Silverlake is unique. The streets – not quite as rundown as their Downtown counterparts – have seen things. Back in the 1970s, the district was home to the gay leather scene, just like San Francisco’s Soma district, but this has changed with the rise of St. Monica’s “Boystown.” So, what else is Silverlake today? It has become a hipster destination. A first point of call for former New Yorkers and anyone who can’t bear to spend the whole day in a car. Anything west of La Brea Avenue is considered Westside by the archetypal Silverlake hipster.
Silverlake was also a favorite spot of Walt Disney. Where today’s grocery shoppers flock to a Gelson supermarket or hipster-friendly Trader Joe’s near Hyperion Avenue, Disney ran some studios back in the 1930s. But that’s not my chosen starting point: Most Silverlake idlers pick Sunset Junction instead, where Sunset Boulevard meets St. Monica Boulevard and where most Silverlake visitors disembark from their taxis. First stop: the Intelligentsia Café, THE place to get a feel for the neighborhood first-hand. It is lunch time and the guy behind the counter, replete with strategically shaved corners and coke-bottle glasses, spits out a generous mouthful of coffee. He is testing it, just like a wine tasting. The growing line simply looks away. It doesn’t look very cool. But at the same time, it’s pretty cool to watch a nerdy hipster with ironic hair spitting out a cup of espresso.
That’s Silverlake in a nutshell. One of those places overrun by cool, while more and more locals make a point of distancing themselves from the quarter’s increasing hipsterization. It’s the usual problem, really: First, people are attracted by the cheap rents, then creatives move in, gentrification looms, tourists follow to spot the creatives and – boom – your hood is chic, trendy, and plagued by self-doubt. Everyone is too cool for school. This Saturday morning, the Intelligentsia line stretched all the way into the street, proving the point. Predominantly young males, sporting impressive facial hair, and women with artisanal raffia baskets (never Chanel or the like!) patiently wait up to 40 minutes for their gourmet coffee … without ever interacting. Even when Miranda July pops in, no one ever dares to stare at her. That’s also part of Silverlake’s coolness issue.
I decide to hang out in front of the Silverlake Conservatory, founded by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Flea likes to drop into Café Stella, right next to Intelligentsia. Or Jason Schwartzman might pop in (the king in Marie Antoinette ). Or it might be Jon Hamm/Don Draper – people who would never feel quite at home in Beverly Hills.
Time to walk on. Spanish names dot the walls; tortilla huts with red writing, stops on the Mexican lunch truck route. Here, tacos are two dollars fifty. Hot, far too hot for European tongues, just how the chulos like them. It’s their hood, after all. Then there’s the nearby army store, only a few steps from Intelligentsia. A bona fide hipster army store. Just in time for Hallowe’en, they have dressed a female dummy in a pilot’s uniform. It’s not quite Hollywood, where the army shop assistants wear ninja costumes and everything is a little bit tougher and harder. Silverlake is strangely pleasant and charming. The atmosphere is friendly – the average hipster is non-aggressive by nature. Onward and eastward. This is where the outskirts of Downtown begin and a Spanish flavor seeps in. But I have to turn around. This is where Silverlake ends. Back in the car, on Silverlake Boulevard, I park near the reservoir: The walk around the water doubles as the largest dog park – and looks quite enchanting by night. The shimmering lights around the water remind me of Hamburg’s Alster lake. I decide to order a complicated tea at LAMILL, where laid back Silverlakers like to hang out, and scan the opposite side of the street to figure out the types of oysters served at L&M today.
The latter epitomizes why it makes sense to describe a district via its gastronomy. At night, L&M transports you to a casual Paris of circulating drinks and oyster platters, a place and atmosphere a million miles away from Beverly Hills. In Beverly Hills, no one would ever dream of ordering a Nip Tuck tea. Silverlake, on the other hand, embraces you. It does not hate you. And back in LAMILL’s restroom I discover Silverlake’s message to me – “the year will bring you plenty of luck,” or so the Chinese fortune cookie reveals. If only the hipsters knew.
Header image: Jessie Null
All other images: Anne Philippi