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Green Gentrification on the Los Angeles River: A Battle for the Future of the City

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Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) at UCLA, with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA’s documentary film program in theSchool of Theater, Film and Television. The first storyline focuses on the past, present and possible futures of Taylor Yard, an abandoned and contaminated rail yard adjacent to the L.A. River. Find more stories about Taylor Yard here.

Twisted metal sitting on broken concrete at Taylor Yard. | Courtney Cecale
Twisted piece of metal sitting on broken concrete at Taylor Yard. | Courtney Cecale

Los Angeles is where it is because of the river that runs through it. Tongva people lived along the river near what is now downtown L.A. for centuries. The Spanish camped here when they first passed through. Pobladores established a town here. It grew into a city.

The river, which once rampaged in wet winters, was tamed by concrete beginning in the late 1930s. People forgot there was a river. It became a flood control channel.

Now the Los Angeles River is roaring back. There are plans for revitalizing the river and its relationship to surrounding communities all along its 51-mile course through the city. With those plans come fears of green gentrification: as the city greens and embraces its river again, people could be pushed out.

Both plans and fears center on an 11-mile stretch in the middle of the river’s run near downtown, where the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have agreed on a vision to give the river some room to be a river again — and to become an icon for the future of Los Angeles. That future isn't clear yet, but it is coming into focus on a 42-acre contaminated tract of a former rail yard that the city of Los Angeles bought for $60 million in 2017.

But the struggle will extend well beyond the G2 parcel at Taylor Yard, as the old railroad depot next to the river in Elysian Valley was known. It will take in the Bowtie Parcel next door, an 18-acre piece of the railroad yard purchased by California State Parks that still lies undeveloped, like the G2 parcel, but has already attracted a 419-unit, residential and mixed-use development proposed right next door to the park, squeezed between the river and the 2 freeway. It will sweep up Rio de Los Angeles State Park, a park next door to the G2 parcel jointly managed by state parks and the city, and an expanding housing development nearby along San Fernando Road.  And it will extend downriver to Los Angeles State Historic Park, and a 14-story, 920-unit, residential and mixed-use development proposed for the bluff above the park.

Los Angeles is in its pre-High-Line moment right now. Will the city suffer — or enjoy, depending on your perspective — the same fate? ​

Los Angeles is in its pre-High Line moment right now. When an old piece of railroad infrastructure, an elevated line running down the west side of lower Manhattan, was turned into an attractive post-industrial park, the new High Line, which opened in 2009, was the spark that lit a bonfire of gentrification in and around the Meatpacking District and Chelsea.

Will Los Angeles suffer — or enjoy, depending on your perspective — the same fate?

What happens on the banks of the Los Angeles River as it takes a big turn into downtown on its journey to the Pacific Ocean will set the stage for what comes to pass up and down the river. Angelenos in communities all along the river have an opportunity to decide which direction to go and inflect the arc of history — or let it be decided for them.

That’s a lot of weight to put on a small piece of land. You could walk across the G2 parcel in ten minutes. At the same time, it’s a big chunk of open space in a prime location, right beside the river in the picturesque bowl of Elysian Valley, whose name says it all. This is, in many ways, Los Angeles at its best. Standing in the middle of the G2 parcel, you understand why people have wanted to live here for centuries and even millennia. This aspiration continues, despite the fact that the ground under your feet was poisoned over the past hundred years by the railroad, which is now history.

You can feel the future here, too, even with the past firmly underfoot: broken concrete, twisted rails, dusty gravel trails. It’s clear this place is full of potential, even if you can’t see the future here all that clearly.

It’s okay. Nobody can. Certainly not me.

What I do know is this: You could help determine the future of the G2 parcel. There will be numerous opportunities to make your voice heard and your opinion count in the coming months and years as the city plans the future of the G2 parcel. Including Also, this survey, in which the city invites the public to share what they would like to see and do at the new park.

What happens at the G2 parcel is closely connected to the future of the Bowtie Parcel and any development that occurs next door to the state park land, if, indeed, it is ever built. The proposal for a mixed-used development adjacent to the Bowtie will be undergoing a public environmental impact review beginning this year.

Los Angeles State Historic Park, just downriver, along with the massive development proposed there, is also an important part of this picture. Some people say the park is L.A.’s Central Park. I think our Central Park or High Line is really the string of parks from the state historic park, once known as the Cornfield, to the Bowtie Parcel, including Albion Riverside Park, Ed P. Reyes River Greenway, River Garden Park, Elysian Park, Rio de Los Angeles State Park, the G2 parcel, Marsh Street Nature Park, and the river itself.

