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The L.A. River Reimagined: A Demolished Rail Yard Brings New Life to the Bowtie Parcel

Sergio Herrara Walks Through Bowtie
Sergio Herrera, a man who lived for several months along the river next to the Bowtie, | Bear Guerra
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Published in partnership with Clockshop, "South of Fletcher: Stories from the Bowtie" looks at Los Angeles’s greatest challenges and opportunities: the housing crisis, lack of open space, effects of climate change, and forces of urban development. This unassuming, seemingly abandoned site along the Los Angeles River pulls everything into focus. The future of the Bowtie Parcel, once one of Southern California’s most important railroad yards, is being discussed right now. "South of Fletcher: Stories from the Bowtie" aims to diversify the voices being heard by listening to the people who know the Bowtie — what it was, what it is, and who care about what it will become.

Ramirez spent more than three decades at Taylor Yard
Bob Ramírez is a former Southern Pacific Rail employee who spent nearly three decades of his life working at Taylor Yard | Bear Guerra

Bob Ramírez showed up to meet us at the Bowtie Parcel one morning last spring, wearing a black baseball cap. The hat shows off the classic Southern Pacific Lines logo featuring an icon of a sun at the top half of a circle, and a rail line leading into it at the bottom half. Ramírez is tall, well over six feet, with jet black hair and a strong build for a man who’s now in his seventies.

A former Southern Pacific rail worker and union leader, Ramírez was one of the first people we wanted to talk to. Here was someone who knew the Bowtie from the time when it was a bustling rail depot — the most important in our region — where Southern Pacific locomotives and diesel trains came from throughout Southern California for maintenance and repairs. Between 800 and 1,000 people worked there at any single point in time, most of them working-class men from throughout northeast Los Angeles.

“I traveled that road thousands of times,” he told us, pointing to the only asphalt road parallel to the single rail track left at the site. “But there were buildings all the way down and the service track and everything… and now it’s just open.”

It is open, as in, none of the buildings he remembers are there anymore. But during Taylor Yard’s glory days in the 1960s and 1970s, this 18-acre parcel of land was covered by a complex network of train tracks, roads, large and echoey repair shops and office buildings.

By 1996, after years of financial problems, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company was taken over by the Union Pacific Corporation, the rail workers were transferred, and Taylor Yard became just an empty shell of old railroad buildings along the Los Angeles River. Today, the buildings are gone, though piles of rubble and rebar remain scattered about the site.

Dogs running through the Bowtie Parcel
Dogs running through the Bowtie Parcel, a popular place for people and animals in northeast L.A. to exercise and roam free  | Bear Guerra 

There is no evidence of the thousands of people who toiled here for significant parts of their lives. Ramírez tells us he worries that they will be forgotten. In a city known for erasing its past in its relentless pace of change and growth, paving over the legacy of Taylor Yard is a very real possibility.

Today, the Bowtie Parcel may seem abandoned, with shards of wine bottles and cigarette butts strewn throughout, amidst some overgrown weeds and tall Mexican fan palms. But it’s a place teeming with life. People pass through regularly on their way to the L.A. River, while others have made this, and the area under the Fletcher Drive Bridge and the 2 Freeway overpasses, their temporary home.

There are sturdy native and non-native shrubs busting through the concrete, and beneath that is the remains of the contaminated soil from its rail yard past. There are plants that would typically be ignored or taken for granted — like we did until others pointed them out to us. Plants like the mule fat sage scrub grow spontaneously, with its clusters of tiny white fuzzy flowers blooming around July and attracting swarms of bees. If we ignore the freeway buzzing in the distance, the endless housing developments on the other side of the L.A. River, and the concrete surrounding its channel, we can almost picture these shrubs thriving here for centuries. Images come to mind of rolling hills, clusters of coast live oaks and willow trees next to the river.

“When I showed up to this no man’s land, I felt as though I was walking on Mars,” Kat Superfisky said to us, a landscape architect and urban ecologist whom we’d invited back to the Bowtie to help us see it from her perspective. “It was this odd and amazing experience, like I was the only human that had walked on it for decades,” she added. More than one time during the course of our three-fourth-of-a-mile walk along the length of the Bowtie, Kat referred to it and the adjacent L.A. River as a “beautiful merger between the built and the natural,” right in the middle of central Los Angeles.

Superfisky at the Bowtie Parcel
Landscape architect and urban ecologist Kat Superfisky is a passionate proponent for the potential to preserve the Bowtie​’s raw, natural qualities while making some thoughtful changes so that it can be welcoming to all | Bear Guerra

It’s as if the two landscapes don’t belong in the same picture. In the foreground, we see gravel and asphalt and trash strewn about. And down in the gently flowing river, there are willow trees that are 30 feet tall, with a couple of white egrets resting on the branches.

Sergio Herrera is one of those people who will sit by the river for hours to watch the birds swooping in and out. The Bowtie is located along the West Pacific Flyway, the north-south migratory route for birds along the Pacific coast. We met Herrera on a windy day last fall. He’d been spending his nights at the edge of the site, by the river, as part of a homeless camp of about a dozen people, most of them men. “It can be scary here at night,” he told us, describing the tall palm trees that were facing us as monsters, a metaphor we’ve heard locals use a few times since. “But it’s a place that reminds me that sometimes we have to walk through darkness, and we have to find our way out.” Herrera said this a year into having lived on the streets, without the stability of a steady job.

Palm trees line the Bowtie Parcel entrance
Palm trees line the service road near the north entrance to the Bowtie Parcel | Bear Guerra

Like Herrera, we’ve met other folks who are drawn to the Bowtie because of its quiet, open, unpoliced space. It’s a rare gem in an endlessly expanding city. Some we haven’t met, though we’ve found their forgotten personal belongings over the past year-and-a-half. Much of it seems like trash, left behind by the drifters, the midnight partiers, the artists and passersby. Books (or their single torn pages) and spray paint cans are a common sight, as are old T-shirts, construction gloves and shoes. It’s often hard to tell if people unloaded these things on purpose or if they fell out of a bag while passing through, accidentally left behind. After only a week or two of sitting exposed to the sun, we’ll come across them again, looking as if they are relics from another era. Often, we try to imagine who left these traces, and what stories they hold.

In less than a decade, this site is set to become a state park, a much-needed open space in our park-poor city. The L.A. River will undergo a billion-dollar revitalization, with new housing developments — and bigger crowds — likely to follow. In the future, many of its current and older neighbors may find this place hard to recognize, just like Bob Ramírez does now. This not-so-clean river, and the Bowtie parcel next to it — trash and all — are offering us a lens through which we can think about how Los Angeles used to be, how it is today, and how it may evolve tomorrow. Change is imminent, but who will benefit from these changes? And what does the future hold for this old demolished railroad yard?

Top Image: Sergio Herrera, a man who lived for several months along the river next to the Bowtie, says it's a place that can be frightening but still brings him solace | Bear Guerra

More photos from this project are on view at Occidental’s Weingart Gallery through November 4, presented by Oxy Arts.

The South of Fletcher podcast is live now. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Clockshop and on Apple Podcasts.

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