddle?
Actually, Castle happened to be the owner of both a small camera shop and a big dream.
His dream was to improve the struggling commercial center of Echo Park along Sunset Boulevard, maybe even transform it into a tourist attraction. With Dodger Stadium just a 10-minute walk up the hill, what better way to do that, he thought, than to shine some reflected glory of sports heroes down on the relatively unglamorous street of shoe stores, banks, bakeries and restaurants?
So, at Castle's urging, the City of Los Angeles in 1974 declared the 10 blocks of Sunset Boulevard between Elysian Park Boulevard and Alvarado Street to be the Avenue of the Athletes, allowing sidewalks to be dotted with tablets bearing the names of superstar jocks. Castle himself hardly fit that image: At the time, he was a short, slow-moving, elderly man.
Castle, who also worked as a photographer for the Dodgers, got the team and other local merchants to back the project financially. The first plaques were laid in concrete in 1976 during what was supposed to be an annual ceremony.
"Andy fought with the City Council; he fought with everybody to get this going," recalled Leonard Leum, owner of the Pioneer supermarket chain and chairman of the Avenue of the Athletes.
But Castle died two years later and the Avenue almost died with him. The ceremonies stopped and the designs for the plaques were even lost for a while. It was not until 1980 that the Echo Park Chamber of Commerce was able to revive the project, which even its biggest boosters concede has yet to fulfill Castle's dream.
Castle once owned a second camera shop in Hollywood, where he noticed the appeal of the stars in the sidewalk. The Avenue of the Athletes has 32 plaques now but has never become a strong competitor to the much bigger show-business Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
In fact, hardly anybody outside the neighborhood knows about the Sunset Boulevard sidewalk plaques. And people in the heavily Latino and Asian neighborhood seem to pay them little attention, blithely walking right over the likes of Joe Louis and Roy Campanella en route to lunch at Barragan's or to buy a South American magazine at the enormous newsstand at Echo Park Boulevard and Sunset. The Echo Park plaques are still too few and too spread out to keep eyes peeled to the sidewalk.
"To be perfectly honest, I don't think anyone particularly goes out of their way to see it," said Bill Garcia, a committee member and aide to Councilman John Ferraro. But, he said, having the plaques there boosts the neighborhood's pride.
To be sure, Echo Park's central shopping district is experiencing somewhat better days recently, with the opening of a few new shops and the refurbishing of others. But officials say that is a a spillover from the rebuilding of the large Pioneer market two years ago. Nobody credits the plaques.
What's more, an almost identical sidewalk plaque project called Sportswalk was started seven years ago in San Pedro. "There's lots of these kinds of things around the country, more than you can visit," Tom Collins, basketball star Abdul-Jabbar's agent, said after last week's ceremony for the four new honorees.
'His Dream Lives On'
However, all that doesn't mean that Echo Park should or will give up on the Avenue of the Athletes, Leum and others say.
"As long as I hang around here, I'll try to keep this going," Leum said. "Some of these small businessmen here are getting killed by the Glendale Galleria and by outlying business districts. Instead of just crying, this is a way of doing something about it."
"The most important thing is whether you are really going to try to improve the area," said Fred Claire, executive vice president of the Dodgers and a member of the plaque committee. "Andy Castle dreamed that it could be clean, that it could be free of crime. What the reality is, I don't know for sure. But his dream lives on."
To symbolize that, a plaque bearing Castle's name was laid in concrete last week in front of the store he used to own at Logan Street and Sunset, even as ones honoring Dodger manager Lasorda, tennis champion King and Abdul-Jabbar were placed on nearby spots. Lasorda's plaque bears the image of a baseball bat and glove, King's a tennis racket and ball, Jabbar's a basketball and net. Castle's shows a camera.
About 50 people attended the brief ceremony on a portable stage in front of the Pioneer market. A local jazz band played and a color guard of Explorer Scouts was there.
Lasorda was there. Billie Jean King's parents were there, as was Collins, representing Abdul-Jabbar. (King was said to be playing in a tournament in Tucson, Ariz., and Abdul-Jabbar to be at training camp in Palm Springs.) Claire of the Dodgers accepted the plaque in Castle's memory; Castle's wife died shortly after he did, and they had no children.
Photos With Lasorda
Councilmen Ferraro and Michael Woo, whose districts split Echo Park, also attended, shaking hands of constituents and posing for photos with Lasorda. It was, after all, the afternoon before the Dodgers won their division championship.
Asked what he thought of the plaques, Lasorda said: "They don't have the same impact or notoriety as the ones in Hollywood, but they have a big effect on people like me. I'm in pretty good company here."
Lasorda's companions in bronze along the sidewalk are an eclectic and somewhat controversial group. They are picked from 10 sports: baseball, basketball, football, track, horse racing, boxing, swimming, diving, tennis and golf. But a few of the nine Avenue of the Athletes committee members complain that no rules govern selection in terms of the level and timing of achievement and where the person lived.
"The selection is a little loose," said Braven Dyer Jr., a new committee member and an official with the sports museum recently taken over by the Los Angeles Olympic Committee Amateur Athletics Foundation. "Basically, they are honoring the right people. But sometimes they seemed to pick people out of the air, so to speak."
For example, he said of Lasorda's selection: "It's not that Tommy doesn't deserve it. But ,if it was up to a group of unbiased people, he might not be selected. He might, but then he might not."
Echo Park Resident
The same might be true for the late Cornelius Johnson, who won the gold medal in the running high jump at the 1936 Olympics and was honored with a plaque several years ago. The most important factors might have been that Johnson lived in the Echo Park area and that Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley mentioned his name to committee members at a previous ceremony, Dyer said.
Many of the 32 names have a connection to Los Angeles or California. Among the honorees who either lived or played in Southern California are former Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax; champion Olympic pole vaulter Bob Seagren; Olympic diving medalist Sammy Lee; Wyomia Tyus, the Olympic gold-medal runner; jockey Johnny Longden, and Elgin Baylor, the former Lakers star. But then, Jesse Owens, the Olympic track and field star who had little or nothing to do with California, has a plaque, as does baseball's Babe Ruth, an East Coaster if there ever was one.
There is also a preference for people who are alive and might come in person to the unveiling ceremonies at Echo Park. That is not a steadfast rule, however, as Ruth and Jackie Robinson died years before the Avenue of the Athletes was started.
"We tried to select people who would be present. But I must admit we've had different criteria at different times," Claire said. He said he expects the selection process to become more focused in coming years, with the avenue honoring only athletes who either lived in Los Angeles or played on Los Angeles teams.
Leum said that, although the Dodgers contribute a significant amount of money--no one will say how much--to the project, the baseball organization does not dominate it. "This is not a Dodger promotion," he said. "The only Dodgers who are honored are those who deserve it and we intend to keep it that way."
Last week's ceremony, the four plaques, city permits and cutting into the sidewalk cost about $4,000, Leum said.
There is no disagreement, however, that one non-athlete deserved a plaque: L. Andrew Castle. "You just had to know Andy," Leum said. "Everything Andy Castle thought and everything he did was to try to benefit Echo Park."