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Words On The River

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This post is in support of Departures, KCET's oral history and interactive documentary project about Los Angeles neighborhoods. The series has extensively profiled the L.A. River.

The Los Angeles River was an outlaw prone to showing its temper during winter rainstorms. It would flood the neighborhoods that depended on it, even changing its own course if the mood was right.

The Army was called in to harness it and now the river is incarcerated in concrete noir, a sentence for its bad behavior on a vulnerable floodplain.

"Hungry for the sweet love promised" are the words poet Wanda Coleman used to describe the city. The same can be said about those who wait for the river to be reprieved through revitalization.

Much of the prose shared here is directed at an Angeleno's hunger for a river with a mystery of existence.

At the same time, the river's reputation of a wild past may be the attraction to the outsider artist.

"Spray-painted outpourings on walls offer a chaos of color for the eyes," writes Luis J. Rodríguez in his poem "The Concrete River," speaking on the one-word or initials that mark the banks and hides under the bridges.

When street artists attempted to work within the rules, they shared the fate of the river's wilder days. They were welcomed, then with no negotiation, reduced to non-existence.

Photo: Ed Fuentes
Photo: Ed Fuentes,

In 2007, Crewest Gallery and Friends of the Los Angeles River arranged for permits allowing international graffiti artists to paint at the confluence of the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco. "This is a historical event," said Man One at the time, who through his gallery organized the "Meeting of Styles."

Despite permission, the idea of graffiti as acceptable art was shot down and buffed out by County of Los Angeles. It left an uncompromising Man One and FOLAR reprimanded -- and later billed $10,000 for the whitewash.

The County was not prepared for visual dialogue of street art, and it is hard to tell if they expected the work to have playful whimsy of Leo Limon, or the grand social narrative of California's history in the river's masterpiece, the 2,754 foot long "Great Wall of Los Angeles" by Judith Baca and SPARC.

With no programming or plans, the river is left to the swagger of taggers determined to add granite walls and legs of bridges to their location portfolio. And while there is no doubt that the tagging, graffiti, mural, or however it is defined, can oversaturate the city like flood waters, art should be part of the city's artery.

Picture the wall on the upper banks of the Los Angeles River filled with words. This time, one word or the multi-initial identifier of an artist's ego replaced by poetry about the river in a range of styles. Some painted by a graffiti team, others by a team of graphic designers, all chosen by a jury of public art professionals, urban planners, architects, neighborhood stakeholders--and even a pool of artists.

It becomes poetry-to-go that greets upon an arrival, or says goodbye at a departure.

"Spray-painted outpourings on walls offer a chaos of color for the eyes," as written by Rodríguez, could be designed by a team of graffiti artists and then read from a moving Metrolink.

"Music is the bridge. What's up rockers?" says Mike The Poet in his thinking out loud style recalling East L.A.'s music history. His quick phrase could be installed in the river so those rocking and rolling into Los Angeles via the 1927 Cesar E. Chavez Viaduct have a visual marker.

Or the line "drawfed by the desert of downtown concrete, going about the business of their lives" as written by Lewis MacAdams, can be designed by a graphic artist so it can be read from an opposite bank with the Downtown skyline in the background.

With so many poets and artists using the river once named Porciuncula as a muse, it can be channeled to be a bookmark for local poets and artists.

How and why communities define the river
Luis Rodriguez - Writer - Activist - Growing up with the River

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