“I feel a little itchy, I'm not going to lie.” Tyler Sedustine has just emerged from the Los Angeles River, his dripping wet two-and-a-half-year-old son Elijah ensconced in his arms. That his first instinct is to hose off will likely strike few Angelenos as strange. Just twenty-four hours previous, the idea of dipping your toddler in the our eponymous waterway could have been deemed not just mildly odd and possibly toxic, but also illegal.
On May 27, however, the city threw open a 2.5-mile stretch, known as the Glendale Narrows and located between Fletcher Drive and Oros Street, for the first time since the whole river was encased in concrete and re-classified as a “flood control channel” back in the late 1930s. Suddenly on the list of approved activities are boating or fishing for the bass, tilapia and catfish who call the river home. “I've been told they're good eating,” swore Fernando Gomez, Chief Ranger for the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA), on hand for the official kickoff.
And yes, incidental exposure has been deemed safe, though Gomez doesn't blink an eye at the question. Patiently wrapping people's heads around the idea that it's less concrete wasteland than honest-to-god ecosystem is a major reason why MRCA has joined the Los Angeles River Pilot Recreation Zone program, donating more than a dozen rangers and numerous volunteers to patrol the area during its run from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Sept. 2. “The river is why L.A. is where it is,” said Gomez, noting that it once served as the local fresh water resource. Food for thought in our age of reinvigorated water wars.
By mid-day, MRCA estimated they'd already launched more than 50 kayakers from their Marsh Park staging ground. The Narrows were chosen because it's one of the only spots where the river retained a soft bottom and sloping concrete trapezoidal banks, which make for easier access.
Meanwhile, down the road, Sedustine was hanging out among a group of river enthusiasts who marked the occasion by assembling in the leafy backyard of the Frogtown homestead (“Do you want to feel an egg that's fresh out of a chicken?” 5-year-old Mena Schmidt offered.) of Christine Louise and William Mills.
“In Europe, we have a mythology about our rivers,” explained attendee Halli Kristjansson, a native Icelander who likes to meditate on the banks near his downtown loft. “One is that a giant took a leak and created the Elbe.”
For decades, of course, a not so different mythology grew up around the L.A. River, seen as a haven for drug deals, loose shopping carts and the homeless. At their potluck BBQ, the Mills were providing guests with bikes, a kayak and gentle encouragement.
“I have no kayaking skills whatsoever,” said William of his own first foray. “Getting in was a little shaky, but the river is calm enough. I never felt like I was in mortal danger.”
It was a serene day all around, the sun bright, but the air cool as the water, rarely more than waist deep, gurgled and tumbled along through a tumultuous bout of flora. A lone cormorant bathed near the shore, someone spied a turtle and overhead, hawks circled. Squinting just right, one could even crop out the 2 freeway in the near distance. For Christine Louise, though, their party was in some ways only tangentially about commemorating the moment.
“It's a day for celebrating so many people who put in so much work to make this happen,” said the hostess as she doled out hugs in the shade of her converted garage. “All the things you can do 'lawfully' now people have been doing for years. The neighborhood already knows it's a treasure. The investment only pays off if the rest of the city finds it's way to it.”
City voters, in fact, have signed on to funnel millions of dollars in bond measures into the revitalization efforts, plans which got a nice boost last month when Universal Studios agreed to pony almost $14 million to augment riverside bike paths and other green spaces, as part of $100 plus million in civic improvements offered in exchange for the right to expand the studio's theme park.
Hollywood and the river actually go way back, though usually because one is using the other to stage explosions, car chases or as a stand in for a post apocalyptic hellscape. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that.
Paul Redmond, a photographer, stood sipping his Negra Modelo beside the kiddie pool. “The 6th Street tunnel is one of the great things about L.A. I highly recommend driving around down there, especially if there's a little bit of water.” He paused before adding, “I think it's illegal, I never bothered to look it up.”
But Redmond is quick to note that he's been exploring both on four wheels and bare feet. That, in a nutshell, is where the river stands today, a 51-mile quasi-natural resource simultaneously surreal and humanizing.
Environmentalists citywide have championed a clean up operation since at least the 1980s. For residents in the congested, park poor area of Northeast Los Angeles, however, where a day at the beach can feel like a pipe dream for the carless amongst us, the issue has long felt personal. It's also served as part of a larger conversation about how waterways functions as metaphor and symbol in a city built on images. “The river's not an ocean — it's a traveling body of water and it can do things the ocean can't do,” said Christine Louise. “It's going from one place to the other and finding community along the way.
“My personal pet peeve is, I have a hard time with stuff like the Americana, where some developer puts in a fountain and a trolley and calls it a community,” she continued. “People are being swindled on this idea that a shopping center is a community. Especially now that I have a kid, I feel the absence of free, well-cared for public space.”
Back in the garage, Christine Louise and Sedustine were thinking big, about water clean enough to swim in, about how all the river could change by the time their children head off to college and what might be some of the obstacles currently in the way.
“What would the L.A. River look like if it ran through West Hollywood or some of the nice neighborhoods in the Westside?” Sedustine wondered.
And what if it didn't matter?
“Who's going to lose by making the river beautiful?” Christine Louise asked.