Ukuleles, Regattas & Sex: The social history of Echo Park Lake

Photo by Alossix/Flickr

By Rory Mitchell

So the history of Echo Park Lake is full of drownings and suicides, and right now it’s empty and smells bad and will remain as such for about two years. But what about the good times?

To some in the community, Echo Park Lake is a peaceful retreat from urban life while others see it as a place of recreation.   These conflicting visions of Echo Park Lake have played out time and time again over the past century. Much of the information in this article is derived from either proposals to the Parks Commission and City Council about what the lake should be or complaints about what the lake was becoming.

In this final installment of The Eastsider’s History of Echo Park Lake, we look to the past for tales of model boat regattas, “spooning” couples and a proposed trapeze and high diving attraction  in anticipation of the return of good times when the lake reopens 2013.

Some of Echo Park Lake’s longest running recreational events were a Model Yacht Regatta held from the 1920s through the 1950s and the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher Fishing Rodeo and Costume Contest, running from 1950 through the 1980’s.  The former was for youths aged 8 to 80 who had labored on model yachts for months before setting them loose to race the wind across the lake.   The fishing rodeo and costume contest was only open to those 15 and younger and brought boys and girls in straw hats and overalls and gingham dresses to Echo Park Lake.

Boating and fishing have been Echo Park Lake’s traditional form of recreation since the 1870s,  when it was Reservoir No. 4 and responsible for irrigating farmland in the burgeoning western portion of the city.  The City Council at the time only insisted that people not fish without a permit or “defile the water in any manner.”

Reservoir No. 4 was decommissioned and rebuilt as Echo Park Lake in the early 1890s and immediately inspired a local entrepreneur’s exuberant proposal.  The entrepreneur envisioned a “boating and bathing resort” complete with a “trapeze and a high diving frame in the lake.”  He intended to build a pagoda and sell “ice cream and temperance drinks” in order to “make an attractive and reputable resort for a refined people where healthy amusements and recreations can be enjoyed.”  Also, there would be an electric gondola.

The city council rejected this particular proposal, but the conflict between a vision of Echo Park Lake as peaceful retreat and a freewheeling (yet sober) Lake Havasu continued through the next century.

Photo By Andrew Gordon/Flickr

A 1917 proposal to outfit Echo Park Lake with a splendid new merry-go-round would also be rejected upon complaints from the neighborhood.  The Angeleno Heights Neighborhood Association protested that  “The Beaches furnish plenty of this kind of amusement.  Let those who seek such enjoyment go there but do not turn our parks into __noisy__resorts__.”  Emphasis theirs.

A source of pride for the neighborhood in the 1910s and 1920s was regular open air concerts held on a bandstand near the boathouse. In 1914 the “North, East, West, Commercial and Improvement Association” (“N.E.W.”) complained that they needed more benches to accommodate concertgoers, and that “if there are no benches available in other parts of the park, that they may be obtained in parks where no band concerts are held.”

But the Echo Park Lake concert series seems to have pulled a Sunset Junction by outgrowing its roots and totally selling out. By 1920, the local residents complained about the “Jazz Band Concerts accompanied by Popular Songs sung through a megaphone” being held  “every evening for 4 or 5 months.”

Apparently, then as now, living in Echo Park made a person a de facto music critic.  The residents’ complaint continued; “Good band concerts or good music are seldom objectionable, but low class jazz noise compels us to make this protest and request either refined music be produced at Echo Park or none at all.”

The Parks Commission agreed that that jazzy megaphone “noise” was not cool.  They warned the concert promoters: “If you cannot secure an orchestra to furnish refined musical entertainment at Echo Park … you are hereby ordered to discontinue jazz band concerts at once.”

The neighborhood was probably concerned that that hot jazz music would lead to sex, for there was already plenty of sex in Echo Park Lake’s history as well.  A 1912 op-ed rails that “the conduct of couples in the park after the workmen leave in the evenings is disgraceful” and “when the park employees leave, it is is a signal for  couples to begin spooning.”   At that time, according to the writer, the island was for the place for lovers, or as he put it, the “island seems to be the favorite rendezvous for lovesick boys and girls and men and women … They arrive on the last outbound cars and remain until early in the morning.”

By the 1930’s the orgy had moved off the island and into the water causing the neighbors to complain of “nude bathing parties consisting of both boys and girls in the lake at night.”

The island would eventually  be gated from the lovesick and the water would become too polluted for all but the hardiest of skinny dippers but with the current rehabilitation, hope springs eternal for the future of Echo Park Lake.

In considering which of these past good times we might like to bring back in 2013, let us linger on the Los Angeles Times’ description of the Labor Day festivities in the Echo Park Lake of 1924:

From the various parts of Echo Park lake were heard ‘barbershop chords’ and the strumming of ukeleles as the young people glided back and forth in the scores of brightly painted Indian Canoes.

For pictures of brightly painted canoes in B&W visit Mitchell’s website at valleyspringlane.tumblr.com.

Related Posts:

  • Drownings & despair fill the past of Echo Park Lake. The Eastsider
  • The dirty details of Echo Park Lake’s last clean up. The Eastsider
  • When wetlands grew like weeds across Echo Park Lake. The Eastsider
  • Echo Park Lake prepares to go down the drain yet again. The Eastsider

The closure of Echo Park Lake for an upcoming $65 million clean up is far from the first time the lake’s waters have been drained for much needed maintenance. The Eastsider asked Echo Park writer and historical consultant  Rory Mitchell to find out what happened when the lake had been emptied during previous clean ups. After diving into the historic archives of the Los Angeles Times and the City of Los Angeles, Mitchell came back not only with stories of previous improvement projects but tales of the social life, animals, dangers and even smells of Echo Park Lake past.

No comments

  1. jazz music & spooning! i say, give us that refined music!

    great writing, great history.

  2. More, more.

  3. I can do without the ukeleles, but bring back the jazz bands!
    Can’t wait to run around the lake again…we waited for the Griffith Observatory to re-open for years I’m sure this will be worth it as well.

  4. This is (and has always been) such a fun neighborhood!

  5. I enjoy any article that includes electric gondolas.

  6. Oh my , i remember the Tom Sawyer Becky Thatcher events!
    Now I know why my parents raised me here, and we are still here !

  7. Marvelous article! Great cap to the series!

  8. Great writing. A quick snapshot into LA’s jewels that are right in front us everyday.

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