Departures: Los Angeles River on Dwell on Design

When KCET launched Departures: Los Angeles River in June 2009, Conan O'Brien was launching his new late night show on NBC. For his show Conan created short- format videos about "the real" Los Angeles; one of his first and most successful ones was about the Los Angeles River.

If we asked the majority of Angelinos to define the L.A River they would say; first, that it is not a River but rather a flood control channel; followed by, it is a massive city sewer and a graffiti pit devoid of any life form or green space. Conan's video lead us to these same conclusions by mocking certain aspects of what makes a river a river, mainly the fact that it is impossible to sail, fish, kayak, etc....

In contrast to NBC, KCET Departures' - a hyper-local web-documentary, community engagement tool and digital literacy program about the cultural history of Los Angeles' neighborhoods - decided to venture down into the river to map its 52 miles and either debunk, affirm or reinterpret these misconceptions.

With this project we wanted to achieve a few things:

Early landscape photography of the American West captivated people's imagination by portraying vast open spaces that defined their physical beauty while anchoring our cultural, social and political expectations of it. This photographic language afforded the American people with the grammar to imagine the West and their relationship to it.

Borrowing on these concepts, the KCET's Departures River project recorded and photographed the river's life, from its headwaters where Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas meet, to Long Beach, where the river flows into the ocean. Much like the early landscape photographers wanted to use their then-new medium to depict American west, we wanted to use new media technologies to capture the vast contradictions of the Los Angeles River, while at the same time anchoring our cultural, social and political expectations of what the river is and may become. By telling its current story and providing a visual vocabulary for the river, KCET Departures intended to seed an idea and the possibility of change. Urban development and environmental change exist on multiple levels, the physical aspect of it being the most obvious - but you also need an aesthetic visual grammar (or a vocabulary) to imagine physical change.

What KCET found during the production of the series was a real - not imaginary - river that provided us with clues to understand our history as a city and the possibility that our collective imagination, decisions and will can attain.

At the end of our 52 mile journey we realized that we all share a collective responsibility to not only to maintain, restore and revitalize the river, but to also become more aware of how our larger urban ecosystem is irrevocably linked to both the river and our oceans.

That is why, along with the production of the series, we created a Youth Voices program with the help of Lewis, Shelly and Alicia @ FoLar to teach, educate and clean this natural resource, with the help of young men and women from the surrounding communities.

And we're doing this again in September 2010....

The text and slideshow included here (designed by no other than Justin Cram) will be used for the Dwell on Design Conference, organized by Good Magazine this week to talk about "Understanding the L.A River," I will be speaking along with Good's Editor in Chief, Zach Frechette, Mia Lehrer, and Lewis MacAdams from Friends of the L.A. River.


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This is such a fabulous project, it just takes my breath away.
When I lived in Encino (in the late 80's), I cycled along the Los Angeles river and had only a vague idea what it was! I've always felt drawn to Los Angeles history -- and Departures is providing me with not only a fascinating profile of the river, but is taking me on a nostalgic trip to all the places along it that I knew -- and some I didn't that I'm now learning about. Wonderful.


Thanks for the comment spb - what places did you know along the river that are now gone or have changed? Would love to hear and read your stories in our community section....