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Unique Yards Reflect the Changing Face of the L.A. River

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Christine, William, and Moses Mills in their yard.
Christine, William, and Moses Mills in their yard. | Grove Pashley

For some, mention of the Los Angeles River conjures images of industrial warehouses, graffitied concrete aqueducts, or the post-apocalyptic backdrop as seen in movies like “Terminator 2” and television shows like “Fear of the Walking Dead.” But for those with homes near the fabled 48-mile water source, there’s a lot life here, too.

Mr. Lu's Winter Melon growing in the Mills's yard.
Mr. Lu's winter melon growing in the Mills's yard. | Grove Pashley

Christine Mills is digging baby turtles from the dirt in a grassy median near the sidewalk in front of her home. While planting edible sage in the easement on this sweltering summer morning, she first discovered paper-thin eggs in the soil, followed by what appear to be three-day-old red turtles. Her son Moses carefully carries them to the house to add to their menagerie of five rescued rabbits, 16 chickens, a “handful of cats” and one dog — but just temporarily, until the family finds a turtle rescue. It’s all just a part of life on the L.A. River, a life William Mills chose when he bought the Frogtown-area house in 2009, which he describes as a “a wreck with an empty shell of a garage.” He lived on the roof in a tent one summer while making it habitable. His partner Christine jokes that she moved after coming over to see his chickens, then “stayed for the baby,” (Moses, who is now 5 years old).

With the house, they inherited sequoia trees, elderberries, mallow weeds, “probably 50 lizards.” They also have a 70-year-old lemon tree, which was split in half by the rotor wash of a hovering helicopter during the rescue of someone drowning in the river after a rainstorm a couple of years ago. The homeowners are adding native and drought-resistant plants to this already-diverse garden, albeit “clumsily,” Christine says. She stands in awe of her 94-year-old neighbor's garden, then marvels at Mr. Lu's winter melon, which grows in a tiny space beside the Mills’s driveway from a trellis that was handmade by the 94-year-old neighbor. She gives both of them her rabbits’ droppings as fertilizer in exchange for some of their crop yield.  

Like any neighborhood, theirs has its downsides. The interaction between bikes and pedestrians on the nearby path has been a source of anxiety for Mills and many of her neighbors, brought to light last year when a 65-year-old woman was struck by a cyclist near a pedestrian entrance and hospitalized with severe injuries. This shook the community to its core.

“The city has already not done a wonderful job in terms of protecting pedestrian rights and making sure that it's safe for everybody,” she says. She has since helped organize a monthly “slow ride” to raise awareness and start a discussion about safety, in addition to advocating her community with elected officials. “I swear to God I email our [council] district, Mitch O'Farrell’s office, at least once a week.”

Grove and Na Pashley in their front yard with the L.A. River in the background.
Grove and Na Pashley in their front yard with the L.A. River in the background. | Grove Pashley

Grove Pashley lives nearby on the “church side” of town (referring to St. Ann’s, just down the block). He scoped out the area out for a few years, traveling the bike path when it was just a service road. He found his dream house in 2010 and bought it in a short sale. He has since xeriscaped, added beehives, and bought chickens. After re-homing a rooster, fearing it disturbed the neighbors, he says, “People complained. They wanted the rooster back.”

The side yard of Pashley’s house is a well-designed terrace with a view of the water; a rare sandy-bottomed section that attracts birds and other wildlife. “It's like a real river, not just a big cement drainage ditch,” he says. He loves to watch the sun set over Cypress Park and Elysian Valley just across the way, especially as the seasons pass. “July and August are when the river vegetation is at its peak, with the growth of cattails and these little yellow flowers (Ludwigia Pepoides), that only come up this time of year.” He’s in the midst of clearing an area for a back house, which, according to the River Improvement Overlay (RIO), will have its yard front-facing to the river, unlike the rest of the older homes, whose back yards butt up against the bike path. While some might want a solid fence between their yards and passersby, Pashley has kept the chain link fence that came with the property and says he enjoys the interaction.

​Pashley and Mills both have concerns about noise and air pollution comig from Metrolink’s Central Maintenance Facility, which is located just across the river on San Fernando Blvd. Recently, they linked up with the Coalition for Clean Air in obtaining air sensors to study air quality.

Ruth Gallardo moved to the area from Hollywood in 2013 because she liked the “small town feel.” A job with FOLAR (Friends of the LA River) studying their trash sort taught her more about the history of the neighborhood and its diverse community. A few blocks west of the river, her front yard features a keyhole garden made from discarded branches of a nearby camphor laurel tree, with dymondia, a ground cover plant with low water needs, serving as a lawn. Peppermint and dogbane perfume the air en route to the backyard, where she grows strawberries, chard, carrots, peppers, cucumbers and an array of succulents.

Ruth Gallardo at home in Frogtown with Elysian Park in the background.
Ruth Gallardo in her garden at her Frogtown home with Elysian Park in the background. | Grove Pashley

A junior landscape architect by trade, Gallardo is currently lobbying the city to authorize the community to turn a 12-by-17-foot sliver of unused municipal land next to the river into a Tai Chi “parklet.” It’s currently what she calls a “nuisance property” and wouldn’t take much more than grading and light landscaping to turn it into something both useful and aesthetically pleasing, she says.

David De La Torre has lived in the neighborhood for 39 years, since his widowed mother moved the family there from Mexico when he was just a toddler. He attended Dorris Place Elementary School and they rented a place on Harwood Street for more than 20 years. In 1992, he and his wife chose to stay in what he calls “the melting pot of America” and bought a home on Riverdale. “[A home for] $90,000 back then seemed like a lot of money,” he says. “We were just newlyweds trying to open our path.”

A few years later he lobbied then-councilmember Eric Garcetti to transform a decrepit playground into a garden where the public could rent plots of land to grow fruits and vegetables. Today the Jardin del Rio is one of two community gardens in the neighborhood, its land rich with fruits and vegetables and protected by ornamental gates designed by Ironworks 21, a family-owned neighborhood business.

For the past 10 years, De La Torre also has served as the chair of the Elysian Valley Neighborhood Watch Committee, whose aim is “general safety and trying to bridge that gap of trust between the LAPD and the community.” Their newsletter features “neighbor of the month” profiles as a way to forge relationships and document local history.

David De La Torre standing at Jardin del Rio community garden.
David De La Torre standing at Jardin del Rio community garden. | Grove Pashley

When De La Torre was growing up, the river was never considered a recreational space; rather it was seen as a dangerous place. “Stay away, unless you're out with a supervising adult,” his mother warned. Watching its transformation has been a “mixed bag.” He loved kayaking with his daughter and Pashley recently. This is something he never thought possible on the river. However, like Mills, he too is worried that the city may be neglecting pedestrians in favor of cyclists. “That was painful,” he says, “When one of my neighbors almost lost her life.” He and Pashley hung a sign warning people on bikes to slow down, though it only lasted for about two months, he says. De La Torre adds that there are also eight city blocks in his area in need of streetlights.

Still, the neighborhood seems proactive in problem solving together, proving the gifts of the river outweigh its burdens.

“If you're somebody who comes into this community, no matter what your ethnic background is, or where your starting point is, if you bring something good, how could you be a liability?” he asks. “It’s about whether you’re contributing something."

Nellie and Wilma overlooking the L.A. River.
Nellie and Wilma overlooking the L.A. River. | Grove Pashley

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