For millennia, it sustained Indigenous Peoples. At its confluence with the Arroyo Seco, Spanish colonists named the city of Los Angeles in 1781. Rancho-era vaquero culture persisted along the river among Californios and Indigenous Peoples, continued by recent generations of Hispanic and Latino residents. As the metropolis has grown, the river has remained a community resource and source of water for its increasingly diverse population, 34% of which is now foreign born.
Art Assets in LA County
For the last half century, this major public space has captured the imagination of Angelenos. It has been a backdrop for dozens of feature films and countless videos, photo shoots, paintings, novels, poetry, musical scores, and more. Its banks have served as a projection screen and canvas and as a stage for spoken word, music, dance, and other collaborative practice performances. The LA River has been home to graffiti and street art for half a century that has enabled many prominent local and international artists to site their work in the LA River as well as assisting numerous at risk youth and gang members to develop their artistic skills into a pliable trade and professional career.1Arroyo, John C. “Culture in Concrete: Art and the Re-Imagination of the Los Angeles River as Civic Space,” 2010 The river has been a conduit for foodways – a shared space for local food vendors, families picnicking, and small businesses. It has hosted ceremonial practices: Middle Eastern, Asian, and Native American cultures, for instance, go to moving waters for various celebrations. And, it has supported the functional arts, for example in Native American use of native seeds for musical instruments, plants for health, and materials for baskets. Riverside activities are numerous and continue to support myriad living cultural traditions. Though it is impossible to capture all of the intangible cultural events, practices, and community resources surrounding the LA River on one map, the figure above represents available data for tangible arts and culture assets in LA County, including cultural and performing arts centers, historic sites and bridges, places of worships, and civic art installations.
LA County Department of Arts and Culture is the primary countywide department that leads arts and cultural initiatives. In 2017, Arts and Culture published a report on their Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative, which focuses on inclusive cultural and arts programs for all residents of LA County.
While many jurisdictions have a “percent for art” policy that requires private construction or development projects to invest in public art, there is no single arts policy for the river and it is sometimes a complex process to get permits for art projects within the LA River right-of-way. Data for existing arts and culture is incomplete and would benefit from an updated approach to its inventory. While many of the municipalities along the LA River and LA County have historic preservation ordinances, most do not have active programs or staff to conduct surveys and landmark properties.
Among the hundreds of community and arts groups that are present along the river, there are over three dozen organizations and initiatives that focus on the river itself. These groups would benefit from better data and processes surrounding art and culture along the LA River. International and national organizations such as the National Resources Defense Council and The Nature Conservancy, along with regional institutions such as UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenges, Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA), and Heal the Bay, all have missions that intersect with the LA River. Organizations that focus on the entirety of the LA River include River LA and Friends of the LA River (FoLAR). Several groups focus on arts programming and community building along or around the LA River, such as Clockshop, ArtworkxLA, Elysian Valley Arts Collective, Frogtown Artwalk, and Turnaround Arts. There are also grassroots organizations with an interest in environmental and social justice issues, such as Urban Semillas and Mujeres de la Tierra.