LA River ‘cultural atlas’ is preserving a disappearing local history

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The LA River flows near the Bowtie Parcel. Photo courtesy of Matthew Scott.

The communities that line the LA River have changed a lot in recent decades due to gentrification and development. Once affordable, working-class enclaves — like Atwater Village and Glassell Park — now have trendy coffee shops and breweries cropping up on every block, and longtime residents are rapidly being priced out. 

As these areas continue to change, is there a way to hang on to local history and culture? The Frogtown-based nonprofit Clockshop is attempting to do so — with a new project called Take Me to Your River: A Cultural Atlas of the LA River.

Launched this month, the three-year collective history project aims to gather stories and memories from locals in Northeast LA neighborhoods like Elysian Valley, Atwater Village, Cypress Park, and Glassell Park, which have a deep connection with the nearby river. 

“The river is a central thread in these communities,” says Sue Bell Yank, Clockshop’s executive director. “And we're particularly interested in the stories of people living around that central thread, who've taken an active role in shaping their neighborhoods over time, and that come from the primarily working class communities of color that characterize these neighborhoods.” 

The project started as a pilot, which leveraged Clockshop’s existing relationships within the community to find locals who wanted to share stories about their own history in the neighborhood, their relationship to the community, and how things have changed over time. 

“Clockshop has been in Elysian Valley for over 20 years now, and our mission has always been to deepen the connection between communities and public land. So we really started with the people that we knew, and we're thinking of it like concentric circles,” says Yank.

The stories they collected were then compiled onto a website, which includes an interactive map, a timeline of local history, video testimonials, and opportunities for locals to submit their own stories. 

“We're really looking to expand all of the narratives over the next three years and have more and more people be a part of this project,” says Yank.

The larger goal, she says, is to help Angelenos better connect with and understand their communities, so they can push to make them more livable for everyone. 

“We have a learned helplessness as the city changes around us,” she says. “So I hope that hearing some of these stories inspires people to really seek out ways that they can be part of their communities, support their communities, and to advocate for a different path for the city.”