Southern California Close-Ups: Los Angeles’ park neighborhoods

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

First published on March 20, 2011. Revised and expanded in early 2012.

It’s not easy being the lungs of Los Angeles.

But Griffith Park, the foremost green space in a city notorious for meager parkland and abundant smog, endures bravely, maybe even heroically. Venture into the park, or nearby Elysian Park, or one of the creative neighborhoods in between, and you’ll find not only beloved landmarks such as Griffith Observatory and Dodger Stadium, but also happy surprises, such as the time-travel supply shop, or the cafe where cops dine daily to the sound of echoing gunfire, or the Korean greetings that echo at dawn every day atop Mt. Hollywood.

The more time you spend in these occasionally gritty, mostly gentrified neighborhoods around the park -- Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park -- the more you realize they’re incubators of American pop culture. Thousands who live here work onstage and off in movies and TV, make music, art, theater and all manner of Web fodder, savoring all things vintage and ironic. Yes, Hollywood is glitzier, and Beverly Hills is richer. But who’s cooler?

And what do we call these people? Many call themselves Eastsiders, which sounds great but annoys people who live east of the Los Angeles River in the area long known as East L.A. Maybe we should call this the Near East instead. Or maybe, given that Griffith Park, Echo Park, Elysian Park and the Dodgers’ ballpark all rub against one another, these people are Parksiders.

1. From the ferns to the stars

Griffith Observatory (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In 1896, mining magnate Griffith J. Griffith donated 3,015 hilly acres that became L.A’s biggest park. Later he put up the money for Griffith Observatory and the Greek Theatre. And in between donations, the hard-drinking Griffith shot his wife in the face (not fatally) and served two years in prison. But you’re here to hike, not judge. Drive to the shady corner of Griffith Park known as Ferndell (or Fern Dell, depending on the source), park by the Trails Café (2333 Fern Dell Drive;, then head uphill. Yes, on foot. Follow the West Observatory Trail for about a mile up the scrubby hills until -- voila! -- three domes and a flawless lawn appear. That’s Griffith Observatory (2800 E. Observatory Road.;, the city’s hood ornament. It opens at 10 a.m. on weekends, noon on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Browse the wonders of science within the 1935 building, which reopened in 2006 after a dramatic addition, mostly underground, that added dozens of exhibits and a cafe. Though shows in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium cost $3-$7 a person, most of the building is admission-free. Outside again, savor one of the city’s best views. Check out the bust of James Dean, whose 1955 movie “Rebel Without a Cause” includes scenes here. Then head back down the hill to the Trails Cafe and its outdoor picnic tables, avocado sandwiches, vegan chili and homemade baked goods. Your kids -- the same kids who begged you to carry them down the hill -- will soon be hopping among the stumps and hay bales.

2. Modernism, murder and " Snow White”

LAMILL Coffee Boutique (Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)

Silver Lake, a series of hills surrounding a scenic pair of reservoirs five miles northwest of downtown L.A., is where many of America’s leading Modernist architects first made their marks from the 1930s to the ‘60s, working on sloping lots because they were cheaper. Walt Disney built his first studio and made “Snow White” at 2725 Hyperion Ave. (now occupied by a Gelson’s supermarket). And in 1969, Charles Manson and followers drove here and killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their home on Waverly Drive. For more on Disney and Manson, and much more on the architectural legacy of Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler and others, sign on for a two- to-three-hour tour from Laura Massino Smith, founder of Architecture Tours L.A. ( After a cup at Lamill Coffee Boutique (1636 Silver Lake Blvd.; and a stroll along the east or west reservoir footpaths, you meet Massino Smith, who wheels you through the hills in her minivan, spinning the stories behind the dozens of homes whose open floor plans, big windows and spare geometry were revolutionary in their time. In the 2300 block of Silver Lake Boulevard, you go pedestrian to explore a colony of Neutra buildings (including his former home, which is open for tours 11 a.m.-3 p.m. most Saturdays; Atop Micheltorena Street, you glimpse the craziest tennis court ever, cantilevered from a hilltop as part of the Silvertop estate designed by John Lautner.

