The Silver Lake Erewhon threw open its in doors in September. But even if you live near Sunset Junction, you may not have noticed the gluten-free, celebrity-infused emporium on Santa Monica Boulevard until about three weeks later, when a photo on Twitter captured an impromptu BDSM scene transpiring near the store’s tonic bar. The images showed a platform-booted dominatrix leading her masked and leashed submissive on a Saturday morning stroll through the supermarket in search of organic, cold-pressed coconut Bulgarian rose water. The tweet was viewed by more than 100,000 people, proving that a viral picture is worth a thousand grand openings.
Erewhon’s first branch east of La Brea is the latest private-equity-backed rook slotted into an area already checkmated by gentrification. Over the last decade, the Kardashian-annointed natural-foods market catering to Moon Juice moms and Tesla drivers with topaz collections has become an inescapable icon of the Westside—Venice imitating Topanga imitating Beverly Hills adjacent. The arrival of Erewhon completes the poisoning of Silver Lake with sparkling hop water laced with adaptogens and nootropics.
Neighborhoods never die a corporeal death. They slowly atrophy and mutate, leaving behind a husk of corporate salad chains and hemp-latte bazaars. In that sense, Silver Lake has been slipping into a coma for years. But the appearance of the exorbitantly priced paleo palace might be the final gasp of the former bohemian refuge.
The thousand deaths of Silver Lake are open to post-mortem, but different theories about when it began are likely to be determined by how long you’ve lived there. For me, the first domino fell when Spaceland, the famed concert venue, banned smoking from the glass-paneled upstairs bar in the late 2000s (by some weird loophole, smoking was permitted there for a decade after the statewide prohibition in 1998). Many point to the 2003 suicide of Elliott Smith, a frequent local performer, his exit coinciding with the enclave’s rechristening as “Williamsburg West,” the branded locus of a flourishing arts scene. Others trace the neighborhood’s demise to 2010, when Spaceland was rechristened the Satellite. (More recently, COVID-19 forced the permanent closure of the Silver Lake Boulevard indie mecca; the owner fittingly plans to turn it into an organic restaurant.)
When I moved into the neighborhood in the mid-2000s, my block was still dicey. We’re not exactly talking New York’s Alphabet City in the ’70s, but it was the kind of place where every third building looked like a trap spot, and feral cats had the lay of the land. For a time, Silver Lake lived up to its reputation as the most atypical neighborhood in Los Angeles. Rent was relatively modest. Free Monday-night residency concerts offered a chance for anyone to catch the next breakout bands. You could watch the first L.A. shows of Tame Impala and Vampire Weekend for ten dollars at concerts attended by 50 people or less. Next door, in Los Feliz, nightly indie rock and jazz reigned at Tangier (now a Starbucks) and the Swingers-immortalized Derby (now a Chase bank).
But thanks to heedless developers and city council representatives, the gentrification metastasized. By 2016, a bourgeois wine den, Bar Angeles, brazenly mutilated the storefront that appeared on the cover of Smith’s Figure 8 album and served as his unofficial shrine, allowing patrons an unobstructed view of the boulevard. The bar sank in less than two years, but the desecration endures.
Older residents could reasonably claim that Silver Lake has slowly perished since the mid-’90s, when it became fashionable for musicians, writers, and artists to flock east in search of affordable lodging. Inspired by the example of Beck and the Dust Brothers, mostly white hipsters began trickling into a neighborhood then largely populated by working-class Latino families and middle-aged gay men besieged by a still-raging AIDS epidemic. (Silver Lake was the site of the 1967 Black Cat Tavern protest against police brutality that predated New York’s Stonewall riots by two years.)
