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; www.thetrailslosfeliz.com), 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.; www.griffithobservatory.org), 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. (www.architecturetoursla.com). After a cup at Lamill Coffee Boutique (1636 Silver Lake Blvd.; www.lamillcoffee.com) 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; www.neutra-vdl.org). Atop Micheltorena Street, you glimpse the craziest tennis court ever, cantilevered from a hilltop as part of the Silvertop estate designed by John Lautner.