The sun is low in the sky when I pull up to the fence at the Bowtie Project yet again, more familiar with the intricacies of the back road in Atwater Village. At this point, I’ve biked its length and stood at the edge of the roundhouse at the end, wanting to jump down into it and explore. I’ve biked the river path on the west side, pulling up short on the brakes where the trail suddenly stops and turns to dirt, the river beyond the freeway overpass turning to concrete. I realized my Gold Line train speeds just above that stretch, and the next day on my commute I look upstream and catch a glimpse of the greenery beyond before I’m sucked under a bridge to Chinatown.
It’s the evening of the fourth highly-anticipated LA River Campout, organized by Clockshop and California State Parks. 170 campers roll up in various city cars and walk in on foot, tents and camp chairs and coolers of beer in tow. They set up in the late afternoon sun and laze about, greeting their nightly neighbors and looking out at the foliage in the river. The air is still, the mood content, and the campers wave at the passengers on the Metrolink as the trains go rolling by.
National Park Service rangers walk through the campground, speaking brightly with the campers, sharing their knowledge. FoLAR’s River Rover pulls up and idles next to where the taco stand will be. The knot-tying station begins to take shape behind the impromptu fire pits, ringed with bales of hay. A group of teenagers follows a park ranger out deeper into the Bowtie.
Park Ranger Luis Rincon steps down the river’s concrete shore with a group hoping to catch and release fish as the sun goes down. Sean Woods, superintendent for California State Parks in Los Angeles, watches over the proceedings, a big grin on his face, as a flag with a picture of earth from space is raised above the tents.
The tents stop at The Unfinished, a full-scale obelisk carved into the ground by artist Michael Parker. If not for The Unfinished, there likely would be no campout. At Clockshop’s Reading by Moonrise event during the blood moon a few weeks prior, I spoke with their program manager, Mackenzie Hoffman. “The twice-yearly campout was initiated during the construction of [The Unfinished] because they needed to guard a piece of equipment on-site while they were installing it. So [Michael Parker] stayed out here with some crew, they camped out here and they talked about how amazing it was and Sean [Woods] said – let’s do that! Let’s get people out here.”
“This particular parcel and what we responded to and what every artist we bring out here to the site visits— every first-time visitor is so overwhelmed at the vastness of being able to be so centrally located and have such a long, uninterrupted sightline,” Mackenzie told me, looking down the Bowtie to the south, where the blinking lights of the railroad flash in the distance. She turns to the north, pointing at the hills. “To see the mountains. You can see Griffith Observatory from here, you can see— It’s right by the freeway, it’s just this beautiful place. People are hungry for that. They want to be within the city but they want it to be lush and green.”
When the sun finally sets, the tacos start blazing. Campers queue up with their beers in hand, ticket stubs in the other, and pile their plates high with fresh asada, topped with lime and radish and salsa. They meander over to the fire pits, eating, laughing, drinking, meeting one another. It’s a feeling of peace, of security, that on this concrete slab so many Angelenos can come together to enjoy the space. Enjoy the river. The Los Angeles Astronomical Society sets up their homemade telescopes, and they fare better than the night of the blood moon. The skies are clear. The planets beautiful.
Park Rangers begin singing songs for the children at one fire pit and give a presentation about the Bowtie’s wildlife at the other. Adults and children alike sit in rapt attention, clapping their hands, laughing.
I run into a friend from class before it gets truly dark. I run into people in the following weeks who tell me they were there. I see campers I talked to on downtown streets.
They say Los Angeles is a city without a center. It’s a large city, one that is nearly impossible to make small. But that seems a strange maxim when I keep running into River Folk on the streets of the Arts District, on the Gold Line, in university cafes. If there’s a vision for making the river the city’s convergence point, perhaps it’s because it already is.
So far, we’ve witnessed the community, we’ve pondered the history, and we’ve looked to the future. But, at the end of the day, why does any of this matter? Why does the river hold such an important place in the Los Angeles psyche?
From the grassroot communities to the city planners, the river has this immense capacity for drawing people to its banks. Call it what you will — a sense of curiosity, a desire to break out of isolation, a thirst for something different, or a quest for meaning — the river matters. In chapter five, we’re going to hear why.