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Growing a Hyperlocal L.A. River Economy on a Kayak

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With a slate of new art projects, bike paths, parks, and public works planned, who can deny that the Los Angeles River has become a hotbed for development ideas?

Most of the time, that spells good news. It means more economic investment along a waterway that's historically been ignored. It also presents new opportunities for Los Angeles to change its relationship with local sources of water for the better. But, for entrenched neighborhoods along the Los Angeles River, the effects of these developments can sometimes mean inadvertently pushing out the very people that have lived closest to it. As Jenny Price noted, one of the toughest challenges of revitalizing the Los Angeles River is "Trying to do things that resist gentrification ... L.A. has proven historically really bad at doing that."

Concern for the Northeast Los Angeles' future is part of the reason why Steven Appleton and Grove Pashley started the L.A. River Kayak Safari as the city opened Glendale Narrows for recreation this summer. "We really wanted local folks from the community," said Appleton. "So the recreational zone won't just become the neighborhood watching others go down to the river."

Throughout the summer, L.A. River Kayak Safari has provided a neighborhood twist to a popular activity. As Angelenos ride cruiser bikes on the L.A. River bikeway to the start of the recreational zone, the Safari's guides talk about the neighborhood's character and history. The insider perspective continues once kayakers are safely aboard and not diverted by frequent sightings of egrets or ospreys. Both Appleton and Pashley live right by the river, which gives them a unique perspective on the neighborhood.

Steve Appleton and Grove Pashley in front of their custom van.
Steve Appleton and Grove Pashley in front of their custom van.

The Safari has taken pains to involve the neighborhood in other ways. At the beginning of its run, the company employed local youth in its operations. It also hosts Community Paddle Evenings where those that show up experience the river for free. "We wanted to be absolutely certain that locals doesn't feel left out," said Appleton. L.A. River Kayak Safari has given free trips to locals who can't afford to pay, allowing them to experience for themselves the rapids that have thrown a few kayakers off-board -- with no harm done, of course. "People should know that this way more of an adventure than Sepulveda Basin," said Appleton. "There's at least five rapids here."

Despite still not having recouped all of their investment, Appleton and Pashley see L.A. River Kayak Safari as a conversation starter, as more and more development makes its way onto the Los Angeles River. What can neighborhoods do to be part of the change? What would it mean for people in the neighborhoods to be able to start their own enterprises? How can policy makers involve the incumbent residents?

Appleton sees the Safari as a good draft for micro economies around the Los Angeles River. What if, after going on a kayaking expedition, Angelenos could be greeted with food and refreshments made in the nearby homes? Or could artists and designers who live in Elysian Valley make a visit to the Los Angles River more exciting by planning events or arts programming? "Economic development plans often talk about big things, but how do we empower those who are already here?"

Should the recreational zone be repeated next year, Appleton has plans to further engage the rest of the community by tapping into already existing businesses run by residents. "We've already made contact with the local folks," said Appleton. "There's a great taco stand that's run out of a house on the river." It's a mouthwatering proposition for kayakers, but also for residents who hope to see their future brighten in tandem with the Los Angeles River.

L.A. River Kayak Safari ( tours run until Labor day. Check their website for trip reservations.


Photos: Courtesy of LA River Kayak Safari

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