DnA Goes Camping. . . On the L.A. River?

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The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of the L.A. River

The L.A. River was once the lifeblood of civilization in Southern California. But it became a forgotten concrete flood control channel in the 20th century after its erratic flooding threatened communities and as the Owens Valley eclipsed the river as a water source. The river was fortified in tons of concrete, and largely abandoned as a public space.

After decades of efforts by nonprofits, politicians and activists to bring the river back to the fore in L.A. life as center for recreation, last week the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they backed a $1 billion dollar revitalization plan to revive the river with parks, removal of  several miles of concrete and economic development of river-adjacent communities. That same week, California State Parks permitted the first-ever L.A. River campout.

I know what you’re thinking. Camping? On the L.A. River? 

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Camping for Fun and Activism

Yes, camping. Last weekend I joined around 100 river enthusiasts on the Bowtie parcel of the L.A. River, part of Taylor Yard in Glassell Park north of downtown.

The bowtie parcel is not the wilderness. It is sandwiched between freeways, a high school, and Metrolink train tracks, and we parked our tents on a concrete slab. Trains running through the night added another texture to the backdrop of camp songs, tweeting birds and other delights of camping by a river.  So why did campers choose to come here?

I spoke with Kat Superfisky of Mia Lehrer + Associates, an L.A.-based landscape architecture firm that’s been spearheading the design of the river revitalization.

She believes that this camp-out, organized by ClockshopCalifornia State ParksMountains Recreation and Conservation Authority,  is just one part of a multi-pronged approach to return the river to the fore in L.A. life that also includes introducing recreational activities and other kinds of activism.

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Changing the Perspective on the River

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about being involved in this revitalization is that it’s not really about planting trees along the river or about plants, but really revitalizing the river is about changing people’s perspectives of the river and of really getting Angelenos involved and realizing that the river exists and that they can actually utilize it for themselves and the community,” she said.

Kat’s attitude was shared by many of the campers including Damian Robledo of RAC Design Build “I live work and play on the river,” said Damien Robledo. Damian (below, with his son Ryden) lives in Atwater Village, works in Elysian Valley and his children go to school in Glassell Park.

He continued, “So in each one of those communities there is a lack of open space and recreational activities to do. So the river represents something already existing and can be built upon and it will be an amazing resource to these underserved communities that don’t have access to open space.”

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Camping a “Seductive” Experience

So in many ways the river campout was a celebration of the river and all the progress that’s been made, but also a recognition of the river’s future potential. Lewis Macadams is president of Friends of the Los Angeles River who started campaigning decades ago to bring the river back into our lives. He says there’s much left to be done.

“The billion dollars is just the first stage, I mean we can do a lot with that, but to restore the river is going to be a project that takes a couple of generations and it should be, but the last time somebody had one idea about what to do with the river they poured 3 million barrels of concrete. …..there’s all kinds of pitfalls ahead, but we have a plan that we can all agree is the right plan, and so now it’s just a matter of raising the money, so this is a downpayment on a future of a giant healthy ecosystem that will enlighten and seduce and gather people to the river. And it’s all about bringing people to the river.”

This was the first of what the organizers hope will be many campouts and despite the non-stop trains, I was “seduced” by my unusual experience on the L.A. River.

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Listen to this story, broadcast on All Things Considered, via Soundcloud above.

Read about Mia Lehrer and her work on the LA River master plan, here.

Listen to these segments about latest developments at the River here.

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