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; 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.
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.; losangeles.dodgers.mlb.com). 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; www.lapraac.com), 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.; www.losfelizlodge.com), 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)
Southern California Close-Ups: Los Angeles' park neighborhoods
Here are 10 itineraries for the Griffith Park, Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park areas.
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