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Let the River Run

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By Hugh Hart, Photos by Markku Lahdesmaki

Published Jan 15, 2015 8:00 AM


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Glendale Narrows Riverwalk

The legacy of that decades-long flood-control effort shows up a few feet from the Marsh Park festivities, where a shallow stretch of the Los Angeles River flows. Lush trees and bushes overgrow one bank. The other side of the river, stripped bare, reveals a man-made shoreline constructed of gray slabs of cement.

Far from the picturesque river archetype associated with natural “soft bed” waterways, the Los Angeles River’s hard-edged contours compelled a radical shift of perspective for Carruth when she moved to UCLA two years ago. “I grew up in Colorado and spent a lot of time hiking in the Rocky Mountains, backpacking around rivers and the high mountain lakes that feed them,” she says. “When I first got involved with Project 51, I found myself thinking a lot about the way I experienced rivers as a child. My whole memory and understanding of ‘river’ was completely different, because I grew up around the ecosystem of the wilderness, not of the city.”

Carruth’s work with Play the LA River reflects a fascination with urban ecology that has informed her writings, including a work-in-progress titled Radical Gardens, Digital Times. An affiliated faculty member in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, she also addresses urban planning issues in her interdisciplinary Introduction to Environmental Humanities class. “I’ve been very excited to teach courses that get students seeing the city through an ecological lens,” Carruth says.

Noting that Los Angeles ranks far behind most American cities in the availability of public green space, she explains, “The class deals with the park-poor history of L.A., and we explore maps and schematics that document our lack of green space in any conventional sense, compared to cities like San Francisco, Chicago or New York. For Project 51, one of the huge opportunities is to realize that this river runs through 18 cities and offers a unique opportunity to enhance green space and access to parks for neighborhoods all across the L.A. basin.”

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Rattlesnake Park

Carruth first became acquainted with the Los Angeles River’s off-kilter charms at the behest of Project 51 convener and co-founder Jenny Price. A research scholar with the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, Price conducted dozens of tours as a longtime member of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers. “Project 51 grew out of my own frustration,” Price recalls. “It seemed like every time I did a tour, I’d ask, ‘Who’s been to the L.A. River?’ Almost no one. ‘Who knows about what’s going on at the L.A. River?’ No one. Even though the river is a huge policy priority, public awareness still lags way behind. I could take out only 40 or 50 people at a time on my tours, so I wanted to do something that potentially reached thousands. That’s when I became interested in forming a collective that dealt just with the L.A. River.”

Yet she had no details in mind when she started contacting likeminded activists. “The idea was to convene this group and start brainstorming. The nice thing about a collaborative group, as opposed to doing it by yourself, is that you can pool your skill sets and ideally come up with something that’s more than the sum of its parts.”

When Price reached out to Carruth and Carruth’s husband, documentary photographer and designer Barron Bixler, the couple responded with ideas, writing skills and design concepts. Freewheeling meetings with Project 51 co-founders — including urban planner John Arroyo, UC Riverside History Associate Professor Catherine Gudis and socially engaged artist Amanda Evans of Portland State University — eventually yielded the group’s core concept: a deck of 5-1/2” by 8-1/2” cards that display a map, activity “prompts” and historical tidbits for 52 on-river and four off-river locations, all packaged as a colorful infographic. The group was joined in these efforts by Erika Barbosa, Lila Higgins, Kat Superfisky, Allison Wyper M.F.A. ’11 and Natale Zappia.

“Because of the uneven way revitalization of the river has proceeded over the last couple of decades, it’s this patchwork of pockets or nodes,” Carruth says. “There have been efforts to create continuous bike paths, but the river is not yet a united conduit of green space that connects communities. The card deck embodies the idea that the river remains fragmented.”

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