Meet the Man Behind the Echo Park Closure: "There Will Be No Living at the Lake"

Echo Park lake and inset of Mitch O'Farrell
RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images; Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Activists and supporters of residents of a homeless encampment confront police at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles late on March 24. (inset: L.A. City Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell)

L.A. City Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell — who oversaw the March 24 closure of the picturesque park immortalized in the movie 'Chinatown' — responds to critics of his homeless relocation effort.

With its storybook boats and pristine view of the downtown skyline, the scenic Echo Park Lake has been a popular Los Angeles shooting location as far back as the silent film era, when everyone from Charlie Chaplin to the Keystone Cops — who were cited for trampling the flowers there — used it as a comedy backdrop. A century later, cops are still causing a ruckus in Echo Park — but no one is laughing. A homeless encampment of over 200 tents that proliferated there during the COVID-19 pandemic was swept away March 24 by an army of LAPD riot police, who clashed with hundreds of protesters in an area that has become a flashpoint in the city’s ongoing homelessness crisis. 

The displaced were offered hotel rooms and social services, but many preferred the park community, which unlike other L.A. encampments had amenities (a communal kitchen with jury-rigged electricity) and its own social pecking order and security (a number of ex-cons served as enforcers, according to a Los Angeles magazine story). By March 26, the last straggling holdouts had been arrested and the park had been fenced over indefinitely for what city officials say are much-needed repairs. 

Among those who objected to the sweep are Hollywood insiders, including Ava DuVernay, who tweeted that the LAPD’s call for “calm” amid the “installation of fencing” at Echo Park was a “snazzy way to say humiliate, uproot and discard unhoused people.” If this dystopian movie has a villain, DuVernay and other like-minded homeless advocates would probably point to Mitch O’Farrell, the city councilmember who spearheaded the park’s $45 million renovation in 2013 and who oversaw the recent park evacuation.

Meanwhile, the park’s future as a popular filming locale remains uncertain. “Prior to the pandemic, we would have seen about two to three productions per month,” notes Paul Audley, president of Film LA, who adds that shooting has come to a standstill in the COVID-era.” With the fencing now up, “we don’t anticipate it being a filming location soon. It just comes off the inventory,” he says.

But with tents coming down and vaccinations increasing, the likelihood that film crews might flock once again to the spot — immortalized in everything from 1974’s Chinatown to 2018’s Under the Silver Lake — once it reopens is rising. That’s a mixed blessing for veteran location manager Jay Traynor, who oversaw the Under the Silver Lake shoot. 

“It’s a sensitive place to shoot,” says Traynor. “It requires a film monitor, like any park. It’s a process.” When Charlie Day told Traynor he wanted to shoot at Echo Park Lake for the upcoming El Tonto, his directorial debut, Traynor talked him out of it. “I pitched him on Lincoln Park Lake,” Traynor says of a lesser-known spot about four miles east of Echo Park. “We featured it with great success.”

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with O'Farrell about the firestorm of controversy surrounding the recent closure of Echo Park Lake and its future on screens large and small.

How do you feel last week's park closure went?

I am extremely gratified that we found housing solutions for 209 people at Echo Park Lake, which is pretty much everyone. My office has been working on this since last year, and we hired Urban Alchemy — which is a nonprofit out of San Francisco made up of nothing but professionals with lived experience of homelessness, incarceration and drug addiction issues, but [who] have healed from all that. We'd heard good things about them.

What did Urban Alchemy bring to the equation that our own city government couldn't handle?

We contracted out with them out of my office — this is on discretionary funding — because we knew we needed real help at the lake. So they began outreach in late December. By January, they had housed 24 people in temporary shelter. And those 24, for the most part, are still in shelter and have housing solutions. So they started making great strides. And we were working like the devil to secure rooms through Project Homekey and Project Roomkey, which included buying a new building for the project Homekey, that my office identified.

What did you know about the homeless population of Echo Park Lake before going into this closure?