3. Cops and Dodgers

Dodger Stadium (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Elysian Park, near downtown, is home to Dodger Stadium (1000 Elysian Park Ave.; But first, take Stadium Way or Echo Park Avenue to Academy Road. And pretty soon -- boom! -- you’re at the Los Angeles Police Academy (where you’re likely to hear shots from the nearby firing range). Show up between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a weekday, and you can eat at the L.A. Police Academy Revolver & Athletic Club Café (1880 Academy Drive;, where the 9mm Burger is a bargain at less than $7. Don’t miss the old photos, nightsticks, handcuffs, brass knuckles and true-crime magazines on the walls. If you get a chance, thank a cop. The city’s crime rate has been dropping since the early 1990s, and homicides happen about as often as they did in 1967, when the population was far smaller and Don Drysdale was pitching in the nearby stadium. Speaking of which: The Dodgers play 81 home games a year in Dodger Stadium (which dates to 1962), and if you can afford it (remember, you’re paying the many divorce lawyers of owners Frank and Jamie McCourt), see one. But whether you do or not, consider a nightcap at the Short Stop (1455 W. Sunset Blvd.) in Echo Park. For decades it was a cop bar, and it has a police patch collection by the pool table and a set of lockers where officers used to lock up their guns. The cops stopped coming a decade ago, and a younger, shaggier set has claimed the place. There’s a jukebox, a batch of old Dodger pictures, a mirror ball hanging over the dance floor and a vintage photo booth. Mug shots, three bucks.

4. To the top of Hollywood

Charlie Turner Trailhead (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

First, make yourself at home. Claim a suite at Los Feliz Lodge (1501, 1503 and 1507 N. Hoover St.;, a collection of four Spanish-style courtyard bungalows from the 1920s, surrounded by residential blocks and available for short-term stays. The units, opened in 2007, are walking distance to dozens of restaurants, shops and the Sunset-Vermont Metro station. All have kitchens and rates well under $200 a night. But don’t get too comfortable. Because on that first morning, you’ll be rising before dawn and driving five to 10 minutes up the hill to the Griffith Observatory parking lot (which is free but fills fast; 2800 E. Observatory Road). You’ll start at the Charlie Turner Trailhead, just north of the lot, and hike uphill. You’re climbing Mt. Hollywood, whose peak (1,625 feet) offers staggering views. It’s a three-mile round trip through scrub and chaparral, the pines of Berlin Forest and the shady oasis of Dante’s View. From the mountaintop on a clear day, you can see the sun rise to the east and a sliver of Pacific to the west. Almost every day, you’ll get an eyeful of the Los Angeles basin, the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Mountains and the Hollywood sign on nearby Mt. Lee. As the mist lifts from the ridges, listen to the bird song -- and the Koreans. Dozens of Korean Americans like to begin their days with hikes here. So does City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who hollers greetings in their language and carries a football on his dawn hikes. He’s been on this trail almost daily since 1978.

5. The village of Los Feliz

Fred 62 (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Do happy people live in Los Feliz? Well, some. But the area got its name from Jose Vicente Feliz, an 18th century settler who received this real estate through a Spanish land grant. The Greek Theatre (2700 N. Vermont Ave.;, home to many summer concerts, is a few blocks north of the commercial district on Vermont and Hillhurst avenues. Barnsdall Art Park (including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House and a picnic-ready grassy knoll at 4800 Hollywood Blvd. (, is a few blocks south. Once you snag a parking spot (or arrive at the Sunset-Vermont Metro stop), walk Vermont between Franklin and Prospect avenues. Begin with people watching and caffeination in a sidewalk seat at Figaro (1802 N. Vermont Ave.;, which carefully cultivates its French flavor, or Fred 62 (1850 N. Vermont Ave.;, a 24-hour retro-kitsch diner with lime-green walls. Both draw celebrities and often show up on TV, and among customers at either, you may encounter attitude. For larger outdoor dining areas and more people-watching, there’s also Alcove Cafe (1929 Hillhurst Ave.; and Home restaurant (1760 Hillhurst Ave.;; there’s another Home in Silver Lake at 2500 Riverside Drive; For unfancy food but warm welcome to kids, there’s Palermo (1858 N. Vermont Ave.; Browse Skylight Books (1818 N. Vermont Ave.;, and check this week’s memes at Y-Que Trading Post (1770 N. Vermont Ave.;, where today’s news is tomorrow’s silk-screen theme. If you stay on the block for dinner or drinks, the dull facade of Dresden Restaurant (1760 N. Vermont Ave.; conceals a neighborhood treasure: the lounge act of Marty and Elayne, who have been playing and singing, Tuesdays through Saturdays, sometimes in matching caftans, for nearly 30 years.