Initially, there was room for peaceful coexistence between these disparate groups. The Sunset Junction Fair—an annual outdoor music festival—was founded in 1980 for that exact purpose, but it permanently vanished in 2011 amid accusations of financial mismanagement. More recently, the toll of disappearing landmarks has continued: the seminal gay bar MJ’s became a reviled cocktail hangout called Tenants of the Trees. Circus of Books, which sold everything from British import magazines to gay porn, morphed into an upscale cannabis dispensary. Not far away, El Chavo, once the city’s best spot to get drunk on margaritas while listening to ’70s Nigerian funk, became the Crux Climb, a gym offering “a high-calorie burn using Contra-Lateral Movement on the VersaClimber.” RIP, also, to Good Luck Bar, a Los Feliz opium den with an excellent jukebox, which was evicted in favor of a 17-room boutique hotel yet to be constructed. The beloved “Happy Foot/Sad Foot” sign that once revolved at Sunset and Benton was amputated in 2019. In December, Akbar, one of the area’s last surviving gay bars, put up a GoFundMe to stave off imminent closure. It managed to raise $150,000 in six hours, but still needs $200K. There’s lots of nostalgia for “old” Silver Lake now, but the truth is there was always a streak of goatee-stroking pretension about the place. The idea of the Eastside as a diverse, creative, and sexually liberated enclave existed in stark contrast to the East Coast stereotype of the rest of L.A. as a cultural wasteland entranced by celebrity. But Erewhon’s appearance in the neighborhood hammers a final nail into that notion. Instead, it has become WeHo East, a lacquered shell, a self-realized cliché.
As it happens, Erewhon is now the grocery store nearest my apartment. In the 500-yard walk between my place and the store, the inequities are hard to ignore. Signs touting free “Grab & Go” meals are taped to the fence of the junior high, a reminder of the 80 percent of LAUSD district students living in poverty. Over the last two years, a homeless encampment has sprung up underneath an overpass and in nearby vans—a makeshift civilization of the displaced, lined with couches, rotting mattresses, shopping carts, sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, and tents. The Sunset Silver Lake looms a few feet away, a flavorless Chipotle Modern complex hiding behind heavy security doors and No Trespassing signs.
You might miss this particular Erewhon if you didn’t know it was there, which is precisely the point. The market unobtrusively occupies the ground floor of a sleek metal box of luxury apartments, the “Junction 4121.” For some of its old-school neighbors, the building’s advertising must seem like an invitation to arson: Your Ideal L.A. Lifestyle. Stylish. Hip. Modern. A 655-square-foot one-bedroom here rents for $4,021 a month, plus utilities.
But for Erewhon, elaborate signage is unnecessary. Cults don’t need self-
promotion when they have proselytizers like Vanity Fair, which hailed Erewhon as “everyone’s favorite grocery store hot spot” in October. “Everyone” being Cara Delevingne, Jake Gyllenhaal, Demi Lovato, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Miley Cyrus. At one point in 2018, Kanye called his schlub-chic athleisure ensemble, “the Erewhon drip.” Shortly thereafter, a marketing company started selling “Erewhon Drip Fits” (Erewhon-branded sweatpants and a hoodie) for $300 a pop.
The supermarket’s Silver Lake outpost is 12,000 square feet, substantially smaller than the original Erewhon on Beverly Boulevard near the Grove. That means there’s room only for the finest in grass-fed New Zealand Wagyu beef and grain-free, gluten-free, paleo, vegan cinnamon crisps made with coconut sugar and 100 percent avocado oil. It’s the only place on earth that can make Whole Foods look like Costco.
In a quirk of late-capitalist irony, Erewhon itself is a product of corporate gentrification.
But that’s a relatively recent development, because Erewhon itself is a product of corporate gentrification.Founded in Boston amid the macrobiotic fads of the Aquarian age, the market’s headquarters moved to Los Angeles in 1969. Its name derives from Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel, Erewhon (nowhere backwards), which contained a line that could also serve as the mantra of the market’s clientele: “We next to never know when we are well off.” For the first 40-plus years of its West Coast life, Erewhon charmingly existed in a lone location near Pan Pacific Park—an endearing granola-and-flax-seed oasis in competition with markets like Mrs. Gooch’s, Wild Oats, and, eventually, Whole Foods. But at the start of the last decade, an entrepreneurial couple named Tony and Josephine Antoci bought the chain and began an expansion plan targeting well-heeled zip codes: Venice, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Calabasas, and now the place that GQ in 2018 called “L.A.’s Most Tragically Hip Neighborhood.” Soon after, Stripes, the Manhattan-based venture capital and equity behemoth, sunk millions into Erewhon with the goal of turning it into a national brand shilling one percent oat milk to the one percent.
