Sometimes, as parents, we have to squeeze a quick date in after school drop-off. Such was my treat on a recent Wednesday after I dropped my son off at his school near Dodger Stadium. I used to work for the Dodgers, and one of my favorite ways to take a break from Blue Heaven was to drive off the lot and into the gloriously gritty strip of Sunset Boulevard that runs through one of L.A.’s oldest neighborhoods: Echo Park.
I love this part of town expressly because it’s not shiny. Yes, it has faced one of the most talked-about gentrification battles in our city, and even with the proliferation of hipster coffeehouses and restaurants serving up “sustainable” fare, and even with skyrocketing housing prices that have pushed out a couple of my friends, many of the older, small businesses remain, standing stubbornly, arms crossed, amid the new growth – businesses offering everything from dental care to fashions for $10 and under. And why can’t both exist, the old and the new, in ways that are economically sustainable for all?
During my solo date, I parked my car across from one of my favorite murals – a larger-than-life depiction of Frida Kahlo, Dolores Huerta and Selena, icons whose creativity, vision and activism embody the spirit of this neighborhood. The mural’s backdrop is a bold matrix of purples, while the women’s faces are painted in monochrome. Their black eyes glint knowingly. Their lips, vivid and coral, remind us that we hold the power to speak our truths. “Do you want me to take your picture with them?” a street vendor selling tall cups of fresh-squeezed orange juice asked me. “No, no, just admiring,” I said.
I walked down the street to Stories Books & Café, an absolute gem of an independent bookstore, where I have sat on the back patio to listen to friends and strangers read their poetry. The bookstore keeps a dynamic curation of book recommendations, and buys, sells and trades used books. At the café, you can get a full meal, teas, coffee and, now, beer and wine. One of my poet friend’s favorite things at Stories is the lavender cake. I ordered a dirty chai tea latte and headed out the door to honey hi, a chic spot that sells drinks such as grass-fed beef sipping broth, mushroom dandy brew and turmeric prash latte. I’m not that fancy, but I do love this spot’s breakfast and lunch bowls. My favorite is the “kitchari” bowl, a delish mix of sprouted mung bean, brown rice and vegetable turmeric stew with tamarind date chutney, cilantro and beet-pickled onions. (Wait — maybe I am a tad fancy). Next door, at Tamales Alberto, you can get tamales stuffed with everything from pork in salsa verde to tofu in chipotle sauce.
To stretch my legs some more, I headed down to Echo Park Lake, that manmade oasis that sits just north of downtown L.A. I walked around the loop, where I saw the swan boats at Wheel Fun Rentals packed in against each other at the dock. I watched real ducks stream across the lake and admired two women practicing tai chi as music pumped softly from a small boom box. Otherwise, the park was quiet, still sleepy. And then, the church bells at nearby St. Athanasius tolled, sounding out over the lake that no longer echoes, linking past and present and signaling an end to my little stolen Date with L.A.