“For a space so fully surrounded by the city, a peacefulness reigns, only occasionally broken by cyclists coasting past, with phones blaring songs from disco-era Stones or a boombox pumping out norteño tunes. They linger on the ear before the burble of the river or the mournful brakes of a semi take over.”
A flâneur takes to the streets, uncovering surprises — both modest and startling — on walks through a city that’s reinventing itself around every corner.
The riot of greens you might encounter in many regions of the country during the summertime is something we in Southern California put out of our minds for most of the year. Instead, we settle for — and perhaps even take comfort in — the blond and brown hillsides that surround us by the early days of summer. There is a place, though, within full view of our thirsty foothills where you lose count of the verdant shades your eyes dance across. It’s in the bed of the L.A. River, in the stretch between where the 2 Freeway turns to the north from the 5, and where the 5 itself sends a crawl of traffic at all hours over the river.
Park on North Coolidge Avenue, pass by Spoke Bicycle Cafe and head toward the two-lane bike and walking path that trails alongside the river. The sky opens up here, even with the river forming something of a canyon between Frogtown to the west and Cypress Park to the east. You’ll hear a low chug vibrating in the air before the source reveals itself: an Amtrak Surfliner gaining speed in the run between Union Station and Glendale, the upper half of the cars a deep ocean blue, disappearing to the north.
For a space so fully surrounded by the city, a peacefulness reigns, only occasionally broken by cyclists coasting past, with phones blaring songs from disco-era Stones or a boombox pumping out norteño tunes. They linger on the ear before the burble of the river or the mournful brakes of a semi take over.
A Botanical Menagerie
If you are as challenged as I am when it comes to identifying plants, arm yourself with a plant ID app before setting off. Your curiosity will spill over when you find you have the ability to produce a name for each plant you encounter, whether it’s familiar like bougainvillea, faintly recognizable like the passionflower vine or simply alien like the frangipani tree. All these grow within your reach as you continue along the path.
Looking to refuel after your stroll, a pop of color and veggie goodness await you at Spoke Bicycle Cafe. Photo by Lincoln Wheeler.
Lunch Along the River
Near the shadow of the 5 overpass, you turn around and retrace your steps, this time without the benefits of the breeze to cool your face on the way south. Your stomach grumbles and you are tempted by the iced tea at La Colombe, a vegan berry pop-tart at Just What I Kneaded and the pistachio soft-serve at Wax Paper. But you return to where you started at Spoke — a fortress-like structure built from shipping containers with a sail rigged up to shade against the sun. You will have the cauliflower farro bowl, which makes you think you’re continuing your healthy ways, only, God is it good. Grilled lemon perfumes the dish, adding a citrus zing to the roasted cauliflower and chickpeas, while Castelvetrano olives and radicchio add some pucker with a creamy balance coming from the farro and feta. It’s a fitting composition here, where the river mixes with graffiti on its banks and trees flourish in the silt deposits just a hundred yards from where construction crews have cleared the way for a new apartment building. It is of L.A. It is an escape from L.A.