The LA River, a favourite Hollywood backdrop, cleans up its act
A plan to beautify a stretch of river made famous by dozens of movies is the springboard for an upsurge of bars, cafes and music venues in Los Angeles’ Elysian Valley, also called Frogtown
Visitors to Los Angeles would be forgiven for not knowing that the city has a river. For decades the stretch of sun-beaten concrete running from the Simi Hills to Long Beach has been little more than a glorified storm drain, best-known as a backdrop for dozens of movies, including Grease, Chinatown and Terminator 2. Not for long: $100m of state funding has just been dedicated to revitalising the LA River, extending the existing bike path to Downtown, improving access and creating a sprawling 51-mile wildlife habitat.
This is in addition to the city’s acquisition of a 42-acre parcel of land, a former railway yard due to be converted into grassy wetland, which Michael Atkins of Friends of the Los Angeles River (Folar) says will be the “greatest park in LA”.
Angelinos may have to wait up to 10 years until the park and the regeneration programme is complete but it seems that the river is giving itself a head start. Pedalling along the Elysian Valley in Central LA (an area known locally as Frogtown), I pass blue herons, cormorants and lush vegetation that has pushed its way through cracks in the concrete. For those who don’t know their sandpiper from their bufflehead, The Frog Spot, a waterside kiosk run by the Friends of the LA River, offers free nature walks.
It’s not just the river that is undergoing a renaissance – the quiet riverside neighbourhood of Frogtown itself is also enjoying an upsurge, home to Latino and Asian families whose pastel-coloured bungalows butt up against warehouses, artists’ studios and a pickle factory. Overlooking the water, the recently renovated Spoke Bicycle Café provides a welcome shady retreat. Just a block away is Wax Paper, a micro-cafe in a shipping container. Opened 20 months ago, it was one of the pioneers of the Frogtown scene and is a friendly neighbourhood joint with an entire menu named after radio hosts. Nearby, The Left Bank is a boutique packed with vintage gems (and a free backyard comedy night). As I pedal the four miles to Griffith Park and back, I cruise past a row of modern industrial live/work units – evidence of riverside living’s appeal.
At the end of the ride, I’m more than ready for an ale at Frogtown Brewery. Nearing sunset, I park my bike outside a Frogtown favourite, Salazar, a former mechanic’s shop converted into a stylish alfresco Mexican restaurant.
“You could never do this on Sunset Boulevard,” says owner Billy Silverman, nodding towards his outdoor patio. Next door a band is sound checking at Zebulon, the iconic Brooklyn music venue that decamped here in April. It makes the most of its cavernous new space with an almost nightly array of international musicians.
Although the neighbourhood will benefit from better access to the river and its wildlife, not to mention a car-free route to Downtown LA, not everyone in the community welcomes the changes. There has been tension over recent property prices, a lack of parking and tales of greedy landlords charging exorbitant rent. However Michael Atkins of Folar is optimistic about the long-term benefits of revitalisation to all its residents: “Our mission is to make sure that people can interact with the river and bring them closer to the wildlife. We want to do something grand for Angelinos.”