Los Angeles Has a River? Art as an Agent of Conservation and Change

By Special Contributor posted 01-14-2021 14:40

By Tracy Stone

It may surprise you to hear that Los Angeles has a river that traverses 51 miles of the city and county and is, in fact, the reason that the city exists where it does. Once a source of sustenance for the region, the Los Angeles River is best known as a concrete flood control channel created by the Army Corps of Engineers in response to a devastating flood in 1938. Since channelization, the river achieved some fame and recognition as a cultural landmark with appearances in movies and television shows (a chase scene from Terminator and the drag race in Grease, among others).

Residents of Elysian Valley (aka Frogtown), a small, working-class community located along the banks of the river just down the hill from Dodger Stadium, have had a love/hate relationship with the waterway. Once a resource, the river has been alternately viewed as a playground, a garbage dump, a sewer, and no-man’s land, especially after dark.

The Los Angeles River from the 1960s. | Family Photo provided by Elysian Valley resident Victor Casas.

The stretch of river adjacent to Frogtown is unique in the city for having a “soft-bottom,” where the lack of concrete has allowed some vegetation to return to the river bed. Over the past 20+ years, the Army Corps has allowed this vegetation to grow—after 60 years of removing it—creating a small green belt encased in hard concrete. Frogtown is one of the few residential neighborhoods directly connected to the Los Angeles River, even though the city had done its best in the 1950s to disconnect the two by re-zoning properties along the river frontage as manufacturing. This zoning change had solidified the perception of the river as a workhorse piece of technology rather than as a public amenity. Recent interest in river revitalization and habitat restoration, including investment at the national, state and city levels, is bringing new development to the banks and unsettling changes to the adjacent neighborhood, with its current mix of residents, small-scale manufacturing businesses, and an arts community.

Founded as a 501(c)3 in 2008 by a local group of artists, artisans and architects, the Elysian Valley Arts Collective (EVAC) recognized that the river is a valuable neighborhood asset, creating communal open space that provides much-needed breathing room in the congested city. Understanding that successful river restoration would require the cooperation of riverfront communities such as Frogtown, the EVAC employed a series of arts strategies that intentionally document and explore the community’s relationship to the river. These efforts were designed to capture memories, identify cultural values, and allow residents to express pride in their community. An overview of these strategies and projects, such as an artwalk, two documentary films, and a series of art classes, offers a possible roadmap to other communities struggling with change and gentrification associated with the revitalization of historic districts or assets.

View of the Los Angeles River in 2013.
The Los Angeles River in 2013 (after the Army Corps allowed vegetation to grow). Small scale manufacturing buildings can be seen at the top of the bank. | Photo by Tracy Stone.

Uniting the Community with the Frogtown Artwalk

The EVAC’s signature event, the Frogtown Artwalk, recently celebrated its 12th year. Originally created in 2006 as a simple, self-guided tour of the artists’ and artisans’ studios in the neighborhood, it has grown over the years to become a true community festival, inviting all to participate and join in the fun. After the second or third year, the EVAC realized that the event could help to bridge the historic divide between the residential and artist communities in the area. Organizers invited local schoolchildren to show their work, community organizations to set up informational booths, and local residents to set up stations along the route to sell tortillas, doll clothes, and limes from their gardens.

In order to bring attention to the neglected river front, the Frogtown Artwalk offered tours of the river by local experts and commissioned illuminated art installations enticed pedestrians to venture along the river path after dark. Over the years, the EVAC’s efforts expanded to include sponsored art classes for local youth, taught by neighborhood artists, that encouraged drawing and photography expeditions to the river.

Frogtown Artwalk-2016, installation by Jerico Woggon
The Frogtown Artwalk in 2016. Featured is a commissioned installation along the river path by Jerico Woggon. | Credit: Photo by Gary Leonard

Affirming History and Relationship to Place

In 2008, few Angelenos were familiar with the small community of Elysian Valley/Frogtown as it is isolated from the rest of the city by a freeway and the river. Residents of the area felt ignored by the City, starved of resources, funding and attention. The EVAC commissioned two documentary films about this neglected neighborhood and its unique location adjacent to the soft-bottom part of the river; tasking a couple of young filmmakers to explore history through interviews with neighbors, their family photos, and discussions with politicians and decision-makers.

The first film, Mapping Frogtown: Stories From Elysian Valley, by filmmaker Will Coley, invites residents to share their memories of growing up in the community from the 1960s to today. Family photos of the river as a barren, concrete canyon contrast with video from 2008, showing the lush vegetation that has been allowed to flourish.

A group of people sitting at a table sharing stories with filmmaker Will Coley,
Neighbors gather in 2008 with Filmmaker Will Coley to tell stories and share photos during the filming of Mapping Frogtown. | Photo provided by the Elysian Valley Arts Collective.

In 2016, the City of Los Angeles voted to approve Alternative 20 of the ARBOR plan, a $1 billion revitalization and habitat restoration scheme for the Los Angeles River. In response, the EVAC commissioned filmmaker Mimi Phan to make a new documentary film specifically about the relationship between Elysian Valley and the Los Angeles River. The new film, entitled Our River, again uses oral histories and interviews to explore residents’ memories of growing up along the river. Through the act of storytelling, the residents rediscovered the joy of childhood river explorations, allowing these memories to override more recent fears of the river as gang hangout and crime center for the area.

Strengthening and Celebrating the Community

This history had not been captured in any publicly accessible manner prior to these efforts, and, although initially hesitant to participate, residents were visibly thrilled with the results. The films screened for free to the community and visitors during various Frogtown Artwalk events. One resident, Ceci Dominguez, remembers the hush that came over the audience during a neighborhood showing of “Mapping Frogtown” as the viewers started to recognize their school, their street, their neighborhood, the sense of pride was palpable. In an area used to being overlooked by authorities (and the rest of the city), the celebration of their community on the big screen was unexpected and exciting. As Dominguez puts it, “They filmed our neighborhood! They filmed the people who live here. That’s so cool!”

All of these efforts helped empower the community to participate in ongoing dialogues about the revitalization plans for the area.

Lessons Learned

When the EVAC started operations in the neighborhood, residents and artists viewed each other with distrust and suspicion. Neighbors agreed to participate in the films only after several years of outreach and art events that invited neighborhood involvement. As resident David Delatorre explains, “I completely bought into [the Frogtown Artwalk] when I saw that it was community driven and community inclusive.” This trust is invaluable as development brings stress and, many times, anger over gentrifying forces.

Frogtown Artwalk in 2013, three people sitting at an information table.

Frogtown Artwalk 2013. Community tables at the event expand participation to include neighbors as well as artists.  | Photo by Bob Berg.

By promoting a sense of pride in the neighborhood and its relationship to the river, the EVAC’s activities have bolstered community resilience in the face of change, played a role in both changing attitudes about the Los Angeles River (and in documenting those changes), and have prevented the kind of backlash against the arts often seen in rapidly gentrifying areas.

In the case of Elysian Valley/Frogtown, the EVAC’s efforts allowed residents to feel a kinship with the artists among them and to feel a part of the art events happening around them. Although efforts to support local culture and celebrate a heritage alone cannot combat gentrification, the support that the EVAC built among the community illustrates a key lesson for arts organizations operating in areas experiencing rapid change; with an inclusive approach, art can be a uniting force vital to the cultural empowerment of a neighborhood.

Tracy Stone is a licensed architect practicing in Los Angeles.  She is also the founding president of the Elysian Valley Arts Collective and the founding chair of the biennial Frogtown Artwalk.


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