The L.A. River has long been the butt of jokes, with many viewing it as little more than a dry, concrete-lined trough, but with renewed interest in the river as a natural site for recreation, and a $1 billion revitalization plan in the works, that is poised to change. Embodying this attitude is Play the LA River, a 51-week project organized by arts collective Project 51 that “invites Angelenos to enjoy, explore, reclaim & reimagine the mighty LA River as a grand civic space that can green & connect our communities.” It all kicked off on September 13 at the newly expanded Marsh Park, and continues until next September with almost a year’s worth of events, performances and activities located along the river’s 51-mile stretch. The calendar seems pretty thin now, but perhaps it will get filled in as the program gets rolling.
A central part of the project is a card deck featuring 56 sites along the river with suggested activities to do there. They come as a physical deck or can be viewed on a computer or smart phone on their mobile-friendly site, though when we tried it on an iPhone 5, navigating was a bit clunky. Some of the activities could be more well thought-out (a “rain dance” at Water Reclamation Park, really?), but the cards do a good job of identifying the many different kinds of sites and the types of adjacent paths (pedestrian, bike, and horse), as well as providing a bit of history.
As for how the arts relate to river revitalization, Cathy Gudis, one of the project organizers, recently told KPCC: “”The arts have had a longstanding role in drawing public attention to the fact that, one, we have a river and, two, that it is a river.” She sites Frank Romero’s Anza Mural, which is just one of a number of artistic interventions that have helped to define the river as vibrant, communal space, open to all and full of possibility. Whether or not you’re a fan of the card deck’s gamification of river exploration, it’s hard to argue that a year-long program drawing attention to one of L.A.’s greatest natural resources is not worthwhile and long overdue.