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Lingering Thoughts on the Los Angeles River: A Q&A with Jenny Price

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One last applause for Jenny at the river tour.

After 15 years in the Land of Sunshine introducing Angelenos to their own river, environmental writer Jenny Price is bidding L.A. goodbye. Famed for her L.A. River tours that literally get your feet wet and her work with art collective Los Angeles Urban Rangers, Price says the move was spurred by a need to be closer to family and also to pursue an intriguing book project. We chat with Price about the river, her thoughts on its future and her time in Los Angeles.

In the fall, you'll be going to the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. After which, you'll be in Princeton working on your book and also teaching. With you gone, where does that leave your L.A. River tours?

My hope for a few years now is that what's going on in the L.A. River would outgrow my tours. At this point, it really should be public agencies, big non-profits that are doing most of it. But there are options for people: Friends of the L.A. River does tours. Shelly Backlar is the head of education programs there. They can see if they can get a tour of them. The L.A. River Revitalization Corporation is a big new player on the river that's getting into a lot of fun, creative new public programming on the river. There's the kayaking of course, George Wolfe and other folks offer that. I also co-founded a new art collective called Project 51. We're designing a big new project to get people on the edge of the river to eat play and dance. Hopefully, we'll start this fall and we'll be looking for lots of partners.

Sounds like people will still have some great options. Since you began writing about the river, how do you think issues around the river have evolved?

What I see is that the first stage of the river revitalization was about, "This is a river, guys. L.A. has a river." That took about 10 years. The next 10 years was about land use.

Now I think the fight is about access and we're really making progress on that front. It's also about public education. There's hundreds of millions of dollars is going into revitalization efforts, but the public education has really lagged behind.

Most people in L.A. still don't know that all this is going on, but we're at this explosive moment where that's changing and all these projects are happening on the river. I think in the next year, we're going to really see public education turn the corner.

Access is slower and really frustrating. It's very hard to get public support for a place where you tell the public that they can't go, that's a real problem.

A look at the Arroyo Seco Confluence.
A look at the Arroyo Seco Confluence.

What are some exciting river projects people should keep an eye out for?

There are a million projects going on. I think they're all important. Right now, some of the most exciting ones to me are first of all, NBC Universal's deal. Universal has been fighting the river bikeway for years now. It's really exciting that they are now proposing to actually, not only accept the greenway, but to do their part to create a really beautiful stretch of greenway there. They're a huge, powerful industry player.

I'm excited by the new pedestrian bridge that's going to happen at North Atwater. I feel like we need a lot more pedestrian bridges.

The other thing I'm super excited about is the Sixth Street Bridge. City and agencies have been saying, "Oh we can't touch downtown stretch. That's just too hard. We'll just focus on the Valley and Glendale Narrows." The Sixth Street Bridge will be our entry in to the downtown stretch, which people have been seeing as impenetrable. Once we have that, I hope all the bricks will all come tumbling down.

What do you think are the toughest challenges facing the L.A. River revitalization?

Money is probably the biggest issue.

Old habits die hard about access.

Trying to do things that resist gentrification is one of the really huge challenges, and L.A. has proven historically really bad at doing that. It's not clear to me that they have the will. A lot of this is about giving amenities and resources to communities that have been screwed for decades in Los Angeles. The only way that will happen is if we also implement policies that resist gentrification.

Since you won't be here to give people a tour of the river anymore, could you share some of your favorite spots for people to see?

First of all, I love the entire river. There's no place I wouldn't like to go, even the grimmest spots. Probably my favorite spot is the Glendale Narrows between Los Feliz and Sunnynook.

I love the Sepulveda Basin, which is wilder. This is really a place where you can imagine the urban greenway because it's a very urban spot, yet very green and beautiful. I'm a duck fan and this place is full of ducks.

I also love the Sixth Street Bridge. I love the Arroyo Seco Confluence. Marsh Park is such a sweet little spot that Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority created.

There's a spot around Del Amo that's kind of all concrete stretch, but there's something weirdly quiet and majestic about it if you sit on top of the concrete wall. We're trying to get rid of those spaces, but I have to say there's something compelling about that spot the first time I went to the river.

The Los Angeles River sign at Maywood Riverside Park.
The Los Angeles River sign at Maywood Riverside Park.

Aside from work along the Los Angeles River, you have also been doing a lot to increase access in Malibu. Could you tell us about the Kickstarter project you launched?

The two major places I've addressed while in L.A. was the L.A. River and Malibu beaches. To me, those are two of the great public spaces in Los Angeles that for decades have not functioned as great public spaces. Even though they seem really different, they're linked in that way.

I've partnered with EscapeApps, a company that builds these iPhone apps that don't talk down to you, to build an app that hopefully gives you all the information you need -- including a lot of information not available anywhere else -- to use the beaches that are lined with private development, which is about 20 miles of beaches. It tells you where you can go on the dry sand. A lot of people know you can use the wet sand, but most people don't know that there are a lot of public easements on the dry sand on the beach.

In the Kickstarter campaign, we're asking for $30,000 and it is to do two things: First, to create an Android version by midsummer, so that most people would be able to have access to this information. Second, to make the app free. If we get more than $30,000, we'll just keep making the app free. If we get a lot more than that, we'll just make it free in perpetuity and put it up on the website. [Writer's Note: The Kickstarter project ends May 30. Find more details here.]

Finally, what is the book you're hoping to write about?

My work in L.A. has really been focused on Los Angeles. This is the first time that I've had a big project in Los Angeles that's not about Los Angeles, but it's heavily informed by the work that I've done here.

The book, which could be titled "50 Easy Ways to Stop Saving the Planet," or something like that, is a cultural critique of contemporary environmentalist culture. It really asks big questions about the "save the planet" rhetoric. What does it think we're doing? What is environmentalism about? It's really a critique of this idea that we're saving this thing called nature, something fragile that's out there, that's not essentially part of us. It really argues an environmentalism that looks at how we inhabit places of nature, how nature is really the foundation of our economy and the foundation of our everyday life. Particularly, I want to look into the ways I think our environmentalist culture today, in this sort of green explosion, really perpetuates this class divide that's always haunted environmentalism. I think it's our biggest barrier to making real progress. It's the people who suffer the most to environmental problems and who contribute the least to environmental problems, [that] are the ones who think that environmentalism isn't about them.

Sounds like an inversion of what we expect a book about the environment to be. Best of luck outside of Los Angeles, Jenny!

Jenny at one of her favorite L.A. river spots.
Jenny at one of her favorite L.A. river spots.

Photos by Carren Jao.

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