10 Things You May Not Know About Silver Lake
Sometimes, we can't help but poke fun at Silver Lake. But while we may paint it as the land of $10 smoothies, the neighborhood's legacy is unimpeachable. It has been the home of pioneers, outcasts, and various societal misfits. And from the gay community to the movie industry, Silver Lake has hosted of some of L.A.'s most defining populations. A lot has changed in, say, the last 20 years. But we'd like to believe that Silver Lake still carries a bit of that rebel spirit at heart (and hey, that "happy/sad" foot sign is still there!). Here, we touch on some of the area's backstory to present a different perspective.
One Of The First Gay Rights Protests In The U.S. Happened Here
It's often overlooked that Silver Lake was once regarded as a gay enclave. It had, indeed, housed a vast array of gay bars and gay-friendly establishments. The terrain is pretty different today; Akbar stands as one of the last bastions of that era, and Circus of Books was shuttered this past summer. Whatever changes may come, however, Silver Lake's history as a gay hub can't be denied.
Silver Lake was where activist Harry Hay had conceived of the Mattachine Society, one of the nation's first gay rights groups, in 1950 from his Silver Lake home on Cove Avenue. In 2012, a stairway by the house was officially recognized by the city as the "Mattachine Steps," in honor of Hay.
While the Mattachine Society was founded in 1950, it wasn't until the '60s and '70s that the gay community really expanded in the neighborhood. This period of growth, unfortunately, was met with a homophobic push-back. In 1980, a gay restaurant and cabaret on Hyperion Avenue called the Frog Pond was fire bombed by a suspect who'd reportedly shouted gay slurs. Before that, in 1967, the Black Cat Tavern on Sunset was raided by police on New Year's Eve. Witnesses claim that the officers had never identified themselves; they just walked in and started dragging patrons out. Two men were charged with "lewd conduct" because they were spotted kissing other men. Six weeks after the raid, a gay rights group called P.R.I.D.E (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) staged a peaceful protest outside of the Black Cat. Hundreds of people showed up for what is considered to be one of the first gay rights protests in the nation (though the legacy of this action would be overshadowed by the later Stonewall Riots in New York City). The Black Cat went through different iterations over the decades, and the space was granted its historic-cultural monument status in 2008 (a plaque can be seen on the exterior wall). It closed its doors in 2011, but was revived in 2012 as a restaurant called, yes, The Black Cat.
A Creek Used To Run Along Silver Lake Boulevard
Silver Lake, and surrounding neighborhoods, used to be home to a number of visible creeks and streams. As noted by the "L.A. Creek Freaks," parts of Silver Lake Blvd had once been the site of a creek that ran down to a watery confluence at (what is now) the intersections of Hoover, Temple St, and Silver Lake Blvd. In a map produced by the former "Vermontshire Association," city planning group, you can see that developers had suggested building a storm drain in that area (it's the black, dotted line).
Also, the fabled Sacatela Creek used to touch the northwest corner of the neighborhood. The creek started around Franklin Avenue in Los Feliz, ran south to the intersection of Myra and Fountain avenues, crossed Hoover Street, continued south alongside Virgil Avenue, and ended in Koreatown. Blogger "The Militant Angeleno" did a pretty bang-up job on mapping out the trail of the creek (and pointing out signs of the the creek's existence, like storm drains and bridges).
What happened to the creeks and streams? L.A. had (and still has) a H2O complex in which we're constantly trying to tame bodies of water, the most obvious example of which is the channelization of the L.A. River. The streams fell victim to this ideology, partly because they were so mercurial. They'd dry up for months, then spring back to life when the winter rain came along, and sometimes the surrounding areas would get flooded. As such, many of these creeks of lore were driven underground with the aid of underground pipes.
That "Boat" Building On Hyperion Avenue Has a Musical History
Drive down Hyperion Avenue and you'll spot a two-story, nautical-theme building at the corner of Tracy Street. It's got portholes in place of regular windows, as well as other signs of whimsy.
This design motif wasn't just a flight of fancy, apparently. The building, erected in 1941, was commissioned by a preacher named Paul Myers, also known as "First Mate Bob." He claimed that he'd found God while wandering docks in San Diego—as such, he took to professing an admiration for the high seas (as well as Jesus). Whether or not Bob was being sincere, or if he was just adopting a brand to sell his faith, that's for you to decide. At any rate, the new building on Hyperion was used as a broadcasting studio for Myers' religious radio ministry. Here, Bob gives you a tour of his home and introduces you to his crew (who treat us to a honey-toned hymn).
The building's musical history would live on through the decades. In 1997, the space was purchased by The Dust Brothers, a pair of producers who were responsible for some of the most paradigm-shattering albums of the latter 20th century (think: The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay). The producers turned the building into a recording studio called "The Boat." As of 2014, the building was owned by a an enterprise belonging to Flea, whose ties to Silver Lake includes co-founding the Silverlake Music Conservatory (more, later, about this name).