6. Cowboys, Indians, gorillas and elephants

Los Angeles Zoo (Mariah Tauger / For The Times)

The Los Angeles Zoo (5333 Zoo Drive; can’t match San Diego’s, but it’s cheaper ($16 per adult in early 2012), and it’s right in Griffith Park. A new Asian elephant exhibit recently opened, but the best entertainment is still the Campo Gorilla Reserve, where your kids might get within inches of a gorilla’s nose (with a thick viewing window in between). Their near-human attributes (we mean the gorillas) are endlessly absorbing. If you’re more interested in human doings, the nearby Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West (4700 Western Heritage Way; may surprise you. It covers not only Indians, cowboys and other newcomers but also pop culture’s portrayal of them. And it has a great gift shop full of books, art, music, blankets and belt buckles.

7. Tchotchkes and tiki

Tiki Ti (Perry C. Riddle)

You owe somebody a gift? Perhaps a grown-up pop-culture sort of gift, not necessarily in good taste? Step into the vast and semi-subversive retail wonderland known as Soap Plant / Wacko and the Luz de Jesus Gallery (all at 4633 Hollywood Blvd.; in Los Feliz. Tiki tchotchkes, concert posters, Beatles lunch boxes, Bozo kazoos, rubber frog handbags -- they’re all here in a former post office building, along with many picture books not suitable for children. After shopping, get a bite at Umami Burger (4655 Hollywood Blvd.;, a block northwest. And then it’s time to catch a movie at the Vista Theatre (4473 Sunset Drive), Spanish on the outside, Egyptian on the inside). Or maybe you’d rather head for a drink at Tiki Ti (4427 W. Sunset Blvd.;, three blocks southeast. No beer, no wine, no credit cards. What you get are tiki drinks, about 90 of them, served since 1961 in a 12-stool space that fills up quickly. Important note: Smoking is allowed inside because all bar employees are part of the Buhen family, which owns the place. The Ti is usually open Wednesday nights through Saturdays, but every three months, the Buhens take three or four weeks off. So check before showing up. Once you’re inside, certain drink orders will cause everyone around you to start yelling, “Ooga-Booga!” Act as though you expected it. And when you’ve had enough, retire to your quarters at El Tres Inn (4439 W. Sunset Blvd.;, an eccentric, three-suite lodging above El Chavo Mexican restaurant and El Chavito bar. It’s not cheap, but for a place to crash after a night of tequila, it makes good sense.

