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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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Thursday Fun Run through the Glendale Narrows

Like all Project 51 members, Carruth and Bixler researched the locations included in the card deck. They embarked on scouting missions to parts of Los Angeles Carruth had never paid much attention to. “We focused on downtown and came across all these unexpected surprises,” Carruth recalls. “Underneath the First Street Bridge on the west side of the river, there’s this shaded breezeway planted with lovely trees where you can take respite from the industrial nature of downtown. When you look up, there’s this portico that Barron and I envisioned as the perfect place for friends and couples visiting the river to reenact the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene.”

Poking around the riverfront’s nooks and crannies offers a visceral perspective that only comes from getting out of the car and into the great outdoors, Carruth says. “Connecting to the river and exploring it — on foot, by bike, by pogo stick — really transforms your relationship with it, because your experience then becomes very tactile and kinetic,” she says. “Most people have probably driven over the river once, or many times, but you get a very different impression when you get up close.”

The challenge of engaging Los Angeles’ car-centric culture inspires modestly scaled optimism in Project 51 co-founder Arroyo, currently a doctoral candidate in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “L.A. is an ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ kind of a place, and rightfully so,” he says. “Time and time again, many of its traditionally underserved neighborhoods were promised physical community improvement projects that were never realized. When it comes to the L.A. River, people say, ‘Tell me when you get the concrete out of the river.’ But the main goal of Play the LA River is to encourage Angelenos to celebrate the river as a vital civic space now, as opposed to 25 years from now, regardless of whether or not the concrete remains.”

If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has its way, at least one segment of the river may soon benefit from a substantial eco-makeover. In May 2014, the Corps proposed a $1-billion plan to restore habitat, widen the river, create wetlands and provide access points and bike trails along an 11-mile stretch north of downtown through Elysian Park.

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Dog day in the Sepulveda Basin

Price hopes Project 51’s card deck guide triggers interest in every mile of the Los Angeles River, from its origins in Canoga Park to the Long Beach estuary where it flows into the Pacific Ocean. For Carruth, Play the LA River’s brand of infographic activism aims to provoke new relationships between Angelenos and their long-neglected waterway.

“If this takes off,” Carruth says, “what will be most successful about Play the LA River is not the ideas we come up with for the ‘prompts’ for the cards, but what others come up with. We’re trying to create a platform for getting folks to the river, as individuals or as groups. We’re providing a framework for people to organize their own events.”

After suffering decades of neglect, Price notes, the river’s comeback would mirror worldwide efforts to undo years of industrialized overkill. “Many cities destroyed their rivers during the industrial era at the same time that they destroyed their industrial cores,” Price says. “What you saw gaining steam in the 1970s and what you continue to see now is that cities around the world are revitalizing their rivers as a strategy to revitalize their cities.

“The cool thing about the L.A. River is, if you can do it in L.A., you can do it anywhere. We’ve got 51 miles of the most degraded river in the country. It’s very daunting, but also very exciting.”

Visit every location in this photo essay at playthelariver.com and access the interactive Play the LA River card deck, or pick up a deck in person.

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