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Drawing a Personal Map of the Los Angeles River

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La Machine's wildlife inspired artwork on the bike path | Photo: Carren Jao

A place is a physical thing, we know, but it also is a psychological phenomenon that lives only in the minds of people who experience it. The smells, the sights, and most of all the crystallized experiences that occur in a certain space all remain alive in memory, to be accessed every time we start to tell a story.

In an effort to capture the magic of place, Lila Higgins, urban explorer and insect lady who works at the Natural History Museum, has been conducting play memory map workshops along the Los Angeles River, as well as other venues. In recent memory, Higgins gave workshops to campers at the Los Angeles River's first ever campout at the Bowtie parcel last May 31.

She and two students from Pasadena Waldorf school also did the same for attendees of the Play the L.A. River launch at this month's Frogtown Art Walk, but with a slight twist. Instead of looking back into the past, Higgins asked her participants to look to the L.A. River's future.

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What resulted was a map that charted a possible, ideal future for this once-forgotten waterway. "The energy of the event was just so fabulous, it was really fun! There were people of all ages adding to the map, and it is a really beautiful artifact in and of itself," said Higgins. "Every time I walked over to the table, I was excited to see what people had added. Everything from planning picnics along the river's banks, to kayaking, boat racing, and fishing."

Their musings were very possible indeed, given their current surroundings. Frogtown that day was festooned with small reminders of its special place in Los Angeles. At the newly expanded Marsh Park, children were playing Twister, bean bag toss, or simply throwing a football around the green lawn. Those on the bike path would undoubtedly come across the River of Wings by La Machine, winged art objects hung over the Glendale Narrows. Just for a few hours, Frogtown and the Los Angeles River seemed charged with possibility.

Play the L.A. River sign at Marsh Park | Photo: Carren Jao
Play the L.A. River sign at Marsh Park | Photo: Carren Jao
Dancers interacting with the new Marsh Park river gates | Photo: Carren Jao
Dancers interacting with the new Marsh Park river gates | Photo: Carren Jao

A native of England, Higgins is fascinated by the question, "How do people play in Los Angeles?" Rather than aim for accuracy, the bubbly explorer instead asks people to draw a map of their consciousness overlaid over a space, marking important places and noting personal significant events that happened. The result isn't a navigational tool, as most maps usually are, but distillations of memories overlaid over a certain space. The maps are by no means gorgeous, but the scrawls on them capture what manufactured, overly perfect maps cannot, memory.

At the last campout, memory maps collected by Higgins had one standout feature -- a small spot that said, "We found black-necked stilt eggs when we went on a walk with Colin and Judy from MRCA."

The naturalist Higgins recalls that Colin and Judy led a nighttime nature walk along the Bowtie parcel that night, leading them away from the marshmallow campfire campsite and into a darker patch near the Los Angeles River. Suddenly, as the children walked along the river, they heard the angry squawking of adult black-necked stilt birds. Only when they spied a small nest did the crew understand they had come across a sacred space where new wildlife was incubating.

LA River campout site | Photo: Lila Higgins
LA River campout site | Photo: Lila Higgins
Spotting black necked stilt eggs | Photo: Lila Higgins
Spotting black necked stilt eggs | Photo: Lila Higgins

Now, this patch of land by the Los Angeles River isn't just any other indiscriminate patch, but a special place where children had come very close to nature. "Our experiences help shape a space and a place. Memory maps help us return to them and remember them," says Higgins of her ongoing project.

These hand drawn maps won't win any beauty award prizes, to be sure, but Higgins is confident they are cherished. "Maps like this validate an experience," says Higgins, "We often see kids draw them and adults keep them. It signals to children that their experiences have value."

Not only do the experiences gain value, so do the place. By mapping their experience of the Los Angeles River, Higgins hopes the river will become a real place in the landscape of Los Angeles.

Higgins has been leading groups on her play memory workshops for over four years now. Their work has been captured online at the Play Memory Maps Facebook page.

Memory maps of the Los Angeles River campout
Memory maps of the Los Angeles River campout
Memory maps of the Los Angeles River campout
Memory maps of the Los Angeles River campout

 

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