You'll Find The City's Most DIY Cafe On The Banks Of The LA River
It's 7 a.m. and the sun is rising over Sunnynook Park, three acres of walking paths, benches, cacti and native trees wedged between the Los Angeles River and the chaos of the 5 freeway. A great blue heron glides over the water in the cool morning air. This section of the river, in Frogtown, has an earth bottom and a thriving ecosystem of snowy egrets, bluegill and California sage. Only 50 yards away, separated by a row of bushes and a chain link fence, rush hour traffic builds to a crescendo of honks and screeching brakes but here, as the water ripples and a mallard lazily paddles with the current, it feels peaceful.
Errin Vasquez rolls into the park and leans his bike, a J Bryant Randonneur loaded with a basket and panniers, against a tree. He unpacks his coffee brewing gear and sits on a rock to light a wind-resistant camping stove made from a recycled beer can. As he brings L.A.'s finest tap water to a boil, other people begin trickling in, some on bicycle, some on foot. They set up their own coffee brewing apparatus, complete with their own camping stoves, and get to work.
Welcome to L.A. River Camp Coffee, an informal open-air "cafe" that pops up once a week.
Every Wednesday morning at 7 a.m., anyone who's in the know — it helps to follow Vasquez or #larivercamp on Instagram — can meet in this small park for an hour or two of sipping and socializing. It's strictly BYOC (Bring Your Own Coffee), although regulars will spot you a pour if you show up with an empty cup, and there are as many brewing methodologies as there are patrons.
Steven (except for Vasquez, we're not using anyone's last name to maintain their privacy) carries a paper cup and a breakfast sandwich from Subway while Vasquez has a folding pour-over stand, a compact grinder, freshly roasted beans from Trystero Coffee and a brass gooseneck kettle. There's no wrong way to do it as long as you're happy with the results.
Vasquez, 46, started L.A. River Camp Coffee in 2014 as a way to build a break into his commute, which he does by bicycle from Alhambra to Hollywood.
"I originally started doing it at the top of a hill," he says. "The views were good but it took a lot of effort to get up there and no one would join me. So I relocated to the bike path and it worked out much better for everyone."
Vasquez's caffeine-fueled meetup draws an eclectic crowd. On one Wednesday in October, nine of us, of varying ages, backgrounds and stages of employment, gather in the park. Some weeks, the crowd dwindles to one or two people. Other weeks, it swells to 20 or 30.
Sharon commutes by bike from Hollywood to downtown L.A. where she works at an affordable housing nonprofit.
"I don't usually commute via the river, but this isn't a bad way to go, especially when you can stop for coffee along the way," she says.
This is her first time at the meetup and within minutes of arriving, she's chatting with other Angelenos as though they're old friends.
"I don't get to go camping enough, you know what I mean?" says Ethan, a nurse. "One of my favorite things about camping is getting up and making coffee. There's a certain ritual to it, you know?"
Ray is one of L.A. River Camp Coffee's most faithful attendees. He retired from the film and television industry and has been riding his mountain bike here almost every week for five years.
"I brew my coffee at home and bring it in a thermos so my rationale is: get out of bed, get a ride in, meet some interesting people." A horn blares on the freeway and Ray laughs. "While people are sitting in traffic, we're here sipping coffee, shooting the shit, just being super relaxed."
Bicycles are a staple here. In fact, you can't get to Sunnynook Park by car. You have to ride along the LA River Bike Path or walk across one of the nearby pedestrian bridges connecting it to Atwater and Silver Lake. Vasquez loves his two-wheeled commute. It bypasses bumper-to-bumper traffic and lets him experience the delights of street-level Los Angeles, which are easy to miss when you blur past them in a car.
"When I started [L.A. River Camp Coffee], I thought of it as a way for people to share how they brew coffee or tea while traveling," says Vasquez, a self-described camp-stove geek. "What I realize now is that it's the people and the conversations that matter. I truly enjoy meeting the different people that come through and share a cup every Wednesday or whenever they can."
Born and raised in Los Angeles, he still feels like an explorer in his city. "It always blows me away how much I don't know. People getting together and sharing things about their part of town is fascinating to me. It makes the city feel smaller," Vasquez says.
Just as comedy shows are about more than laughs and bars are about more than drinking (and/or hooking up), this cafe is about more than coffee. In a city often reduced to stereotypes about its traffic, its sprawl, its constant hustle, its venal ambitions, L.A. River Camp Coffee offers a fleeting chance at connection.
"I think it's important to make time for these little moments," Vasquez says. "Things move so fast nowadays. But once a week, we take a minute, stop along the river, catch up with friends and share a cup of coffee."