“Play the LA River” Awarded Grant

ArtPlace America funds researchers from UC Riverside and UCLA for public art, local history initiative aimed at reconnecting residents with urban river

L.A. River

UCR historian Catherine Gudis is part of a research team awarded a grant by ArtPlace America to bring the Los Angeles River to life as a vital civic corridor and public space along the waterway’s 51-mile length. Photo courtesy of the UC Humanities Research Institute

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — ArtPlace America has awarded a $185,000 grant to researchers from UC Riverside and UCLA to support “Play the LA River,” the project of a collective of artists, designers, community organizers, scholars and urban planners called Project 51.

Catherine Gudis, associate professor of history and director of UCR’s Public History Program, is co-founder of Project 51. She is a co-principal investigator of the ArtPlace America grant with Allison Carruth, associate professor of English and affiliate of the Institute of Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, and Jenny Price, an artist, writer, and historian who is the Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and the Humanities at Princeton Environmental Institute.

Play the LA River” will invite communities across Los Angeles to sites along the Los Angeles River through a yearlong, multi-pronged public art initiative that launches in September. Through playful activities, interactions, festivals and performances, the project will bring the 51-mile river to life as a vital civic corridor and public space in Los Angeles and surrounding cities. The engagement is designed to reconnect residents with their waterfront while asking them to help imagine what future development along the river might be.

The project has also received support from the UC Humanities Research Institute’s California Studies Consortium, the UCLA Department of English, and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

“Most people don’t know there is an L.A. River, much less how to get to it,” Gudis explained. “There needs to be a way for people to engage and play, and to make that space public again, especially in such a park-poor region.”

The river was reclassified a navigable waterway in 2010, which affords it greater federal protection under the Clean Water Act. Two segments of the river have been opened as summer recreation areas, and have become popular with kayakers and others who fish and walk in these soft-bottom stretches of the river, Gudis noted. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recommended that Congress approve an ambitious $1 billion project to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the waterway.

Last fall, public history graduate students at UCR spent several weeks surveying sites along the river, examining the ecology and elements of the built environment, and determining how people might visit those sites and engage in both serious and more joyful elements of play that call attention to the river’s history and future, the historian said.

“They began to unpack ways the river been represented publicly as a noir-infused and derelict place,” Gudis recalled. “They saw it as epitomizing urban nature and set out to expose the hidden histories of places along the river that they explored. For example, when we visited downtown L.A., at the confluence of the L.A. River and Arroyo Seco, a historic site where Spanish missionaries and administrators founded L.A., we were struck by the expanse of infrastructure – concrete riverbed, railroads, freeways, and bridges. It was awe-inspiring in the sense of being a technological sublime.

“But this site also raised questions about potential social impacts of revitalizing the river. Beneath a freeway underpass there was a well-developed homeless encampment, which even included a music system and writing desks. In the river itself was a staging area for construction projects (which have closed the confluence to public access). Yet we were all struck by our ability to see so much of the city from the river, including views reproduced regularly in films and popular culture, and to appreciate the beauty of the scene, even in the face of its jarring juxtapositions.”

Rivers like the Los Angeles and Santa Ana waterways are emblematic of Southern California, Gudis said.

“People have multi-generational stories about using them, often as ad hoc rather than formalized public spaces,” she said. “We hope this project in L.A. will draw attention to other rivers and to larger issues of watershed management as well.”

ArtPlace America is a New York-based collaboration of more than a dozen foundations and donors committed to advancing the field of creative placemaking, in which art and culture play a central role in shaping communities’ social, physical, and economic futures.

Media Contact


Tel: (951) 827-7847
E-mail: bettye.miller@ucr.edu
Twitter: bettyemiller

Additional Contacts

Catherine Gudis
E-mail: catherine.gudis@ucr.edu

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