Rasputin's Daughter Lived Here
We're well aware of Silver Lake's cast of notable residents, past and present. Judy Garland had stayed here briefly with her family during the 1930s. This was also where writer Anais Nin lived with her husband—a forest ranger (!) 16 years her junior—in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's grandson.
It's Maria Rasputin, however, who may have been the neighborhood's most intriguing denizen. She was the daughter of, yes, Grigori Rasputin, the "Mad Monk" who was rumored to have manipulated the Russian royal family through his weirdly-intensive friendship with Tsar Nicholas II. After the death of her father, Maria (who changed her name from Matryona) would sail to America in 1937 to escape the reputation of her surname. Once here, however, she continued her father's legacy by leading out a totally bonkers lifestyle. She sang in cabarets to earn her keep, and had also toured with the Ringling Brothers as a lion tamer for a period of time. Things took a turn, however, after she was mauled by a bear during a circus show in Indiana. She took to a quieter life by working as a machinist in a San Pedro shipyard, and living out the rest of her storied history in a Silver Lake duplex on Larissa Drive. She stayed in the neighborhood from 1947 to 1977, when she passed away.
As to why Maria chose Silver Lake, the neighborhood had once hosted a minor-but-sizable enclave of self-proclaimed Russian aristocrats and intellectuals. One of the remaining signs of this population is the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which was founded in 1923 by immigrants fleeing the upheaval of the Russian Revolution. Parishioners claim it is the second oldest Russian Orthodox church in Southern California.
It Had Once Housed The Headquarters Of A Mexican Anarchist Newsletter
Bring up the Mexican Revolution, and you might find people who recognize the names of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, who captured the public's imagination with their bravado. You'd be hard-pressed, however, to find someone who recalls Ricardo Flores Magón, who, while cut from a more quiet and intellectual cloth, is regarded as one of the catalysts of the movement. Magón, an anarchist, had co-founded in 1900 the radical Mexican Liberal Party (or Partido Liberal Mexicano), which sought to address the injustices of Porfirio Díaz's regime. He'd also penned articles for Regeneración, an anarchist newspaper that was initially printed as the PLM's publication arm. The newspaper openly criticized state officials, and thusly lead to the arrest (several times over) of Ricardo and his brother Enrique.
This kind of persecution would persuade the two to immigrate to the U.S. in 1903, when they first landed in Texas. In 1914, the pair (as well as other members of the Mexican Liberal Party) rented a five-and-a-half acre farm that was situated between Loma Vista Place and Cove Avenue in Silver Lake, and here they lived out their ideals of a communal society, according to Silver Lake Bohemia. They farmed fruit and vegetables, raised livestock, and sold their wares on street corners to bring in income. The work was split evenly between the sexes, and the family observed days that commemorated leftists uprisings around the world, like the Paris Commune on March 18. Also of note: for a while the headquarters of Regeneración was found on Glendale Avenue in Silver Lake.
Ricardo was later sentenced to 20 years in jail for violating the 1917 Espionage Act, and in 1922 he died under suspicious circumstances at a penitentiary in Kansas. Enrique returned to Mexico soon afterward.
The Music Box Steps Are The Subject Of A Coveted, Long-Lost Film
The magic didn't start with Hollywood. It began in Edendale, the former neighborhood that was the site of L.A.'s first major movie studios. The area was situated along (what is now) the border separating Silver Lake and Echo Park. It all began in 1910, when producer William Selig relocated from Chicago to build his production studio at Clifford Street and Glendale Boulevard. A decade later there would be a half dozen other studios centered around Branden, Aaron and Effie streets. Among these was Keystone Studios, which was responsible for the bumbling Keystone Cops. And, on Hyperion Avenue on the northern border of Silver Lake, the first Walt Disney studio would be erected in 1925. It became the birthplace of Mickey and the rest of the Disney brigade.
It's no surprise, then, that parts of Silver Lake were captured on film. Among the most notable locales is (what we now call) the Music Box Steps by North Vendome St and Del Monte Drive. The stairs were the subject of the Laurel and Hardy film The Music Box. The Hal Roach-produced film, released in 1932, was a half-hour romp in which the pair attempts to carry a piano up the stairs (much hilarity ensues, of course).
This moving-stuff-up-the-stairs routine (perhaps a statement on the futility of human existence??) wasn't new. Laurel and Hardy had actually shot a previous film on the same steps with the same concept—this time, though, it's a washing machine they have in tow. This movie, 1927's Hats Off, is now notable because it has disappeared into the ether. According to several Laurel and Hardy fan sites the film was last screened in Germany in 1930. Ever since, not a single print of the film has ever been uncovered. It remains as the holy grail for disciples of the comedy duo and (to a somewhat lesser extent) film preservationists around the world.
The Heyday Of Pirate Radio Ended Here
Before there was Spotify, and before Pandora set the backdrop at your local coffeeshouse, there were only a handful of ways to discover music that ran against the grain of mainstream radio (which was basically owned by a small number of corporations that had enough money to crowd everyone else out).
