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Culture

Walking Around The Silver Lake Reservoir and Up the Mattachine Steps | L.A. On Foot #8

May 9, 2022 by Brian Champlin
Looking over the Silver Lake Reservoir. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

I’m parked on Glendale Boulevard pointing south about a quarter mile from The Red Lion Tavern, and only a few blocks from where the street slides under the terminus of the 2 Freeway. For the first time in this series my walk begins late in the day, about an hour before sunset. Milo, for his part, is about to have a conniption. I’ve just asked him if he’s ready to go outside and now he’s bouncing off the seats of the car as if they’re trampolines. I calm him down just long enough to tether the leash, then we depart the car, and the little twelve pound mutt drags me up the steepness of Cove Avenue like it’s no big thing.

The ascent culminates in the kind of view you long for when you begin an afternoon walk. Foliage shades a long stairway that points the way down to an expanse of dark blue stillness. Beyond the water line is a stripe of concrete backdropped by a hillside stacked with multi-million dollar homes. Further in the distance I see the Hollywood Sign and the Griffith Observatory. I’m about to take a lap around the Silver Lake Reservoir, but for the moment I’m just happy to soak in the scenery.

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I make my way down, sidestepping sweaty humans in workout clothes as I go. At the base of the steps I read a sign dedicating the stairwell to the Mattachine Society, which depending on your age and knowledge of gay civil rights, may mean more or less to you.

View from halfway up the Mattachine Steps in Silver Lake. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

Around the middle of the last century, a man named Harry Hay lived not far from these stairs. Hay was family man. A working man. An avowed communist. He was also gay.

Though Hay apparently acknowledged his same-sex attraction from an early age, his political inclinations conflicted with his sexual identity, as the Communist Party expressly forbade homosexuality. To clear himself of suspicion, and convinced that a marriage might actually “cure” his impulses, Hay wedded a fellow party member named Anita Platky in 1938.  But ten years and two daughters into the marriage, that lie began to unwind itself.

Hay’s notion of a gay activist group germinated in 1948. Two years later, the organization that would eventually be called The Mattachine Society met for the first time, taking its name from a Medieval fraternity of anonymous men who wore masks to protect their identities, and used art to protest and satirize the ruling class. This group would become a foundational force in the gay rights movement, engaging in protests and legal actions, including a 1966 “Sip-In” at Julius Bar in Greenwich Village, which spurred a subsequent lawsuit against the New York State Liquor Authority challenging a rule that had made it illegal to serve alcoholic beverages to homosexuals. The steps which now bear the Mattachine name were formally dedicated in Hay’s memory in 2012. I take a picture, and keep moving.

The Mattachine Steps in Silver Lake. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

Cove tees out at Silver Lake Boulevard, which is where I turn right in search of a suitable place to cross the street without getting flatted by oncoming traffic. Jaywalking here, especially at the commuting hour, is not recommended.

I amble north a few hundred feet, passing by Richard Neutra’s Kambara Residence, and arriving at the crosswalk around 2296 Silver Lake Boulevard. As I wait for the light to change, I watch pedestrians in pairs stride the loop, the sun dipping below the hills behind them, long shadows stretching over ground like ink spilled down a page.

Looking across Silver Lake Boulevard at the reservoir. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

I cross over and enter Silver Lake Meadow, a patch of green space that runs along the east side of the water’s edge. The greenery attracts walkers and picnickers and the occasional dog owner who thinks that their four-legged friend is the special exemption for leash laws. It’s a good place to people watch, if that kind of thing suits you.

Milo and I wait for one of the untethered rovers to catch up with its human and then we turn left and follow a dirt path to the southern tip of the green space. The dirt path circles back up around along the chain link fence guarding the reservoir, and we follow it north.

Looking north from the Silver Lake Meadow. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

A few dozen yards ahead, I veer off the path toward the water and pause to take in the view, obscured as it is. I think about William Mulholland, who guided the project to flood this canyon and create the reservoir in 1908. I think about Herman Silver, the former city council-member and water commissioner whose name was given both to reservoir and to the neighborhood that surrounds.

