Summer is done, and with its close comes the time for reckoning for the Glendale Narrows Recreational Zone, a 2.5-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River that has been opened to the public for the first time since the 1930s.
Administered by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), the program opened a lush stretch of the Los Angeles River to the public for kayaking and fishing (with a permit) from Memorial Day to Labor Day, a period in which storms that could endanger the public in the river were unlikely to happen.
By all accounts the experimental program, which was expanded from last year's trial at the Sepulveda Basin (http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/lariver/confluence/river-notes/la-river-kayaking-program-to-expand-this-summer.html), has been a success. "[The response] was beyond what we had expected," said MRCA Chief Ranger Fernando Gomez. Though a final head count is still forthcoming, Gomez roughly estimates that about 3,000 people were able to visit the river.
This year's program saw even more leeway granted to the public. As opposed to last year's guided kayaking implemented by one operator, the Glendale Narrows was free and open for everyone. On top of that, two kayak programs were able to guide new visitors to the river.
"[The recreational zone] was a great idea," said Ruby de Vera, chairperson of the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council. Over the course of the summer, de Vera witnessed more people walking Fletcher Drive down toward the river. "It made for a very relaxing atmosphere," said de Vera, who appreciated seeing more life at the Los Angeles River.
Increased public attention also had a less obvious welcome effect. "As the pathway opened up to more people walking and biking, it seems to have produced a safer and more open space," said Steven Appleton, Elysian Valley neighborhood council president and co-owner of L.A. River Kayak Safari. Appleton noted a decrease in graffiti, and an increase in local residents strolling and women out jogging alone. His concern for the long-term is really making sure the local community also profits from the development of the river.
During the summer, the MRCA took on an enforcement role in the recreational zone. The rangers put in about 50 to 80 hours of patrol time, far more than the 20 hours per week that they had estimated.
Gomez noted that the program benefited the community in another way. The MRCA's presence also helped curb illegal encampments in the area. "In these three months, we were able to keep the area free from negative elements," said Gomez.
Not all residents were happy with additional foot traffic in the river. A small faction called the Los Angeles Wildlife Preservation Group expressed concern that more people in the area would result in detrimental effects to the river's habitat. Repeated efforts to reach out to the group by this writer yielded no response.
Gomez points out that apart from patrolling, the MRCA rangers were also tasked with education the public to become stewards of the river. "We want the wildlife to be there," he emphasized.
As part of MRCA's efforts to curb damage to the habitat, it also restricted dogs from the riverbed, a move that has discomfited residents. Kelly Blanpied, who has lived by North Atwater Park since 1996, says it's a regulation she would like to see re-considered, should the recreational zone run again next year. "I think the goal here is to bring the local neighborhood to the river," said Blanpied. Many of them are pet owners, she notes, looking to take in their neighborhood by daily walks.
The recreational zone also provided other river advocates an opportunity to bring more people to the neighborhood. Crowd-funded by the community, a Los Angeles River Bike-in Movie series blossomed thanks to the Los Angeles Revitalization Corporation (LARRC).
"Given that this was the first year, the turnout was overwhelming," said Jennifer Samson, Project Manager at LARRC. "We were continuously reminded that people all over Los Angeles want to feel connected -- to their communities, to one another, and to their environment."
LARRC held three bike-in movie events, replete with food trucks and river-related programming under a summer sky. The first, which screened "Beetlejuice," attracted 150 guests. The second, which showed "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" had close to 175 guests. Finally, the "Rushmore" screening garnered 200 guests, 75 of which valeted their bikes with the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition.
"The bike-in movies brought people together, people who would otherwise not have a chance to engage with one another," said Samson. "It provides a shared collective experience, a public space that promotes community and appreciates our natural environment." The LARRC anticipates another run next year, once again funded via Kickstarter.
Nearby Marsh Park also found itself with increased interest in its community programming. Throughout the summer, the MRCA offered four campfire with about 20 to 40 people in attendance. Amy Lethbridge, MRCA Deputy Executive Officer, says more people tended to show up once the marshmallow roasting began.
Though the recreational zone did boost the program's interest, Lethbridge points out that MRCA's programs at Marsh Park are year-round and open to everyone. Its expansion will also allow the MRCA to host more people.
"As the park grows so will the programming, and we are confident that people will come and they will see the river differently," said Lethbridge. "Whether you are kayaking down the center, or bird watching from the banks, the point is that this is a real river and we want people to see it that way and love it like we do."
As Los Angeles transitions to the fall season, the recreational zone also returns to its original state. Once again, kayaking would not be allowed on the premises. Law enforcement would also transfer back to the Los Angeles Police Department. Existing signs would note the 2.5-mile stretch is closed for the season.
With the overwhelmingly positive response, however, Gomez hopes to return next season. A recreational zone advisory committee set up by the MRCA is currently evaluating the initial season. Comprising representatives from Elysian Valley, Glassell Park, and Cypress Park, it should wrap up their report sometime October, which will then be presented to the city for consideration.