It’s the same pattern playing out in most major metro areas. First-wave gentrifiers congregate somewhere in search of affordable apartments. Eventually, Forbes names it the hippest place to get a stick and poke tattoo, and then capital and condo owners rush in. Silver Lake was an alternative for those who found Williamsburg and Park Slope too frigid and too pricey, filled with the kind of people who rode unicycles and spoke Esperanto.
If the analogies felt forced a decade ago, they’re more fitting now. Inevitably, the neighborhood fell victim to the same real estate boosterism that created a vortex for rich and dairy-free depressives. Silver Lake is Williamsburg, but it’s also the Mission in San Francisco, Capitol Hill in Seattle, and Wicker Park in Chicago. In 2015, the average rent for a one bedroom here was $1595 a month. When the pandemic began last March, the cost had soared to $2600. In the last six years, median home prices have nearly doubled, peaking at $1.4 million last September.
While it’s fair to indict the gentrification cavalry (myself included), most of the original artists were theoretically there to contribute to and enrich the community. They have been swiftly displaced in favor of post-modern yuppies, all too self-aware of the stereotypes of the ’80s and ’90s. Hence, their predilection for Burning Man, Joshua Tree Airbnb getaways, and Erewhon. For them, greed is still good, but admitting it is gauche.
On a recent afternoon, I ventured into the Silver Lake Erewhon to soak up the scene. And they were all there, the teeming masses: the part-time Fashion Nova models suffering acute withdrawal from the Coachella VIP section; the apothecary bros in haute couture kilts and Diesel shoes; Warner Bros. A&Rs in leather jackets and N-95 masks; USC sorority girls with fake paint on their black jeans; and moms spending car payments on a single bag of groceries. But since we are further east, there were also a few remnants of what was. The aging punks with messy graying hair, the band managers in straw hats. A few of the discombobulated ghosts of Spaceland. From the speakers above thumped a techno remix of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”
I wandered the aisles in need of a Wikipedia entry for each item. The tonic bar with its $11 Reishi cappuccinos and $25 “immunity lineups.” Keto BBQ chicken pizzas for $18. Kombucha by the caseload, but which to select? The Boochcraft grapefruit hibiscus or the Dr. Hops Kombucha pomegranate chai beer? Eggs are $12 a dozen at Erewhon, corn-free, soy-free, antibiotic-free, and locally raised. There’s something called raw Irish moss sundries, which may or may not be edible, and organic Alter Eco salted caramel truffles for “enlightened indulgence.”
I found myself examining a display of spicy-chipotle-flavored organic artisanal popcorn with wild turmeric and lion’s mane. The bag soothed me by letting me know that it’s a superfood packed with anti-inflammatories. It’s an immune booster. It will add brainpower. (It’s popcorn!) And therein lies the grift: If Erewhon and its vendors began with noble and healthful intentions, they ended up purveying a series of hollow buzzwords and false promises to prey on some of the most self-involved people on earth. In a land where there is no shame in changing your hair, your body, or your entire face, it’s only right that its most affected are purchasing something called “Barely Bread”—grain-free “pagels” made with almond flour. As I stared numbly at the bag of super-popcorn, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Soul to Squeeze” serenaded me.
This was always a dark side of L.A., but Silver Lake existed as the escape hatch. It’s now merely occupied territory, a lotusland parody come roaring back to life. On my way out, I heard a Lululemon mom tell the girl at the counter, “I was totally one of those fools last year on New Year’s Eve, who was like, ‘I can feel it—this is going to be our year, baby.’” If only she knew that every year was.