WANT TO SEE THE FUTURE? THE GLENDALE NARROWS HAS a non-concrete bed for eight long miles, full of lush greenery. The logically scenic setting for the most new parks, it's the best place to go to envision a greenway through the heart of L.A.
Here, where the river squeezes between the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Rafael Hills, the water table runs too close to the surface for a concrete cap (the water would punch through), and the Army Corps of Engineers stopped de-greening it in the 1970s. The cobblestone bed in this soft-bottom stretch hosts willow groves, cattails, sycamores and up to 140 species of birds. Mallards, mergansers, egrets, a flowing river, towering mountains, parks, art, power lines, billboards, bridges and traffic -- as with the fabled view from the Griffith Park Observatory, here you can see the natural beauty and the terrific energy of a huge city in one frame.
Glendale plans to build the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk -- a park and multi-use trail with stops where you can read about Glendale, the river and their history -- to connect the city to the river and beyond. After that, it plans to seek funds to extend the trail south and add a pedestrian bridge to Griffith Park. (ETA start 2001)
Great Heron Gate, Rattlesnake Park
Of the 12 new parks in the Narrows, North East Trees built 11, and all since 1997. This urban forestry nonprofit has never met a square foot of land it couldn't put a park on -- and build about as fast as a Labrador retriever puppy grows. These "pocket parks," from small to tiny to mini, feature native plants, meandering paths, creative rockwork, and artworks by L.A. painters and sculptors. NET designs with community input, and hires at-risk youth to do construction. The parks are, in a word, stunning. They've turned a no man's land into neighborhood open space. River restorers on other stretches bus in to see them. NET has shown how little land is needed to get going -- and has modeled what parks on the L.A. River (or in any urban space) can look like.
The two-year-old Los Angeles Riverwalk, a 1.3-mile greenway dotted with NET pocket parks, is the county's first demonstration project for its L.A. River Master Plan. Use the equestrian trail at the south edge of North Atwater Park to access the north end.
The Anza Picnic Area -- with a horse corral, a bench and grand "Guardians of the River" entrance gate by sculptor Michael Amescua -- is named after the leader of the first overland colonizing expedition from Sonora to San Francisco, in 1775. The National Park Service's Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail follows the route, and NET is marking the L.A. River section with two illustrated signs by painter Nancy Romero (one here), and three murals to come.
Highly recommended is the Passive Fitness Area, a string of miniparks with bright signs that teach yoga stretches; it leaves intact pioneering neighborhood meditation and succulent gardens built in 1998. Bring "suppleness to the spine" while reading quotes from Emerson, Mandela and, of course, Ovid ("Take rest: A field that has rested grows a beautiful crop"). Nettie Carr, a Friends of Atwater Village leader, commissioned Rafael Escamilla's mural at the north-end entrance.
At the south tip of the Riverwalk, the tiny park at Sunnynook Footbridge has a bench by sculptor Brett Goldstone. The footbridge -- old, very cool -- connects to another over the 5 freeway to Griffith Park.
North of Los Feliz Boulevard, especially, you can see the channel's indigenous cats -- the faces painted on storm-drain lids, which look uncannily like cat heads. After 1960, when a Burbank woman painted the first with her family (so the legend goes), graffiti artists trespassed often to follow suit, and starting in 1969, Leo Limon's bright-colored entries would earn him an underground rep as the "L.A. River cat artist." He turned legal in 1998: The city funded Limon, who'd become a Chicano-art-movement leader, to work with at-risk kids to restore old faces and paint dozens of new ones. Limon wants to repeat the program with kids in other communities up and down the river. For now, he's drifted south and painted three cats at Knox Street -- and plans to redo these regularly, as a sort of revolving exhibit. â
A new North East Trees park will green Glendale Boulevard. And Fletcher Drive already has parks on three of its four corners.
At Fletcher, the new greenbelt switches sides: To the north, all the parks are on the east bank; to the south, they're on the west. Brett Goldstone's pair of gates -- "Water With Rocks" on the northeast, "Great Heron Gate" on the southwest -- create grand entrances to the two strings of parks. Frogtown is the longtime nickname for the neighborhoods to the south, where the river bends away from the 5 freeway and through the Elysian Valley. It's a quiet, scenic stretch. (Leonardo DiCaprio sat on a rock in the river here for ABC's Earth Day 2000 special.) You can still hear bullfrogs, and even since channelization, residents nearby have fished and swum and caught crawfish.
Rattlesnake Park, the first NET park, with a FoLAR-commissioned entrance gate -- after five decades of fencing that shouted "Keep Out" -- has a plaque inscribed with a Lewis MacAdams poem, a hawk sculpture by Andy Griffin, and a wall and fountain in snake form. And look for the big frogs -- artist anonymous -- on the levee.
