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River Rover Rolls into L.A. River Day

Amid a sea of gray industrial buildings in San Fernando Valley, an unusual 38-foot long mobile vehicle was parked at the lot of Lexington Design + Fabrication in Pacoima, a few blocks from Hansen Dam. Instead of staid grays and beiges, this vehicle was wrapped in cheerful,illustrations, depicting a flora and fauna-filled Los Angeles River. Snowy egrets fly above a blue sky, while humanoid frogs fish, kayak, and stroll along the riverside. Drawn by Los Angeles artist Christian Kasperkovitz, it was a page right out of a children's storybook. "It was designed to bring the river to the people," says Shelly Backlar, director of education programs with Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). If the goal was to be intriguing from the outset, FoLAR succeeded with the River Rover.

The project, a $500,000 undertaking, is designed to be a mobile classroom that will roam Los Angeles in the hopes of sharing a little Los Angeles River information in a fun and informative way. The River Rover was funded by a $1 million donation from Miss Me clothing. Additional funds also came from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative.

The River Rover's appeal doesn't stop at its exterior. Inside, the vehicle is packed with activities aimed at families, subdivided into three galleries. Backlar and Benny Stein, project manager at Lexington, took me through each.

At the rear of the vehicle is the Los Angeles River of yesterday. This section strives to introduce visitors to the wealth of life that could be found along the river. Drawers open to reveal bits of sand, or perhaps a frog skeleton.

Where the rear windshield should be, a black and white photograph depicts a home in the 1930s precariously leaning over a riverbank, while water rushes up to meet it, showing the power of the misunderstood Los Angeles River. At the push of a button, children can trigger an approximation of how fast the river waters can rise. LED lights run up a ruled board while the sound of rushing water grew louder and louder. "Children could feel what it would have felt like when floods happened," explains Backlar.

Further on is the Los Angeles River we have come to know, concrete-encased and more than a little forgotten. Here, children are presented with a small quiz, testing their knowledge of Los Angeles River trivia. Small tubes can be opened, allowing children to smell the scent of plants by the river. On some occasions, microscopes will be laid out, allowing children to see the microscopic life forms that make their home in the river.

Near the driver's seat is the river's ideal future, where its concrete gives way to green paths and open spaces. Here, children are introduced to the fish FoLAR hopes to see once again in the river, including the steelhead trout, arroyo chub, and the stickleback.

Many of the Rover's features still had to be put in place as I roamed the vehicle, but Backlar promises people would be able to enjoy the rover at this year's inaugural Los Angeles River Day, held at City Hall this Wednesday, June 4.

More than 40 exhibitors -- including FoLAR, the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority -- will be on hand to educate the public about the efforts on the Los Angeles River. The event will be attended by Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard and Congressman Xavier Becerra, as well as Col. Kimberly Colloton, United States Army Corps of Engineers.

The event comes at the heels of the United States Army Corps of Engineers announcing its support for a $1-billion plan to revitalize 11 miles of the urban waterway, from Griffith Park to downtown Los Angeles, and two recreational zones opening up this summer.

"We're at a tipping point with the Los Angeles River," says Tony Arranaga, spokesperson for Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell's office. "There has been so much positive attention to the L.A. River lately. People are excited to return the river to its glory and re-invest in it." By reserving a day to bring together all efforts around the river under one roof, O'Farrell hopes the community will gain an understanding and appreciation for a once-forgotten waterway.

The inaugural Los Angeles River Day event will take place this Wednesday, June 4, 9 a.m.-12 p.m. at Los Angeles City Hall, 200 North Spring St., Los Angeles, 90012.

Photos by Carren Jao

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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