8. Sunset Junction

Sunset Junction (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Remember that weird spark Melrose Avenue had in the 1980s? Something like that is happening now at Sunset Junction, the stretch of Sunset Boulevard storefronts near Sanborn Avenue in Silver Lake. Slouching twentysomethings with high cheekbones and thrift-shop wardrobes. Budding authors and auteurs, poised over their MacBooks by the blue-and-white Nicaraguan tile work at Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea (3922 W. Sunset Blvd.; or listening to Jacques Brel under the parasols at the Casbah Cafe (3900 W. Sunset Blvd.; Now’s your chance to inspect the 300 artisanal cheeses at the Cheese Store of Silverlake (3926-28 W. Sunset Blvd.;, the 24 flavors of ice cream made from scratch at Pazzo Gelato (3827 W. Sunset Blvd.;, and the eight kinds of currywurst cooked at Berlin Currywurst (also at 3827 W. Sunset;, which opened in early 2011. To soak it all up, find street parking (arrive early) or grab a spot in the little lot on Sanborn just west of Sunset. Lunch at Forage (3823 W. Sunset Blvd.; Listen for stray solos outside the Silver Lake Conservatory of Music (3920 W. Sunset Blvd.;, which was co-founded by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Browse the $12 shadow puppets at ReForm School (3902 W. Sunset Blvd.;, the comic books at Secret Headquarters (3817 W. Sunset Blvd.;, the music at Vacation Vinyl (3815 W. Sunset Blvd.;, and the mixological marvels at Bar Keeper (3910 W. Sunset Blvd.; You get extra points for coming on a Saturday morning, when the Silver Lake Farmers’ Market sets up near Sunset and Edgecliff Drive.

9. The lake, the ladies, Taix and time itself

Echo Park (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Echo Park, a blue-collar Latino neighborhood for decades, keeps getting trendier and more affluent. For more than a century, there’s been a 13-acre lake at the southwest end of the neighborhood along Glendale Boulevard — but it’s been drained for an upgrade and is likely to remain fenced off through late 2013. Fortunately, you can still cruise by the aged ladies of Carroll Avenue -- the greatest concentration of well-tended Victorian homes in Los Angeles, seven blocks south of Sunset by way of Douglas Street. And walk Sunset between Echo Park Boulevard, where a striking Ricardo Mendoza mural wraps around a clinic building, and Taix, pronounced “tex” (1911 W. Sunset Blvd.;, the long-enduring French restaurant (and lounge with live music) where Park Avenue comes to an end. You’ll find the neighborhood’s stalwart pawn shops and Mexican groceries jostled now by newcomers such as the bookshop-cafe Stories (1716 W. Sunset Blvd.; and, farther south, the beer palace Mohawk Bend (2141 W. Sunset Blvd., which features more than 70 local and regional brews on tap and skylit, semi-industrial dining room that once held a theater. Meanwhile, the Echo (1822 W. Sunset Blvd.; and its downstairs sibling the Echoplex are among the city’s leading venues for live rock music. El Prado (1805 W. Sunset Blvd.;, once a dive bar, is now downright genteel (and plays mostly old vinyl on its sound system). On Saturday nights, the nonprofit Echo Park Film Center (1200 N. Alvarado St.; often screens alternative and/or documentary films. But before the day gets away, you need to hit the storefront labeled Echo Park Time Travel Mart (1714 W. Sunset Blvd.; In the rooms behind, tutors from 826LA (another nonprofit, part of a national network founded by author Dave Eggers) offer free academic help and writing workshops for students 6-18. Upfront, the outfit raises funds by selling supplies for time-travelers -- you know, like robot milk and centurion helmets. If you pretend this is normal, the clerk at the counter will too.

10. By hoof and rail

Griffith Park (Mariah Tauger / For The Times)

Got kids? Proceed to the ponies near the southeast entrance of Griffith Park at Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive (officially, the address is 4730 Crystal Springs Drive; There, Tuesdays through Sundays, your child (age 1 or older) can sit on a tethered pony (which will make eight circles for $3) or ride two laps, untethered, on a larger oval track (also $3). On weekends, the scaled-down Griffith Park & Southern Railroad carries children and parents for $2.50 a ride, and more trains await in Travel Town and at L.A. Live Steamers at the north end of the park. The park’s biggest playground, Shane’s Inspiration, is a short drive from the ponies, and along the way there’s a spot to rent bikes and a historic merry-go-round that’s open weekends all year and every day in summer. Show up around noon on a Sunday, and you’ll hear a strange throbbing in the air. That’s the Griffith Park drum circle, always free, frequently fascinating.

Get inspired to get away.

Explore California, the West and beyond with the weekly Escapes newsletter from travel editor Catharine Hamm.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.