And that's the question: Do we want the river and its parks to become like Central Park or the High Line, both surrounded on nearly all sides by some of the most expensive real estate on the planet?

Do we want the river and its parks to become like Central Park or the High Line, both surrounded on nearly all sides by some of the most expensive real estate on the planet?

Don’t get me wrong. There are some valuable things to be learned from both. Central Park has long been supported by the wealthiest residents of New York. Will our downtown river parks be supported by the wealthiest residents of Los Angeles, whether they live along the river, or enjoy visiting, and will they understand its importance in the city?

The High Line is a model of public engagement and innovative programming. Since its opening it has been overwhelmed by visitors from near and far. Will our river parks be as attractive to visitors and Angelenos alike?

Those will be important, but relatively easy questions to answer compared to the much harder question of what the future holds for the communities surrounding these parks and communities as “revitalization” of the river proceeds. For better or worse, Los Angeles is now on the world stage in a primetime drama called “Green Gentrification.”

At the center of this drama is the claim that parks trigger gentrification. Therefore, we should be wary of new parks because they could lead to rising property values, higher rents, and displacement, people being forced out of neighborhoods where they have long lived, such as Atwater Village, Glassel Park, Cypress Park, Mount Washington, Northeast Los Angeles, Frogtown, Elysian Valley, Lincoln Heights, Solano Canyon, Chinatown, and Dogtown — all park-poor communities that advocated for green space in the first place.

There is some evidence for this claim, of course. Improved parks, like other positive amenities — cool retail, coffee shops, fresh produce — are correlated with gentrification, in some cases. But it’s also clear that parks are just part of a bigger picture. So then the question becomes: What role should parks play in this bigger picture?

And now we’re really getting to the heart of the challenge. If parks, including G2, become synonymous with gentrification, all of us will be worse off. We’ll be left with “just green enough,” a rather anemic but widely touted academic argument that we ought to figure out ways to allow communities to keep on keeping on just as they are, with maybe just a bit of clean-up and additional green space, but not so much as to attract gentrification.

In this version of the future, Taylor Yard would continue to be an industrial yard, perhaps with better waste management practices, some cleanup, and a bit of riverfront access – but not too much.

Guess what? That ain’t gonna happen.

Taylor Yard | Courtney Cecale
Taylor Yard | Courtney Cecale

The railroad pulled out in the mid-1980s. And it’s not coming back, even though Metrolink now has a piece of the property that it uses for a maintenance yard, much to the consternation of local residents. So we have to figure out how to move forward. Part of figuring out this future will be about what the G2 parcel and the Bowtie parcel next door become.

Will they be re-wilded? Will the river be allowed to flood them? Will they have recreational facilities? Community gathering spaces? Will their history be erased or become part of designs for the future? Some of the same questions as well as others will be important at every new park and public space along the river.

But the other part of this future will be about what becomes of the communities surrounding these parcels. There are lot of ideas for how good parks can fit with good communities. Some of those ideas are nearly as old as cities themselves. Most of them stress the importance of that relationship between parks and communities. Lacking a vibrant, active, and diverse engagement with the surrounding community, open spaces often become dead spaces that don’t contribute to the social life of their cities. And there are some good emerging ideas about how parks can fit into established communities and help lift them up instead of displacing them.

Close-up shot of tracks at Taylor Yard. | Courtney Cecale
Close-up shot of tracks at Taylor Yard. | Courtney Cecale

A new group has formed to try to address these challenges in L.A. It’s called the Los Angeles Regional Open Space and Affordable Housing Collaborative or LA ROSAH. The name is evocative: the rose. It is in the process of blooming, becoming. LA ROSAH was formed by organizations advocating for open space, affordable housing, and environmental justice organizations to ensure that a greener environment benefits low-income residents rather than contributing to their displacement. Members of the collaborative have been working to improve coordination among parks and affordable housing advocates and agencies and to promote successful policies and strategies for preserving and creating more affordable housing and green spaces in L.A.

What becomes of this collaborative and what becomes of parks and communities on the Los Angeles River will shape the future of our city and will be watched closely as an example by the whole world. Right now, we don’t have any really good models for inclusive green development that lifts up communities in place, while providing the access to nature, open space, and recreational opportunities that we know are so important to the health of people and their neighborhoods.

Los Angeles will host the Olympics in 2028. The city wants the Los Angeles River and Taylor Yard to be an iconic centerpiece of the new story that it tells the world about itself. What if it were a true about developing a real model for equitable and just greening of the city, a model that other cities around the world could learn from and build upon? That would truly be worth celebrating.

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