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Field Work and Evening Strolls in Northeast L.A.

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Photo: Instagram/sdfarfan/#mylariver
Photo: Instagram/sdfarfan/#mylariver
NELA-logo-thumb-148x97-48224

The NELA Riverfront Collaborative is an interdisciplinary project that builds upon the growing momentum of efforts already underway to transform the Los Angeles River into a "riverfront district" and to create a focal point of community revitalization. For more information visit our website www.mylariver.org

KCET Departures is the media partner of the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative.

As an intern for the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative, I have been tasked with administering community surveys to residents in the study area, a region that encompasses Atwater Village, Glassell Park, Lincoln Heights, Elysian Valley, and Cypress Park. Three days a week I hit the streets with a well-rehearsed pitch and an eager smile. The goal is to convince residents to spend 15 minutes with me, answering questions that range from the L.A. River to transportation to food accessibility. While the Project Leaders refer to this time as "field work", I like to think of it as an evening stroll, a chance for me to escape the buzz of the main streets and methodically explore the neighborhoods, connecting with several residents along the way.

I didn't always embrace such positive sentiments. I have canvassed in L.A. twice before and both experiences solidified my anxiety for this type of work. People seemed unwilling to talk, or completely unreceptive to the platform. Unfortunately, I allowed myself to classify the majority of people into two equally uninviting groups: those who don't care and those who care on their own time. Heading out on my first day of surveying, I had to fight my uneasy feelings about the process into remission: "This time is different. I believe in the potential of the river and the effect she has on people."

Photo: Instagram/sdfarfan/#mylariver
Photo: Instagram/sdfarfan/#mylariver

Growing up outside of Seattle, I was constantly surrounded by bodies of water. Swimming, paddleboating, and fantasies of pirates, mermaids, and underwater kingdoms shaped my childhood. Soon after moving to Los Angeles for college, it seemed like the void was tangible. It wasn't until my senior year that I was introduced to the L.A. River, an experience that provided me a tranquility not common to this raucous city. It was certainly a special place.

Remembering this first encounter made it surprisingly easy to open my mind and welcome a task that had previously made my palms sweat and my mouth stutter. Three weeks later, my apprehension has all but downed. I've felt more connected to the heartbeat of this city walking these neighborhoods than I have in the four years I've had the pleasure of living here.

Photo: Instagram/anthofang/#mylariver
Photo: Instagram/anthofang/#mylariver

During my evening strolls, I have shared a stoop with 26 incredibly kind and genial people. I am humbled to the utmost that so many residents readily offer their stories, desires, trepidations, and inspirational optimism to me. Survey questions that seem straightforward and banal almost always flow into vivid anecdotes that make me forget my fresh blisters and the evening heat. Answers to question 4, "What kinds of things do you do at the river?" drift into childhood memories of blowing up frogs, watching people tag the concrete walls, or traversing the banks with parents. Answers to question 6, "What is the biggest problem in your neighborhood?", begin with sighs and contemplative gazes then gush into alarming concerns, disappointment, and once even tears. I like to imagine that the nature of the L.A. River is woven into the survey and these interactions. A hasty glance will only notice a utilitarian façade. But, if you are patient and perceptive the river will unveil her natural beauty.

I can honestly say that these past few weeks have forced me to re-evaluate my previous notions of the apathy epidemic. The value of these surveys and the project as a whole is reaffirmed to me every time I finish a conversation. These people are the lifeblood of their community and the Northeast Los Angeles Riverfront Collaborative project is designed to recognize and promote that. To the inhabitants of Northeast L.A.: Thank you for your passion. It is an honor to continue to spend my summer transcribing the voices and stories of such a dynamic community and I look forward to seeing your narratives guide the transformation of a riverfront district.

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