A couple months back we were walking along Sunset Blvd. in Echo Park, and a friend asked us if we knew what the bronze plaques were beneath our feet. To our embarrassment as local bloggers, we stumbled our way through our now admitted ignorance and came up with a logical guess that it must be some sort of tribute to famous athletes. Immediately after, we rectified this with some research and discovered a true, somewhat overlooked gem of our beloved neighborhood. Along with discovering the Avenue of the Athletes, we also uncovered a story, both heartwarming and saddening in its echo to the changing times of our neighborhood, and see it now as our duty to share with you.
The initial imagining of the Avenue of the Athletes officially began in 1974 when L. Andrew Castle, an elderly Echo Park business owner and photographer for the Dodgers, proposed the idea to the City of Los Angeles. His vision for an avenue aligned with plaques honoring the many great athletes of his time came from a greater wish for the neighborhood. As LA Times staff writer Larry Gordon described in his 1985 article, “His dream was to improve the struggling commercial center of Echo Park along Sunset Boulevard, maybe even transform it into a tourist attraction. With Dodger Stadium just a 10-minute walk up the hill, what better way to do that, he thought, than to shine some reflected glory of sports heroes down on the relatively unglamorous street of shoe stores, banks, bakeries and restaurants?” At the time, this sentiment seemed plausible to both Castle and those supporting the creation of the Avenue of the Athletes. But after the first plaques were laid in 1976, the relevance of the vision lost its luster.
Fast forward to 1985 and the publication of Gordon’s LA Times article, and we find another resurgence of the avenue. Castle, having passed away before the realization of his dream, was honored with a plaque in front of what was once the location of his modest camera shop at the corner of Logan and Sunset — it is now Rey’s Bicycle Shop of Echo Park. There was a meagre ceremony in front of the then independently owned Pioneer Super Market (now Walgreens), with a few notable attendees such as former Dodgers manager Thomas Lasorda, who was also honored, and some local city council members. Castle’s plaque, as the only non-athlete honored, had an image of a camera.
Since this time 30 years ago, the plaques and their story seem to have been lost in shuffle of footsteps once again. While the 31 athletes honored are undoubtedly deserving of their recognition, we, along with Gordon 3 decades ago, find Castle, the 32nd honoree, and his humble story most intriguing.
Beyond Castle’s hope that the Avenue of the Athletes would help popularize the neighborhood and boost local business, it is perhaps his altruistic dream for the future of the neighborhood that should be noted. As former major league baseball executive Fred Claire stated in 1985, “Andy Castle dreamed that [Echo Park] could be clean, that it could be free of crime. What the reality is, I don’t know for sure. But his dream lives on.”
This, to us at least, seems the greatest realization of Castle’s vision. If only he could see for himself what this neighborhood has become and that his dreams were not in vain. It is our hope that those who read this story will be inspired to take a walk along Sunset Blvd and remember. Remember those who made Echo Park what it is today and appreciate their efforts in a new way.
The remaining 31 plaques adorning Sunset Blvd between Elysian and Alvarado honor some pretty impressive athletes. Though many were randomly selected with some contention over the criteria for their choosing, it is fair to say a diverse selection of sports were chosen to be recognized, specifically: baseball, basketball, football, track, horse racing, boxing, swimming, diving, tennis and golf. Of the 31 athletes, some notables include Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Wyomia Tyus (Olympic gold medal runner) and Kenny Washington, the first African-American to sign a contract with a National Football League team in the modern era and a former Lincoln High Tiger.
With the aid of our trusted guide, Ella Fitzgerald the Maltipoo, we rediscovered some of these plaques firsthand. We hope this tradition will continue on and more plaques will be placed along our treasured Avenue of the Athletes.