The drive to the Bowtie Parcel isn’t an obvious one; the back avenue of Atwater Village is littered with debris and the sign for “Reading by Moonrise (gates open at 6:30)” doesn’t quite jump out despite the neon-pink lettering. But the dusty expanse beyond the gate and graffiti’d lane dividers opens into a quiet, unassuming world sandwiched between the train tracks, the river, and the 2.
In a way, the awkward drive up Fletcher and down Casitas is appropriate. This is my introduction and initiation to a larger narrative I never expected. The Los Angeles River has always been an enigma to me, one I have tried to crack since I was a teenager writing fiction in physics class in northeast LA. Instead of fretting over velocity, I wrote about the river. I had never been, had seen it in flashes from the car window, had driven over it more than enough times to know it was (and is) so much more than a gash, a void, a concrete divider.
Returning to LA after four years away, I’m looking for home, and the river is calling.
This is Currents, a look into the rapidly changing world of the Los Angeles River, a chance to feel why it matters beyond its function and to share stories and ideas with the people who have centered their lives around the river.
Clockshop, an arts organization based in Elysian Valley, has been reactivating this stretch of the Los Angeles River – 18 acres of decommissioned rail yard, to be exact – known as the Bowtie Project since 2014 in partnership with California State Parks. In just a year, the space has already transformed into a thriving popup community that celebrates Los Angeles and the river as-is, blighted and disjointed and altogether beautiful. Last week brought an arts installation to the space, this week brings storytelling under the multifaceted eclipse and supermoon.
It’s been cloudless for weeks straight in the high heat of a lingering summer, but tonight of all nights there’s a cloud cover where the supermoon is supposed to rise. Eyes turn to the twilit sky and hope for a glance of the eclipse later, but it’s looking doubtful.
People populate the stools around the empty fire pit. Families, couples, friends all circling around, pulling out their camping chairs from home, their KFC spread and Trader Joe’s tortilla chips and take-away coffee cups. Park Ranger Luis Rincon lights the fire and the kids cheer. He gives them a warm thumbs-up and frowns in concern when the winds shift to the north and the smoke blasts coughing newcomers in the face. By now, well over a hundred people have shown up. They are urged to move toward the center, into the two circles of seat backs planted into the concrete rings around the pit.
The sun sets at last and Julia Meltzer, founder and director of Clockshop, stands up to give the introductions to tonight’s peculiar Reading by Moonrise show. Two readers will share stories under the bloodmoon as part of the quarterly program. Luis weaves his way through the crowd holding marshmallow skewers and plants them carefully in the fire to burn off the previous users’ sticky remains.
Poet Robin Coste Lewis, the first reader, sits and takes the microphone and just when she begins to recite her poem, the Metrolink goes screaming by, heading east. She pauses, laughing, saying how marvelous it is to have to contend with such things.
The pale shadow of the moon creeps out from behind the curtain of cloud, just enough for the night to feel important. Significant. This won’t happen again for eighteen years, but then again, nobody in LA will see the moon tonight.
Cars honk on the 2 just to the west of us. The air smells like smoke and childhood. The night is warm. The river trickles softly just south of us. Luis pulls the skewers out of the fire and their tips glow with the heat.
There’s a pause in the program for s’mores and stargazing. At least Saturn is clear tonight and can be seen through the Los Angeles Astronomical Society telescopes set up next to the parking lot. It’s a billion miles away, give or take 100,000. The moon, hazy to the naked eye, is still hazy in the homemade telescope of one of the astronomers. The deep, rusty red is just barely visible with the magnification.
The Metrolink flies by again, this time heading west.
Back at the fire pit, marshmallows are aflame in the air.
We gather round for one last set of stories from fiction writer Ben Loory, whose voice is all but gone. But we lean in and listen closer to hear him better as he reads his off-kilter children’s stories while the fire dies down and begins to breathe its last. The moon is still hiding behind the clouds. But at least we saw Saturn tonight and its concentric rings, gathering round.