by Richard Risemberg (May, 2012)
Most of Los Angeles is unknown, even to Angelenos. The city is vast, the traffic wearying, and many neigbhorhoods are hidden in little valleys among the megaloplis's many hills. And of course car culture keeps travelers channeled on freeways and main roads, their eyes locked on the bumper in front of them (when they aren't glued to a smartphone screen). It's no wonder that people can live in town for decades and never know most of its districts as anything more than an occasional odd name in the news.
Fortunately, those of us who travel primarily by bicycle have both a liking for side streets and a tendency to explore odd corners of the city...and the bike itself, or rather its interpretation as an unusual way to get around in the Capital of Car Culture, has engendered a fellowship among its aficionados that leads one to meet people one would never encounter across the heavy steel walls of a horseless carriage.
Or meet again, after many years...so it was that a few years ago I received an email from Harv, a fellow I'd known from my motorcycle days--motorcycling back then being itself an outsider's cult with its own sects of fellowship. Harv, it turned out had also, like me, been a lifelong bicyclist. We never knew this of each other back then—over thirty years ago!—but have become close friends since rediscovering each other and the many mutual friends and acquaintances we enjoy in the world of LA biking.
Harv lives in one of those hidden neighborhoods, high on a hilltop overlooking one of the valleys of Northeast Los Angeles. In his mid-seventies, he pedals up and down his hill nearly every day, shopping, doing chores, or volunteering at a local bike repair co-op. And a block further into the hill country from his house, there is a modest little entrance to a huge and peaceful park. The park itself is hidden in plain sight between Downtown, Highland Park, El Sereno, and a number of other neighborhoods. Debs Park, right in the middle of everything—and unknown to most.
Debs Park—named for local politician Ernest E. Debs—has one entrance on Figueroa, a main road (though that section of the park is cut off from the main body by a freeway and an arroyo), and several more on secondary roads, but Harv led me to entrance he and his neighbors asked the city to put in about ten years ago, on a back road high in Montecito Heights. Perhaps its fitting that we entered this half-known park from an almost wholly unknown gate, walking on trails built by Harv and his neighbors long ago, and finding both hidden glens and magnificent views that most park visitors, who rarely venture far from the picnic grounds and parking lots, never see. In a curious recursion, the park recapitulates within itself its situation in the city, harboring hidden delights that the car-bound never encounter.
Harv showed me the old shepherds' camp, the tiny fishing pond, the narrow trails cut through tangled oak branches and around fragrant rounded slopes—and, to be sure, the picnic grounds as well. On the higher slopes, we encountered few other people, but we did catch sight of the snowcapped San Gabriels looming in the northeast, leafy glades tucked under steeper hillsides, and Emerald City views of downtown's towers. The sound of traffic was faint and far away, and instead of exhaust, sage and ceanothus perfumed the crisp clear air. We walked for an hour but saw not even half the park.
Back at Harv's house, we lazed about the bike shed and traded stories of old days and new for a while. Then I got back on my bicycle and rolled downhill—stopping halfway to the flatlands for a bagful of nasturtiums from the roadside cliffs, for that night's dinner salad.
From the peaceful park in the middle of everything to the frenzy of LA's busy streets was less than two miles—but an incalculable distance in measures other than miles.
I'll let a few snapshots tell you more....
The neighborhood gate
Looking towards El Sereno
View of the San Gabriel Mountains
The shepherds' camp
Fishpond in the sky
Downtown Los Angeles
Harv on the trail