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Brewing Coffee and Commerce Along the L.A. River

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On a crisp morning in Elysian Valley, Damian Robledo, a longtime employee of the area, was biking down the Los Angeles River Bike Path and a thought came to him, "Why can't I get a cup of coffee on the river?"

Robledo's seemingly innocent question was one that had been echoed in other resident and riverside bike-riders' thoughts as well. It is a question that becomes even more pressing once you consider that Elysian Valley, is in the throes of change in anticipation of the $1.3 billion upgrade.

As many residents of Elysian Valley can attest, the neighborhood is special in Los Angeles, characterized mostly by one or two story homes and industrial buildings. Strip malls and chain stores are nowhere to be found. Elysian Valley residents often remark that simple amenities like groceries and corner shops are few and far between.
While attending a community workshop, Robledo, an architect and visual artist, again brought up the subject of neighborhood amenities and found kindred spirits in urbanist Russell Horning and coffee entrepreneur Angel Orozco.

In response to their shared need for caffeine on the river and coffee's power to bond, the three put up the pop-up coffee shop, LA River Café, August 1, 2013, serving espresso. Two weeks later, the pop-up coffee shop re-appeared as part of the Northeast Los Angeles Collaborative workshop at RAC Design Build.

Day of the Dead pop-up with free mask making and art. Peddler's Creamery provided ice cream on this hot day, November 2, 2013.
Day of the Dead pop-up with free mask making and art. Peddler's Creamery provided ice cream on this hot day, November 2, 2013.

What the three found was that their pop-up coffee shop didn't serve more than just shots of caffeine, but opportunities to connect to the community and raise issues that often get remarked on, but not acted on. "Rather than just selling coffee to people that come down there," says Robledo, "We're going to tie in our programming and our studies in Elysian Valley, making it a public display. The coffee is the lure."

With a little promotion, the LA River Café--as the three had called it--started popping up in different places. They tied into local businesses and Los Angeles river-related efforts. January last year, the LA River Café worked with the Audubon California and popped up during the launch of Bird L.A. Day. During the same month, the café appeared at the future home of the Elysian , helping the restaurant test a brunch cycle. "It was overwhelming," said Robledo, "but that was also where community members talked about Q condition revisions." Q conditions, or Qualitative conditions, are a set of guidelines used to inform development and can be used help maintain community character. Later that same month, the LA River Café stationed itself for a month at Nomad Gallery, a discrete arts compound in the neighborhood. "It was about location and program," says Robledo, "If we were in a location, we wanted to highlight that business, whether it was an artist studio, bakeshop or another restaurant."

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By the summer of 2014, the trio created River Wild LLC, whose role was to focus on economic development. "We wanted to find a way to bridge expectations between a long neglected community and new interests and development," said Robledo. "Elysian Valley has a disproportionate wealth of riverfront, but a lack of basic services for an under-served population of working class and middle class families. There are also more than 200 businesses in Elysian Valley and they currently have no collective voice in the planning issues along the LA River."

"There are a lot of river non-profits already," says founder Damian Robledo, but River Wild differentiates itself in that it hones in on commerce, infrastructure and planning. The LLC is a for-profit venture focused on economic development. "There was a time when cities were planned from an economic development perspective. It would determine where your job base was and where affordable denser housing should be looked at, but in Los Angeles, real estate development is what's driving urban planning."

River Wild LLC hopes to help preserve the hyperlocal economy that already exists in Elysian Valley. Robledo says, "We're interested in street level community activism."

Spurred by a comment from one of the residents during an LA River pop-up, the team hosted a pop-up health and wellness clinic along with the Los Angeles County Department of Health, February last year. The pop-up administered free flu shots, gave bike tours, had live music and food carts. "The LA County nurse hadn't visited the neighborhood in 15 years," reports Robledo.

In the last Frogtown Art Walk, River Wild helped plan how 3,000 visitors to the event could navigate the neighborhood of river-adjacent dead ends. River Wild coordinated with the Elysian Valley arts collective, dealing with parking, shuttle service, pedicabs, security and wayfinding. Though simple interventions in hindsight, it is this thoughtfulness to details that encourage visitors to Elysian Valley to return again and again.

Health and mobility are two of the many issues that Elysian Valley faces yet River Wild hopes to tackle more with their future projects. Among its ambitious goals is to set up a Chamber of Commerce that would give the makers, artists and residents of Elysian Valley a united voice, especially in development discussions. By setting up this resource for cottage industries, Elysian Valley business owners would have an easier time applying for licenses, permits and finding spaces that will help them succeed in a competitive marketplace. A Chamber of Commerce could also open up opportunities for collective marketing and cooperative purchasing, as well as build networks among local business owners.

River Wild is also looking to replace a liquor store, close to St. Anne's church and Dorris Place Elementary, with a community amenity, such as a pop-up grocery. "The store just wasn't attracting the right element. It just sold tobacco and junk food, it wasn't even a grocery or deli." The liquor store's offerings presented a problem in a community the LA Food Policy Council classified as a food desert. "We need a basic grocery store that people can walk to." If plans go well, Elysian Valley might soon have a grocery stocked with local produce and a deli that takes WIC and CalFresh vouchers.

Rendering of pop-up grocery
Rendering of pop-up grocery

River Wild is also working on another round of pop-ups. It landed its first grant with the Center for Cultural Innovation fund for creative, social impact services. With the money, it hopes not only to bring more community-focused events, but construct a permanent home for the LA River Café and River Wild.

Rendering of River Wild's future home
Rendering of River Wild's future home

With all this talk of land development along the river, efforts like River Wild ensure that with the increase of interest along the waterway, local creative voices and businesses aren't left floating aimlessly.

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