What's interesting is, we've been doing regular counts of people — you could call it a census of the lake — of people unhoused there. And consistently the four weeks before we closed the lake, finally, for repairs, the consistent number week after week, day after day, was about 58 people living there full-time.

Well, by the time Wednesday rolled around, there were 209. So it's interesting that there was such a surge that last week. But you know what, we thought let's just house everyone, no matter how they got here or when. I think that's part of the success. And even folks that, the day of, when the fencing was going up to secure it, were still really resistant. Most of those folks ended up accepting help, as well, and no one was forcibly housed.

One criticism leveled at you was the level of force used by the LAPD and the fact that you had the power to order it.

I think another part of the story that a lot of people don't realize is, the police, the LAPD, had nothing to do with actually placing the fence — that was Recreation and Parks. And then going inside was Urban Alchemy and L.A. service providers. The PD had no hand, whatsoever, in transporting people — that was the Department of Transportation.

The police were there because there were credible threats in an organized fashion from some of these groups that did a call for everyone to descend upon Echo Park to fight me. Because their position was: The park should not ever close for any reason. There shouldn't be any fences and people shouldn't leave until they decide to leave on their own. The police saw all these incendiary threats on social media, through Ground Game LA, Street Watch, Democratic Socialists of America-Los Angeles, Ktown For All, the People's [City Council], they were all unified in spreading this message.

[Mike Dickerson, policy and education co-chair at Ktown for All, responds: "Ktown for All is committed to serving our unhoused neighbors, and we applaud efforts to house people. But we are also critical of the city's choice to turn to law enforcement as a primary response to homelessness. Councilmember O'Farrell's characterization of our words as 'incendiary threats' is false and defamatory. Ktown for All does not issue or condone threats of violence. The only violence on Wednesday and Thursday was committed by LAPD officers acting on behalf of the councilmember, who injured protesters, bystanders, and members of the press. For a useful summary of events, we encourage people to read Alissa Walker's piece for Curbed, 'Last Night in Echo Park Lake.'"

The People's City Council have released this statement in response to O'Farrell's remarks: "Rather than speak to your constituents, you raised an army against them."

DSA-LA responds: "Despite Mitch O'Farrell's claims, and regardless of his intentions, he has once again failed the residents of his district. He has lied and obscured the facts when speaking about his attempts to offer service and aid to members of the Echo Park Lake community. Shame on Mitch O'Farrell for inviting the murderous LAPD to forcibly remove our vulnerable neighbors and to repress journalists and concerned residents of CD-13 who were speaking out against this barbarity. He is no ally to any but the most comfortable and well-off members of his district. His failures are inexcusable, and we will be organizing to replace him in office in 2022."

Bill Przylucki of Ground Game LA responds: "People at the Park themselves came forward with a concrete proposal about ways that they could work together, address concerns that neighbors had raised. And Mitch at no point showed willingness to meet with the residents or our organization. [Regarding his claims of "incendiary threats,"] I am just baffled. And he wasn't concrete. He wasn't clear about what he thought those threats were. And I have no idea what they are because that's not the way we do business. We always ask for a meeting. It's usually the starting point of any campaign around the public policy issue. And then in this particular case we never got past that point: give us a meeting."]

Which was what, in your estimation?

The message was: Mitch is going to evict people from the Echo Park Lake, or displace people from Echo Park Lake, and I quote this, "with nowhere to go."

Well, what everyone knew, including all these groups, was that we were housing people for the last several months and that my non-negotiable was that we would have housing solutions for everyone before we closed the parks for repairs. We were able to do just that. Even through the last year, we've provided services — mobile showers, monitored staffed restrooms, et cetera. Storage lockers that we paid for and installed so that people could store their belongings. We've done free laundry service. We even have been giving COVID-19 vaccinations starting in February to the homeless population.

So, for what reason do you think that people were objecting? A lot of the groups you named, I've been looking at their Twitter feeds, and they really position you as a kind of villain who gets off on throwing homeless people out of their tents, and using police force, and that you take some kind of sick pleasure out of it. So, where did that come from?

