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The Tale of Phyl & The Myth of Edendale

Writer Phyl Van Ammers and her obsession with a place called Edendale.

When I started up Boryanabooks.com, my intention was not to make it a local publication. I was thinking more like international. But when Phyl Van Ammers signed on as one of my top writers, the site became local by definition. It was very much tied to place and time.

Phyl was obsessed by a place called Edendale, a kind of mythical place made up of some very real communities--Echo park, Silver Lake, even Los Feliz and East Hollywood, if you enjoy stretching definitions the way I do. Still, Edendale is a mythical place. Something larger than the sum of its parts, you might say.

I don’t quite remember how she talked me into serializing her book about Edendale, but she did.

Mostly it was because Phyl Van Ammers was my star writer--other than myself and a couple of others. 

So I said sure.

Phyl Van Ammers brings to her writing the fact that she is not only a writer, she’s also an attorney and city planning expert. In fact, she taught city planning law at California State University Northridge. Now being educated and overqualified does not always make one a good observer, but it did in her case.

Phyl grew up in Echo Park and Silver Lake and graduated from Marshall High School before a period spent living in Turkey and, upon her return, studying at UCLA.

She is an inveterate walker, and she knows every nook and cranny of “Edendale.” Not only does she know the city as it is today, she knows it from yesterday. She grew up knowing Anais Nin, for example, and has appropriate stories to tell. Nin, you should remember, was almost as good a pornographer as her boyfriend, Henry Miller.

She’s also an expert on stairs, which makes sense since Edendale is dotted with stairs--most famously immortalized by Laurel and Hardy--think of the piano moving scene.

She’s angry that the city has abandoned keeping the stairs open; instead, city dads have semi-privatized them and closed them to all except the adjoining landowners.

“Edendale” has been serialized almost as long as Boryanabooks has been in “business.” It is a generations-spanning tribute to the people of the near mythical Edendale in the northern hills of the city. You can get it on Amazon’s Kindle Store or order it through the online bookstore at Boryanabooks.

In Phyl’s “Edendale,” you’ll meet folks from the Black Sea, from a shtetl in Ukraine, from slavery in the Southern States, from Japan, from the Polish enclave in Hopewell, VA, and from the island of Curacao and from Mexico.

The people in “Edendale” fall in love; sing in scratchy old voices; dry clean, press and sew clothes; sell rags; drink malted milk; live homeless along the river; practice law; play the piano and the violin; teach schoolchildren; research in a library; take the train to Union Station; go mad; take acid and hallucinate; and one is even struck by a hit-and-run driver. They die, go to each other’s funerals and say bad things about the departed. 

A lot of Los Angeles lacks much of a human presence on the streets. It’s the city at the end of America, fragmented and spatially dispersed. The city sometimes feels like it doesn’t even need people.

But Edendale is a pocket of vibrant urban life, and this you get from reading Phyl’s book.

In her stories, you can even hear the voice of Edendale's original people, the Tongva, almost as faintly as exhaled breath. After the Spanish occupation, ownership passed into the hands of the City of Los Angeles because it was part of the original pueblo land that had been part of Los Feliz Rancho. The children of the original Tongva people ended up as peon laborers on that land.

After 1850, people from all over the country and the world arrived--created farms, horses ranches and commerce in the form of brothels, saloons, churches, newspapers. And, of course, they also lynched Chinese in what was then called Nigger Alley--all a part of the street in front of today's Union Station. Discrimination was rampant, against not only Chinese and Mexicans and Indians, but Jews. The Jews, of course, made movies in Edendale--an outgrowth of vaudeville and the Yiddish theater.

Charlie Chaplin, who was part Jewish, got his start in silent movies in Edendale. Frank Capra wrote gags. Harold Lloyd drove his "Butterfly" automobile into Echo Park Lake. Real cowboys came to Edendale and made movies about cowboys and Indians, who chased them across the farmland and horses ranches. Snow White slept in a cottage modeled after a rental house on Griffith Park Boulevard. Modern television shows and movies still play against and in the built environment. 

Here the neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine, Elysian Park, Griffith Park, Silver Lake aka Bohemian Hill, Fat Hill, Red Hill, Glassell Park, Frogtown, Toonerville, and Chicken Corner are at the center of Edendale. But Edendale's furthest reaches also include Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Bunker Hill, Watts and even Toilet Corners in Venice. These are all real places and mythical places. Welcome to Phyl Van Ammer's "Edendale."

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Lionel Rolfe is the author of Literary L.A., about which a documentary is being made. Many of his books--including Literary L.A., Fat Man on the Left, The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey and The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather--are available digitally in Amazon’s Kindlestore.

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