For almost a century, the Silver Lake Reservoir was a part of city’s water system, first as an emergency backup source, then later fully integrated into the main supply. In 2008 it was drained due to bromate contamination, and subsequently decommissioned. Ivanhoe Reservoir, which lies just to the north, went the same way not long after.

By 2015, Silver Lake Reservoir had been refilled, only to be drained again. And then in 2017 the city put water back in, even as residents debated the fate of the site. Should it remain as is, more a less a giant concrete pool? Or should the city, as it did with Echo Park, redevelop the reservoir into a more fully formed recreation destination for the public?

As of January 2022, a master plan is under Environmental Review. Renderings show landscaped embankments, terraced seating, a eucalyptus grove, education center, and a floating habitat. Honestly, it all seems pretty nice, but then again, who knows? Whatever happens, my one guarantee is that not everyone will be happy.

A view across the Silver Lake Reservoir from east to west. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

I back off the fence and follow the dirt path as it winds northwest to the top of the loop, paralleling Armstrong Avenue. Along the way I see the name of Daunte Wright spelled out on the fence. This is no random occurrence, it’s part of the Say Their Names memorial, which was first installed in June of 2020 to honor Black Americans killed by police violence. Names of victims were woven into the fence surrounding the reservoir using colorful fabric. More than 100 names appeared when the memorial debuted, but in the two years since some of those names have been worn by weather and time. Wright, who was killed during a traffic stop in April of 2021, must be a relatively new addition.

Daunte Wright’s name spelled out as part of the ‘Say Their Names’ memorial. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

I continue on the dirt path until it becomes a sidewalk where Armstrong intersects Tesla Street. I keep on Tesla heading west to cut across the top end of the loop. Turning south on Silver Lake Drive, I duck through an open gate on to a platform that offers me an unobstructed view of the spillway that connects Ivanhoe Reservoir to its bigger brother to the south. Back in 2008, 400,000 shade balls were dropped into water here to stave off the formation of the same bromate that forced the draining of big bro.

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Lookin north to south at the Ivanhoe Reservoir. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

The path going south on Silver Lake Drive again becomes dirt, and light creeps away as joggers stride past me. The moving bodies don’t seem to mind running in the dark, as long as they hit their mileage goals. Inspired by their commitment, I pick up my pace, making a beeline down the western edge of the reservoir then wrapping around a grassy patch that arrives at the Silver Lake Recreation Center.

Walking on the west side of the Silver Lake Reservoir at sunset. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

Working around the south end of the loop, I turn the corner and come to Milo’s favorite part: The Silver Lake Dog Park. Despite the encroaching darkness, there are still dozens of yapping canines and their human counterparts hanging around both the big dog and small dog sides. A sign says the dog parks are open until 10:30 p.m., but this makes me wonder, what kind of people do you meet at a dog park at 10 o’clock in the evening? Milo and I decide not to wait around to find out.

At the gate to the Silver Lake Dog Park. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

I cross back to the west side of Silver Lake Boulevard at Duane Street, then walk about a quarter mile to return to Cove. Milo and I climb the The Mattachine Stairs and this time I’m feeling it. I guess that’s the two and a half miles we’ve just booked. He moves slow. My knees ache. When we get to the top I turn back for a final survey of the scene.

Looking out across the Silver Lake Reservoir at twilight. Photo by Brian Champlin. Feb. 2, 2022

Million dollar homes have become twinkles of light. A waxing crescent moon hangs above the horizon like a sleepy eyelid barely able to stay awake. Shadowy bodies continue with their laps around the waterway. It’s kind of scenic, but I need confirmation, so I ask the dog. What do think, boy? Do you think it’s beautiful?

Milo’s tail sweeps back and forth, then he licks his chops and I instantly realize that when I say beautiful, what he hears is “food”-iful. Who cares about a silly reservoir? Get me my dinner, human. I shake my head and snicker, and then we go back to the car. I start the engine. The dog whines the whole way home.

Starting Point: 2300 Cove Ave, Los Angeles CA 90039

End Point: Same

Distance: 2.77 miles

Miles Until Goal: 978.83


Previous: Walking in Culver City from the Ballona Creek to the Hobbit Houses | L.A. on Foot #7

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