There was no police force against homeless folks of any kind. The police were there because of these very folks that we are talking about. Seth, four people have died at the lake within the last year. Two of them bona fide drug overdoses, including an 18-year-old who died of fentanyl and cocaine. Most of these folks were brought there under this pretense by folks who decided to occupy. Some of these occupiers who kind of took over there, who took charge, were taxing homeless individuals for living at the lake in tents. There were assaults, there were knife attacks, there were sexual assaults.

What are the repairs that need to be done? What's been damaged there?

The plumbing, the electrical work. There is no connection to a good number of the street lights that line the pathway. Also, landscaping, all of the grasses will need to be reseeded. They need to go in and take a look at the water quality of the Lake and whatever else they discover once they make that assessment. The restrooms. And so, we'll have a fuller accounting this week.

Since the pandemic began, the lake hasn't been used as a filming location. What's going to happen once the park reopens?

I want to make one thing really clear. Filming at the lake is nothing that even entered my mind in my approach to getting these 209 housing solutions. Nonetheless, Echo Park Lake is one of the crown jewels in the park system. It's just historic and beautiful, and people love it. We want to get it restored. And I'm very aware that filming was really popular there, to film movies, commercials, you name it. It'll be, I think, available again, but the primary focus is to get people back to enjoy the park.

Will rules change at all for filming at the lake?

We're not going to accept days and weeks where the park is closed for a major feature. We're just not going to do that. I don't like to close the park at all, ever, for any reason. Before COVID hit, when a film permit was given, they had to clear the park of all encampments anyway. So, that became a problem. That was another form of protest against my office. Every time there was a film crew there that was all my fault, as well, according to the protestors.

So I think what we have to do is always strike the right balance moving forward on when the film permit application is taken, how do we accommodate that without displacing park users? So that'll be a very welcome challenge moving into the future because we'll have a beautiful park to enjoy.

Once Echo Park Lake reopens what's going to be done to prevent this from happening again?

My commitment is that it's not going to happen again. And so, there'll be a community conversation on what people think about this, and we will know moving forward what that means. And I've heard lots of ideas. I don't want to say them here. My job will be to keep it safe and secure for all park users. Beyond that, I want to engage the community on what they would like to see. In order to keep the park safe and clear — and usable for everyone unhoused or house — it doesn't mean you get to live there. That's not going to be part of the scenario once we reopen. There will be no living at the lake. There's already a park ordinance that takes care of that.

And where will they go?

We're not stopping at what we just did in terms of housing solutions. We're building a tiny-home village that will accommodate about 75 or 100 people. Not far from there next to the AutoZone on Alvarado. And then we're standing up a safe sleeping site, also, not far from Echo Park. where we'll be able to house probably around 100 more people. Both of these sites will be staffed, services will be provided and casework will be provided — restrooms and security. So I'm optimistic that moving forward, when people show up with nowhere to go, we'll have a place for them to go. We have to keep standing up housing solutions of all kinds, which is what I've been laser-focused on since I've been in the office.

What's the timeline for the tiny-house community?

It's under construction now. So, probably within a couple of months it'll be complete and ready for occupation.

And that's long-term occupation?

Years. Not decades, but I think the goal for this, it'll be a transitional housing-type situation, but non-congregate. So, people in their own tiny homes. There'll be resources, and [as] I said, staffing and security. And then, that casework, it gets us on the road to permanent housing solutions, which might include [family] reunification. A lot of people have come here from other cities and other states, that's the reality. And so, part of our work needs to be reunification, especially for younger folks who might've felt helpless at home, or other solutions, but we really have to just focus on getting people into a safe, initial place, so that we can then focus long-term on their behalf for more permanent solutions.

March 31, 10:45 am PST Updated to include response to O’Farrell’s remarks from group Ktown for All.

April 1, 9:39 am PST Updated to include link to statement from People's City Council.

April 1, 10:02 am PST Updated to include a statement from DSA-LA.

April 1, 10:34 am PST Updated to include comments from a rep for Ground Game LA.