Photos by Leor Levine
THE UPPER L.A. RIVER IS THE LEAST urban-industrial stretch, and the most affluent. It's also among the slowest for restoration projects — but here you'll find Ventura Boulevard, the Industry and the only still-wild miles.
The headwaters begin officially, without a lot of ceremony, next to the Canoga Park High School football field, where Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas — both in concrete and often dry — meet after they flow out of the mountains.
The 2.3-mile soft-bottom stretch — 1-plus miles with no concrete at all — is the river at its wildest. It has an earthen bed through the Sepulveda Basin, and, lo and behold, a thick forest of willows and cottonwoods grows here. The views at the Burbank and Balboa boulevard crossings are beyond pretty — they're Tom Sawyer scenic. All in all, so riverlike it's startling.
The Sepulveda Basin Recreational Area is a 2,000-acre city mega-park, right next to the 405, that no one outside the Valley seems to know about. A flood-overflow basin when it needs to be (one in five years), it has multiple parks, athletic fields, golf courses, a Japanese garden and a 225-acre chunk of native riverside habitat (restored in stages since 1979) that's one of the finest wildlife refuges in an American city. A major bird haven, it's a last nesting area for species that can no longer nest downstream.
When Ernie LaMere, a retiree who lived in the neighborhood, planted a garden by the river without fanfare or permission in 1987, he invented river restoration — a decade before it would become hip. “Guerrilla gardening,” river maven Melanie Winter calls it. Ernie's Walk, off Kester Avenue, has been an official site since 1992 (LaMere died in 1995), and the county plans to spruce it up. Odd and charming, with a big, colorful garden, folk art and a Wild West cemetery, it's like a Watts Towers for Van Nuys — a private passion that became a public work.
Also pioneers, the Village Gardeners have maintained and added to a half-mile string of gardens between Fulton and Coldwater Canyon avenues since 1994, using donated plants. Their community project is a popular walking site — check out artist Laurie Troha's new fish-themed mural.
The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority plans to build the Studio City Outdoor Classroom in the Village Gardeners stretch, with a stone amphitheater, native plants and educational info on riparian habitat. (ETA 2001)
The city of L.A. is blessed with about three-fifths of the entire river. As its first project, it aims to build the L.A. River Greenway along the seven-mile stretch where the river slides next to Ventura Boulevard. Slowly. Very. The first (and only) funded piece, a half-mile in downtown Studio City (then-Councilman Mike Feuer fought to get it for his 5th District), will feature a pedestrian and bike trail on the south and the greening of both banks. (ETA start 2001)
Ideally . . . Don't plan romantic after-dinner strolls by the river anytime soon, but Ventura Boulevard — by far the longest commercial street that runs parallel to any part of the river — would be a prime place to integrate the greenway with a thriving retail district and street scene.
The River Project has led Carpenter Avenue Elementary School workshops to design much of the Valleyheart Greenway Project, a “habitat garden” between Laurel Canyon Boulevard and CBS Studio Center with walking paths, a meadow, a shrub maze and seating areas. The county is funding the south bank, and the Project is seeking funds for the north. Brought to you also by the Studio City Residents Association. (ETA 2002)
Hollywood and the river share a grand pre-concrete past: In Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and John Wayne movies, among hundreds, the river stands in as the frontier West. At present, five of the major studios enjoy 2.2 miles of riverfront along the seven-mile Studio Row stretch. They've drawn on their wealth of imagination and, well, wealth to do, well, not a whole lot. CBS tried to decorate its stretch with waterfalls and wall painting, but its efforts are now on hold. Disney and DreamWorks have donated land and modified the plantings on river-adjacent lands to make possible the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk (see Glendale Narrows). Universal designed a lovely river greenbelt in its new master plan, which is on hold after merger upon merger. Warner Bros. professes zero interest — and, having built loading docks and parking lots up to the river's edge, wins the Lifetime Achievement Award for Failure To Get It.
Ideally . . . The studios would help build greenways and park areas to connect L.A. to the Industry and to commemorate their shared past. (That is, if Tom Cruise would take $23 million instead of $25 million.)
Detour up the Tujunga Wash to the Great Wall of L.A. — at half a mile, the longest mural in the world, and likely the most famous in the world's mural capital. An interethnic history of California from pre-conquest to the 1950s, it's the founding project of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, a group of now well-known community arts activists who recruited more than 100 artists, historians and ethnologists and more than 400 young people to work on it from 1976 to 1983. SPARC plans to restore what's faded, and is assembling a new team to paint the 1960s to the 1990s on the opposite wall. (ETA start 2002)
Want to see L.A.'s old attitude toward the river? The Weddington Parks, built in 1965, are on the riverfront and off Riverton Avenue, but have no river access.
Loss of its connection to the river befell Griffith Park, too. Colonel Griffith J. Griffith envisioned a scenic mountain park with five miles of riverfront, but in the 1950s the 5 and 134 freeways separated the two. Except in a few tiny pieces of park — one is the big, shady Bette Davis Picnic Area — that the Army Corps of Engineers stranded on the north bank when it straightened the river's meanders. Here, the park's S-shaped boundaries trace the river's former path.
Next stop on tour:
The Glendale Narrows.
WALK THE RIVER
Sepulveda Basin: Wildlife refuge trails lead to the river. Enter at trailhead (at refuge parking lot, access road off Woodley Avenue); off Woodley; on Burbank Boulevard at or east of Woodley (park on Woodley or in small lot atop the dam just west of the 405). A dirt path tops Sepulveda Dam: Entries at Burbank/405 parking lot and wildlife refuge lot (scramble up the side). Burbank to Balboa Boulevard: Wide jogging path on south bank, dirt trail on north. Enter at either end (for Balboa, park in the riverside lot; for Burbank, on Woodley or in Burbank/405 lot).
Sherman Oaks/Studio City: The river is especially easy to find here. You don't have to climb fences, or even trespass — dirt paths on both banks have long been used for jogging and dog walking, and are accessible at major cross streets and many points off Valleyheart Drive.
Bette Davis Picnic Area: A dirt path heads toward the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. Enter at east end of park.
BIKE THE RIVER
Sepulveda Basin: The 8.5-mile perimeter loop crosses the naturalized river at Burbank and Balboa boulevards.
L.A. River Bikeway: The 0.5-mile L.A. River Greenway project through Studio City includes a bikeway. (ETA start 2001) The city plans to extend it into the Valley west to the headwaters — but not until it builds the stretches (now in various stages of completion, construction and planning) through the Glendale Narrows and downtown. (ETA start 2007-2008)