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The River In the Limelight

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Photo by KCET Departures.

“Los Angeles has a river?” There was a time when you would have been forgiven for uttering such a phrase. After all, to the world, Los Angeles is the home of Hollywood, of glitz and glamour. Its icons are ribbons of freeways that traverse mountains and flashy convertibles with Ray-Ban wearing drivers.

The city was birthed on the banks of its river, but by the latter half of the 20th century, it had all been forgotten. When Lewis MacAdams first glimpsed the Los Angeles River in the 80s, it felt like a mystery wrapped under layers of concrete and graffiti.

Here was a place shrouded in secrecy—not because it had something to hide, but because no one was looking. In those days, the river was all but forgotten. Only the city’s misfits—the graffiti artists looking to make their mark, the homeless searching for a place to rest—went down to the river.

Those days of obscurity are all but gone.

In the last five years, the Los Angeles River has become a kind of celebrity of its own thanks in no small part to a slew of media coverage.

The river’s burst onto the public consciousness in 2011. That was the year the city tentatively allowed a section of the Los Angeles river on the Sepulveda Basin to be turned into a recreational zone. There were 280 tickets available for the kayak tours. The event sold out in the first 10 minutes.

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The pilot project was an unqualified success and media were all over it. There were the usual suspects on the scene: the Los Angeles Times, KPCC, and KCET.

But there were also new faces: the New York Times, CNN, and BBC.

Each publication recast the river of Terminator fame into a symbol of rebirth in this freeway-bound concrete-choked city. It was a provocative and inspiring idea for Angelenos tired of associating their city with the bleak gray colors of the freeway. It also struck a chord to those living outside of Los Angeles. Perhaps because L.A. is a cosmopolitan city whose ties extend far beyond its borders. Or perhaps because in this age of melting ice caps and global warming, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear of a river returned to a more natural state.

The media has played no small part in the river’s return to notoriety. Like our readers, we were caught up in the tantalizing idea that something so forlorn and forgotten could be revived into a beautiful green space in the middle of the city.

When a more than $1-billion river revitalization plan was recommended by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it seemed Los Angeles developed a case of river mania. Even National Geographic told the river’s story.

Suddenly, “one billion” was on everyone’s lips.

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The L.A. River revitalization plan attracted the attention of media and realtors who probably never before considered it. Photo 

Never mind that the “one billion” is a price tag for a project the city has yet to come up with money to pay for. Never mind that there are major hurdles to making this ambitious green vision a reality. All that was swept away by the headline of a “one billion dollar project coming soon to Los Angeles River.”

The attention has become boon and bane to the river.

On one hand, it’s as if everyone has become part owner of the Los Angeles River. The waterway has become the blank canvas on which residents paint the city of their dreams.

There’s the architect that wants to build a solar farm on the river, the couple who went tubing, and the resident who wants to build a bike path on the riverbed.

Even Frank Gehry has gotten into the game. There was essentially no plan available for critique, yet the news made the pages of New York Times and the Guardian. The public’s vehement reaction is only a testament to the ownership Los Angeles feels for its river.

 The river gets a glossy Hollywood makeover. Greenway 2020 || Filmanthropos & LA River Corp., by cfragoza

The river’s newfound fame has done what river advocates have been toiling years to accomplish. It has lowered the psychological barriers that keep Angelenos away from its river. With increased media attention on the river has come added curiosity about this once lost river.

But nothing good comes without cost, which the residents of Elysian Valley seem to be paying. The spotlight has helped fuel speculative interest in Elysian Valley, a neighborhood now under siege by change.

In the years since, Elysian Valley’s longtime residents have been the target of many real estate propositions. The Los Angeles Review of Books recounts that resident David Dela Torre is now a frequent recipient of letters offering to buy his home. Speculators have become a common sight within the neighborhood’s small streets by the river.

In a committee meeting, senior policy advisor in Council District 13, Christine Peters shared that Elysian Valley properties are subject to bidding wars. "Properties that were selling at $300,000 to $400,000 have had offers that go up to $3-4 million.” Instead of affordable live work units, new developments are offering luxury market rate apartments, beyond the current neighborhood’s payscale.

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Though the Elysian Valley portion of the river has become ground zero for development and revitalization, most of the river's 51 miles remain out of the limelight. Photo courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers, photo by Jay Field. Flickr Creative Commons License

Those who own property in Elysian Valley might be elated at the sudden spike of interest, but not their tenants, who make up more than half of the neighborhood population. Rather than more new developments that drive up rental prices, residents would rather see basic amenities addressed such as grocery stores.

It would be an overly simplistic argument to lay the blame for Elysian Valley’s hyperactive real estate market just on media’s door, but publications do have a singular ability to spread a message far and wide.

There will really be more than billion dollars invested in the revitalization of the river. There is a plan to have a complete 51-mile bike path by the river. There are already a lot of iconic bridges going up along the river like the Sixth Street Bridge and the La Kretz Crossing.

But one hardly ever reads the sobering reality that such developments will take years, if not decades, to finally be realized.

Before jackhammers are taken to concrete and artist renderings of the a river filled with native trees, grasses, and herons flying overhead become a reality, the city needs to find the money to put into the pot, not to mention convince Union Pacific (owner of the largest parcel for river redevelopment) to sell their 113 acres.

Though the media does not weave stories out of thin air, it can choose the way it frames a story. Like an artist shading a portrait, papers (online or in print) have the power to emphasize and de-emphasize a subject’s features.

We may not hold the purse strings of developers, but our words do have sway on their decisions. Writers like to think our work have an effect, and they do, the question now becomes: are our words a blessing for the river and its residents?