The Fences Are Down, the Vendors Are Back, and Echo Park Lake Is Open for the Summer

After two years of chain link purgatory, the food vendors have returned, and Echo Park Lake is finally a great place to party and picnic again.

There has been a fence around Echo Park Lake a scant few times since its conversion from a man-made reservoir into a public park in the 1890s. In the 21st century, there was a major two-year renovation from 2011 to 2013, in which the lake was drained and redesigned to favor water cleanliness, and the surrounding park was re-landscaped to match the neighborhood’s increasingly trendy image. And then there was the controversial closure in 2021, in which former City Council member Mitch O’Farrell and the LAPD forcibly evicted some 200 unhoused residents who created a community in the park. The park was totally closed for two months, then reopened with a chain link fence and only a few entrances and exits. Now, more than two years later, the fence is down, and Echo Park Lake is fully open again, just in time for prime picnic and park hangout season.

The effect on the atmosphere is immediately apparent—even on a weekday afternoon, people lounge all over the gently sloping grass, goslings and ducklings stray from the shore up to the sidewalk to snack on breadcrumbs and spilled takis, and joggers turn laps around the path. In short, the park is alive. Not that any of this was strictly impossible with the fence up, but there was something undeniably oppressive about trying to kick back in an area surrounded by chain link with controlled access points. It felt claustrophobic and dystopian like you were living in a walled city, and there was the unshakeable feeling that you were under surveillance.

That’s not to say it was paradise before the closure, but the energy was good, and in a time with decreasing options for Third Places, it was the rare community hub where you were not expected to spend any money, a truly public space, unlike the malls that so often fill that purpose. As such, it attracted a diverse crowd, from big family birthday parties at the picnic tables to young couples on pedal boat dates and trendy transplants fresh out of Brooklyn or Culver City. Park usage slowed during the pandemic, of course, and the overall condition of the park degraded in kind, but it was truly jarring to see it suddenly thrust into a weird sort of kettled purgatory.

And there was another casualty of Echo Park’s steel wire era—the vendors who sold food and drinks in the park were given an unceremonious boot too. They were forced to cluster out on the sidewalk, near but not too near one of the entrances on Echo Park Ave., subjected to extra scrutiny and excluded from the interior and most of the—suddenly limited—foot traffic on the path around the lake. Many abandoned the park entirely, dispersing in search of more potential customers.

Echo Park Lake
Photo by Ben Mesirow for Thrillist

Before the closure, there was a regular vendor frying churros to order, so they came out crispy and light, handed to you so fresh the oil hadn’t even begun to stain the white bag translucent. There was an elotero grilling ears of corn over charcoal, and there were often pupusa vendors, a juice stand, and all sorts of other snacks.

Now that the fence is gone and the park is truly open again, vendors have begun to dip their toes back into the lake. Weekdays remain relatively quiet, with the standard-issue ice cream carts and snack stands, but the park really comes to life on the weekend. On a recent Friday, you could snag a hoagie from a tatted-up musician with a cooler full of sandwiches, then stroll around the lake to pick up nieves in fun flavors like rompope or mamey. Saturdays bring more vendors selling elote, woven blankets, candy, pupusas, and a better-than-solid cup of the lightly fermented masa drink tejuino.

The neighborhood has embraced the fenceless rebirth of the park, too. It’s evident in the crowds already flocking there. The birthday parties are back, and so are the hipsters and the people catering to both groups. At around five pm, a pair of brand ambassadors in logoed-out athleisure drag a wagon in a slow lap, passing out cans of energy drinks to anyone sitting in the park, adults and kids alike. On further inspection, the stuff has 300 mg of caffeine, which is equivalent to about three cups of coffee and precisely the right amount to give a parent a heart attack when their kid runs over with a half-full can.

It’s still not paradise. Empty energy drink cans roll around the grass, the exhaust and noise from the nearby 101 floats over everything, and the geese can get uncomfortably territorial. But on a sunny afternoon, with elote in one hand and an energy drink in the other, with someone’s crappy Bluetooth speaker kicking out early aughts anthems and the lotuses blooming on the water, it might be about as close as you can get around here.

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Ben Mesirow is a Staff Writer at Thrillist.