Memories bridge the Elysian Valley section of the LA River

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The Los Angeles River Los Angeles, CA. Wednesday, Sep. 7, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

In June, Kathryn McDermott, a product developer for Alo Yoga, prepared to walk down a concrete slope in one-inch ankle strap heels to get married in front of the Elysian Valley section of the LA River.

“I tried to take in the moment during those quiet couple of seconds before the processional started, but excitement was in the air, and I couldn’t wait to begin,” McDermott said. “I always called what we did for our wedding as the perfect summer day.”

Photo of a wedding on the Los Angeles River courtesy of Katrin Jenkins.

Adding ethereal music to the wedding, musician Joshua Payne played his vintage tube amplifier and guitar with a violin bow. Behind him, the green Arundo reeds swayed as the rush of currents listened.

Payne said he has played hundreds of shows at the Elysian Valley section of the LA River — it is his favorite spot, where he mostly performs originals for the public. It felt extra special that McDermott and her husband, Nick Miller, asked him to play at their wedding after stumbling upon him by chance at the river, Payne said.

“I see Josh’s music as really surreal and beautiful and symphonic, and I do think that that’s in contrast with the LA River and the overpass nearby,” Miller said. “You watch people discovering him there as well, and being let in on the secret. People will approach us, and be like ‘Who is that guy? What is this? What just happened?’”

Payne said that performing at the Elysian Valley section of the LA River fills him with the sense of beauty he has chased throughout his life.

“It’s a feeling of freedom — a feeling of literally standing up and facing your community head-on, and it’s a feeling of doing your thing on earth under the sun and stars,” Payne said. “I’m not very good at other aspects of life, but when I’m performing, I feel very much alive.”

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Musician Joshua Payne performs on the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles, CA. Friday, Sep. 9, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

Payne said that the electric feeling he has while performing may be amplified by the feeling of the river area — like a release valve of densely-populated LA.

“I like the wildness of it all,” Payne said. “It doesn’t seem real.”

People instinctively go toward the water, according to Peter Lemos, who, along with his wife, is the co-owner of Wax Paper, a sandwich shop by the Elysian Valley section of the LA River.

“Even though we live in a big city, and we’re very modern, and we have all of these rules and regulations, we are still, at the end of the day, animals,” Lemos said. “[Water] becomes this point of meeting, and it can become the heart of a community.”

Lemos said Wax Paper customers will often grab a sandwich and then eat down at the river.

“We’ve had people who have come that are on a serious bike ride, and they come in, and they’ll order two Coca-Colas or something just for the sugar boost, so they can keep going on their bike ride,” Lemos said.

A section of the Los Angeles River Trail in Los Angeles, CA. Wednesday, Sep. 7, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

Cycling access expanded in the area in March with the opening of the roughly 400-foot long Taylor Yard Bridge structure connecting Cypress Park to Elysian Valley across the LA River. The decades-long effort to build the span started with Councilmembers Mike Hernandez and Ed Reyes. President of the Elysian Valley Riverside Neighborhood Council (EVRNC) Carrie Sutkin, who said she pled with Metro to finish the bridge, said the bridge creates necessary mobility, which is an equity issue, and can shorten commutes.

Sutkin said one of her most cherished memories was when the bridge opened. To celebrate the opening, the neighborhood council partnered with the Elysian Valley Arts Collective to share an illumination on the bridge.

“We had Native dancers who did this amazing opening celebration of the bridge. We had a female mariachi band that the community loved,” Sutkin said. “It was just worth it — building consensus slowly with the grassroots.”

There are concerns that efforts to make the LA River a more welcoming place might also contribute to gentrification.

“The LA River is almost a metaphor for gentrification which was not the intent,” Sutkin said. “We’re not providing a good alternative for the housing but it is not the river causing the housing crisis, it is a national issue that is getting conflated.”

Sutkin said she started working with LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina in 1991, when the river was seen more as a flood control channel. During that time, the LA River had a reputation of being unattractive, Sutkin said.

Steven Appleton said he works to shift how people perceive the river through his business LA River Kayak Safari. According to Appleton, customers will come to kayak on the river thinking it is going to be dirty but leave mesmerized.

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Steven Appleton, owner of LA River Kayak Safari, in Los Angeles, CA. Monday, Sep. 12, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

“One time an elderly woman who had lived in the neighborhood her whole life came and had no idea you could do this,” Appleton said. “She could not kayak so I let her go on the canoe with me and and we had this wonderful conversation about how she did not want to get out.”

Appleton said there is a conscious and unconscious level of what happens to you in nature and what you can hear.

“I call it the theater of the river since we are sort of on the stage and the sounds are passing by us but then there’s this physical challenge,” Appleton said. “The conscious activity of doing this is really hard at the beginning, but at a certain point, they sort of let go, and they’re observing in a different way — both nature and themselves.”

Appleton said his interest in the river inspired his 2016 art project “50 Clean Bottles of LA River Water,” in which he used a water wheel to pump the river water into cleaning bottles. According to Appleton, he discovered his love for the Elysian Valley section of the LA River on a walk.

“As I sat and noticed all this verdant plant life, this blue heron alighted over my shoulder then took off,” Appleton said. “It was a magical experience that harkened back to my youth in Michigan.”

EVRNC Board Member Leslie Campisi said she loves the feathery birds that glide on the river.

Leslie Campisi
Elysian Valley Riverside Neighborhood Council board member Leslie Campisi in Los Angeles, CA. Wednesday, Sep. 7, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

“For me, a big draw to this neighborhood is all of the incredible waiting birds that you see, like great blue herons,” Campisi said. “In addition to that, there are geese, there are wood ducks, mallards. It’s the river, but it is also about the wildlife that is a part of the ecosystem.”

In addition to sheltering plants and wildlife, Campisi said the river unites and distinguishes the Elysian Valley.

“Ultimately, what makes this neighborhood interesting is the the people,” Campisi said. “But I do think that the river is a big part of what creates that community.”