There was college radio, of course. The other option was pirate radio (or a station that broadcasts illegally on an unlicensed signal). Pirate radio hit its peak in the U.S. during the '80s and '90s as radio became even more homogenized. While most of these pirate stations had a short reach (they had to evade the watchful eye of the Federal Communications Commission, after all) some of them evoked a strong sense of loyalty with their grassroots mentality. One of L.A.'s most notable pirate stations was KBLT, which owner Susan Carpenter ran from 1995 to 1998 out of her Silver Lake apartment. Regarded by the L.A. Times as being among "two of microradio's best outlets," KBLT was run by more than 40 volunteer programmers, and played everything from country to '70s punk. Mike Watt, former bassist of the legendary punk outfit Minutemen, was a DJ here, and he'd once brought in Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore as a guest. Gauzy crooner Mazzy Star dropped in for a benefit gig, and The Jesus and Mary Chain also made an appearance.
The free-wheeling spirit came to an abrupt end, however, as the FCC went on a crackdown during the late '90s to shutter clandestine radio stations. While pirate stations are, undoubtedly, still operating in the shadows today, the luster just isn't the same, as streaming services have given listeners an option outside of mainstream radio. As the urgency just isn't there anymore, you could argue that KBLT was among the last bastions of pirate radio's glory days. Carpenter is now the host of The Ride, a radio program about cars and mobility, on KPCC.
Arnold Schwarzenegger Brought His Hummer Here To Transform It Into A Eco-Friendly, Veggie Oil-Chugging Ride
It was 2006. An Inconvenient Truth made a minor splash in theaters. The Hummer, which had just hit its peak in sales, would start its precipitous decline.
Which is all to say that it was the right time for Lovecraft Biofuels to come along. Situated at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Sanborn Avenue, in a squat black garage, the modest company converted diesel-engines to allow them to run on pure vegetable oil. The conversion was fairly easy: it would take just a couple hours (and about 700 clams) to install a pump that draws and heats up the oil, which then gets passed through the fuel lines. Apparently, the science was legitimate, and the mechanics at Lovecraft said that vegetable oil got you as much fuel mileage as regular petroleum, if not more. Mandy Moore purchased a converted car from the shop, and then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brought in his Hummer to get it modified.
Silver Lake, fairly or unfairly, has a rep of being prone to passing fads, and Lovecraft eventually became another tally in that mark. Problems arose quickly for the company. For one thing, the owners accused each other of suspect financial practices and filed lawsuits against one another. Also, customers complained that their converted cars were leaking oil. And there was the issue of veggie-chugging vehicle themselves. Owning one could could be costly, as vegetable oil isn't exactly cheaper than regular fuels. And because diesel-engine cars are more prominent in Europe, and because you'd think twice about converting a new BMW that you'd paid $40,000 for, most of the cars being modified at Lovecraft were vintage European cars. And as any one with automotive know-how can tell you, it's not exactly cost effective to own, say, a 1980 Mercedes Benz.
Lovecraft's run was short-lived. It relinquished a portion of its space in 2008, and shuttered completely soon after.
The Neighborhood Had Some Big Implications For Homeownership Among Chinese-Americans
It's no secret that Silver Lake is home to a bevy of architecturally-significant homes. There are the lean Neutra-designed houses on the Neutra Place cul-de-sac. There's John Lautner's "Silvertop," which remains a spectacle to this day with its arched roof and wall-to-wall windows. And the Canfield-Moreno Estate exudes the type of extravagance and polished charm that we've come to associate with Old Hollywood (it was, in fact, owned by the silent-era star Antonio Moreno). Also of note is the Eugene Choy-designed home on Castle Street. Its significance, however, goes beyond its clean aesthetics.
Let's backtrack. Up until the mid 20th century, racial covenants were largely successful in preventing minorities from moving into Silver Lake. You'd come across a land title deed stipulating that a home can't be sold to "any person not of the Caucasian race." This was what Choy, who was the second Chinese-American to be inducted into the American Institute of Architects, was dealing with when he decided to purchase a home in the area. His gameplan was fairly straight-forward: he basically went door-to-door and asked his prospective neighbors for permission to let him live there. They relented, and he ended up building his own home on Castle Street, stamping it with his taste for the sleek lines of modernism.
In the early 1960s, business man F. Chow Chan, owner of Phoenix Bakery, also decided he wanted to purchase a home in Silver Lake. The main problem for him, however, was that he couldn't secure a loan because of his immigrant status. Chan realized that, in order for the local Chinese community to find its footing, it would need financial institutions that would address their needs. He deduced that the logical solution would be to, you know, make your own bank. He did exactly that in 1962 with the Cathay Bank in Chinatown, and later with East-West Bank in 1973. Naturally, Eugene Choy was hand-picked to design the first Cathay Bank on North Broadway and Alpine Street.
Yes. It's Two Words.
Silver. Lake. Named after former City Water Commissioner Herman Silver.