It Takes a Village: Volunteers Turn L.A. River Spot into Neighborhood Oasis

I don't know about you, but whenever I pass through a green park-like space, I enjoy the scene, but never really think about the hands behind it. Usually, I assume I have to thank someone in the city or the county, but if you live in Studio City and Sherman Oaks, you might have to thank your neighbors, too.

On Valleyheart Drive, between Fulton and Coldwater Canyon is about a one-half mile section of park-like space that runs right by the Los Angeles River called the Valleyheart Riverwalk Greenway. The area has been channelized, but it is the space on both sides that make it conducive to walking, strolling, or simply taking a stroll along the riverbank with your pet.

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A lap around the river between Coldwater Canyon and Fulton is about one mile. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

Unlike many riverfront developments, the homes in the area not only face the street, but also take in the full view of the greenway. That alone goes a long way toward making the river feel like part of the neighborhood.

The area is maintained by an all-volunteer non-profit called the Village Gardeners, who regularly take out deadwood in the area, re-plant with native species and work with the government agencies to beautify their patch of the Los Angeles River.

This grassroots neighborhood group began in the wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Seeing the damage, one resident started the rebuilding process by working in the planting areas by the river. Soon, the independent planter gained other volunteers who joined in the planting or donations.

Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

An amphitheatre sits on the south side of the river at Valleyheart and Longridge. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

The Village Gardeners flourished but eventually went dormant, until 2006 when Rick Rabins, a resident of the area for 27 years contacted co-founder Annette Fuller asking to re-activate the group. "It was a time in my life that I had a desire growing to do some kind of community service, give back to the community. I've been so fortunate in so many ways," says Rabins now President of the non-profit, who joined me at the Richard Lillard Outdoor Classroom on Valleyheart Drive in Studio City. Located on the south side of the river, the classroom was on of the non-profit's earlier projects.

Rabins had read about Oleander Leaf Scorch that was tearing through the neighborhood and was moved to action. A landscaping mainstay in Southern California, the colorful oleanders soon dried up and wilted because of these bacteria. Rabins didn't know much about greenery then, but he wanted to preserve the beautiful greenway that first brought him to the neighborhood in the first place.

His concern soon brought him to Fuller, who agreed to re-activate the Village Gardeners. Soon after, a new board of directors was voted in and operations began. What's more, Fuller had some good news for Rabins. The non-profit still had about $3,000 left in the bank.

It wasn't a lot of money, but it was enough to get things started. The Village Gardeners began again in a big way, with an invitation from L.A. County to help in its Earth Day 2008 clean-up. Rabins considers that the first major project of the revitalized Village Gardeners.

An area recently replanted with native species and a new staircase leading to the street near Valleyheart and Mary Ellen on the south side of the river. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

That day, the county raked the whole slope of a 260-foot long area, removing concrete and aggregate, which helped the Village Gardeners and students from Carpenter Community Charter School plant five-gallon and one-gallon plants.

In the past six years, the non-profit has successfully put their piece of Los Angeles River back on the map. Rabins recalls that when he began, their greenway wasn't even on the L.A. River Masterplan. "Our greenway wasn't one of the projects. They had projects going to the west and east of us, but they're bypassing us," says Rabins.

From the looks of things, the county isn't making the same mistake twice. Among its ongoing projects is the North Valleyheart Riverwalk, which takes on the north side of the L.A. riverbank. Until now, most of the improvements have occurred on the south side of the bank. The project recently applied for a Prop 84 grant program geared toward making new park and recreational facilities.

This project is only one of a handful Rabins and the Village Gardeners are tackling. The non-profit has recently extended its borders by inching a little to the west in its Moorpark Point Project, which sits on the west side of the Fulton bridge on the south side of the riverbank.

The L.A. River as seen from Moorpark Street toward the Fulton Bridge. | Photo: Zach Behrens

Tree planting at Moorpark Point at Fulton and Valleyheart. | Photo: Zach Behrens

Tree planting at Moorpark Point at Fulton and Valleyheart. | Photo: Zach Behrens

"When I was growing up, this area was known as the wash. You didn't really want to see it, you wanted to hide it. That has all changed. More and more people are appreciating it, and for that to snowball, the public needs better access," explains Rabins of the project's significance.

These future plans are tempered by the non-profit's on-going duties to maintain the greenway, which includes even out the trash. There is no municipal trash service along the greenway, only two trash cans serviced by the Mountains, Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA). Every week, the non-profit takes out the contents of eleven trash bins that line the greenway. Volunteers also scout the greenway and the surrounding streets for litter, which prevents the trash from making its way to the river.

Rick Rabins | Photo: Carren Jao

Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

The work of the Village Gardeners is built on constancy. Though they've weeded and re-planted, Rabins says that's not the end of it. There is a constant need for people who care about their community to pitch in. "The challenge is connecting with the community. We need a larger base of supporters. People think that because we're a non profit all volunteer organization that we don't need any money. They don't realize that we still have expenses." This year their board approved an $18,000 budget, though the non-profit needs about $20,000 at minimum to keep things operational.

Despite tight budgets, Rabins remains optimistic that fellow Studio City and Sherman Oaks residents would see the non-profit's work as an asset to the community and pitch in. "I look at this as a rare opportunity to be a beneficiary of my own giving," says Rabins. He hopes other neighbors would volunteer and see it that way, too.

Confluence is a blog dedicated to covering the L.A. River and its tributaries by KCET's Departures, a transmedia project about the shifting culture of the city's neighborhoods. Interact with its L.A. River installment here.

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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