The new 5.6-acre park at Marsh Street will feature a kids' discovery area on the south end, with the rest to be developed in three-plus years. It's brought to you by the Trust for Public Land, which helped the state acquire it; the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which will bring it to life; and the Proposition 13 funds you voted for. (ETA start 2001)
TPL and MRCA teamed up in 1995 to create Elysian Valley Gateway Park. A shady picnic area, it may not look revolutionary, but it was a critical beachhead. The project quelled long-voiced arguments for why a greenway could never happen: As it turned out, the neighborhood did take care of it, it did not attract gangs, and Public Works agreed to let us in. The park literally unlocked the gates to this stretch.
Stuff's at Good Stuff Park -- all good. Riverdale Mini-Park's got a bench and bike anchor. Steelhead Park has an amphitheater, yarrow meadow, Anza Trail poster, and Brett Goldstone's steelhead-theme fence and entrance gate, to honor the steelhead trout's eventual return. Osos Park has a sculpted drinking fountain and Michael Amescua's life-size sculptures of a deer family, grizzly bear and mountain lion. Zanja Madre Park marks the entrance to the Narrows -- the concrete resumes just south of it -- with a fountain, natural-history info on birds and trees, herons by sculptor Andy Griffin, and an entry sign in five languages for the L.A. River Greenway.
Ever ahead, North East Trees is building two miniparks in Taylor Yard -- to await the big park and the bikeway here. The one to the north will double as a bike staging area. (ETA south 2001, rest five to 10 years)
Taylor Yard will be a 60-plus-acre state park if all goes according to plan -- and 100-plus acres if the park's advocates win what has become the next defining battle (after the Cornfield; see Downtown) to ban new industrial development on riverside lands and build new parks in park-deprived areas. The first and largest of four big planned parks to hit the map since 2000, this Great Leap Forward for river restoration has three especially gargantuan assets: It's huge, with 2-plus miles of soft-bottom riverfront; it's ideally sited, just north of downtown; and it introduces State Parks resources and funding to the L.A. River.
Union Pacific, which is phasing out this railroad yard, sold big chunks of the brownfield's original 247 acres to developers, but last year Proposition 12 funds armed State Parks with a supersize $45 million to start negotiations on the 62 acres left. And in July, the Coalition for a State Park at Taylor Yard -- a united front of residents, churches, environmental and civil-rights groups -- won a major victory in its fight to rescue a 41-acre chunk, between the neighborhoods and the future park, from the Lennar Corporation's plans for industrial use: The Superior Court ruled that the city's approval of the project without a full environmental-impact report, which Lennar must now do, was illegal. The area's politicos -- state reps Richard Polanco and Jackie Goldberg, and city rep Eric Garcetti -- have urged Lennar to sell.
The Coalition wants to see a park with wetlands restoration and trails (and likely a detention basin) on the 62 acres, sports fields and a community center on the 41 acres, and housing and retail on a third, MTA-owned 24-acre chunk -- because Northeast L.A., while rich with industry and diesel fumes, is very poor in parks, affordable housing and basic community amenities. This site should become a landmark project that shows how to recycle once-industrial lands to create parks, reduce flooding, improve water quality and make neighborhoods more livable. (ETA five to 10 years)
Next stop on river tour: Downtown
WALK THE RIVER
It's all walkable here, on one side or the other. It's legal, too. And scenic. And you can walk down the slanted walls to the river itself. BUT DO NOT DO THIS IN RAINY WEATHER, WHEN FLASH FLOODS MAKE THE RIVER VERY, EXTREMELY, INORDINATELY DANGEROUS.
South of Glendale-
Riverside Drive (in north Griffith Park) to Fletcher Drive, south and west banks, hard by the 5 freeway: Use bike trail. It's noisy.
L.A. Riverwalk south to Fletcher, east bank: Entries at North Atwater Park (via equestrian trail on south end), Los Feliz Boulevard, Dover Street, Sunnynook Drive.
Fletcher to Barclay Street, west bank: Entries at the parks and many cross streets.
BIKE THE RIVER
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The city has built the first segments of the L.A. River Bikeway, a lighted Class A path, on the north half of this stretch, and is finishing it now. The unfinished segments and the paved access road in the walkable sections are also bikeable, if a little rough.
Now: Riverside Drive (north end Griffith Park) to Fletcher Drive: Access at end points, off Zoo Drive just south of the 5/134 juncture, Los Feliz, Glendale Boulevard. (Bridge over Los Feliz, ETA 2002)
Soon: Fletcher to Barclay, west bank. (ETA start 2002) Glendale Narrows Riverwalk, east bank.
Later: The city will build a trail in Taylor Yard on the south end, and is seeking funds to extend it north to Fletcher. (ETA with Taylor Yard park)