Fall in Love with the City’s River; Play the L.A. River

By Fanny Garcia
Founding Editor

Photo provided by KCET

Photo provided by KCET

“Have you played at the L.A. River?” To such a question you might reply, “What? The Los Angeles River is all concrete and nothingness.” In the past, your answer might have been correct. Just don’t mention this to a member of the environmental group Friends of the Los Angeles River, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986 and who has since worked to protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River. Chances are you’ll get schooling on the history of the river and the natural habitat still accessible in some areas. This was the case for me when I attended the launch of Play the L.A. River at the new Marsh Park in the Elysian Valley area of Los Angeles.  While at the event, I met Joe Linton, author of “Down by the Los Angeles River: Friends of the Los Angeles River Official Guide”, who was there to provide historical background about the river and the many efforts to revitalize it.

Marsh Park during the launch of Play the L.A. River. Photo by Oscar T. Basulto

Marsh Park during the launch of Play the L.A. River. Photo by Oscar T. Basulto

Play the L.A. River is a project geared towards inspiring you to interact and engage the Los Angeles River. It is spearheaded by the collective Project 51. Named for the 51 mile length of the river, it is comprised of artists, designers, urban planners, educators and writers who love the Los Angeles River and want to play cupid between it and the rest of the citizenry of Los Angeles.

How will they get all of us to also fall in love with the river we have all forgotten about?  The collective’s website describes Play the L.A. River as a “project, a movement, an invitation, and a do-it-yourself game” to help us all engage with the Los Angeles River in various ways. The group created a playable card deck which is also a 56-site guide to the river. Each playing card has a map of a site along the river that is accessible and open to the public. For example, the card that features  “The Great Wall of Los Angeles”  located in the San Fernando Valley has one of the wall’s murals painted by renowned local artist and activist Judith F. Baca on the back of it. The card also suggests activities to do when you visit the Great Wall: play Pictionary with your family or act out the stories on the wall’s panels. The group’s website playthelariver.com hosts an online version of the cards complete with a calendar of activities for the upcoming year. You can get your own set by getting in touch with Project 51 through their website. The goal here is for groups and individuals to organize their own activities at different locations along the river throughout the year from September 13th, 2014 to next year. In collaboration with partners, Project 51 will also organize events throughout the year. Information about their events can also be found on their website.

Much like the agreement between audience and theater which asks us to suspend disbelief and allow the story unfolding on the stage to transcend the impossible, the Los Angeles River asks the same of its citizens. Suspend your idea of what a river should look like for a moment as you play the L.A. River. For example, the Glendale Narrows section of the river is surrounded by lush green vegetation and has an earthen bottom to wade in. It is an idyllic place for a picnic. We have come to believe that this picturesque image is how a “real river” should look and feel. However, this section also has a concrete bank and runs along the I-5 Freeway. The drone of the traffic and the piercing buzz from railway lines on the other side of the freeway can also be heard. If one stops for a moment, the gurgling water and the freeway sounds become one and we realize that this spot embodies the essence of Los Angeles. Water, movement, industry, life. Sure, our river is part concrete, part nature, but this hybridity is who we are. Let us play the Los Angeles River.

The Natural History Museum at the Play the River launch on September 13, 2014.

The Natural History Museum at the Play the River launch on September 13, 2014. Photo by Oscar T. Basulto

Tomorrow, September 20th Play the L.A. River events include a campfire at Marsh Park, a Heal the Bay organized river clean-up, a screening of the documentary Altered Landscapes followed by a discussion, and a fundraiser for the Friends of the Los Angeles River (wine, food, music). Check out the calendar here: http://playthelariver.com/find-post-events/river-calendar/