Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Finding an Engaged Community At the LA River Cafe Pop-up

Are you even aware of the LA River?  It's strange and wonderful.  And big things are afoot there.

I was pretty oblivious for decades, until a couple years back an epic six-mile adventure walk took me from my place in Los Feliz, across the Hyperion bridge into Atwater, down to River from there, across to Village Bakery, then back home, with side trips along the way.  [I should note at this juncture that for this day of River exploration, and all subsequent ones, my intrepid companion was my dear friend Stephanie Alpert of Rummage and Hollow Vintage.  Her hunger for adventure feeds me well.]
What we found was an peculiar mix of nature and urban, a concrete-walled waterway overgrown with reeds and other flora.  On that particular walk, we also discovered beautiful wrought-iron gates off Los Feliz boulevard, a well-groomed park on one side of the river, and in it, a path with signs posting instructions for yoga poses at regular intervals.  This was just the beginning.
Since then, we've discovered much more.  Just behind work, they recently opened the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk -- about a mile of river tidied up with picnic tables, wildflower landscaping, and a path populated by walkers, bicyclers, and even the occasional horseback rider.  For some, it's a vital part of their daily bike commute; for me, it's a place where I can clear my head during the work day, and get some movement in while I do.
But the neighborhood that probably has the most at stake with all the river's fabulous growth is Frogtown, or as it's also known, Elysian Valley.  Tucked away south of Fletcher, this small community of industrial studios and modest houses has had a gritty past, but these days, cycling along the River path, fraternizing at Marsh Park and Rattlesnake Park, birdwatching, fishing, and even kayaking, are part of life for the people who live and work there.

And now, as the secret glory of their riverside hideaway seeps out, the community is keeping a bright eye on Frogtown's future.

My first introduction to Frogtown was back in 2008, when local artists and conversation starters Julia Meltzer and David Thorne held a very special dinner featuring foods locally foraged by Fallen Fruit, a fruit-centered art collaborative that began by mapping fruit trees growing on or over public property in Los Angeles.

Back then, the airy loft space was Julia and David's home.  Now it's known as Elysian, and it houses private events, intimate monthly dinners, and continued discussions of cultural, social, political, and local issues.
RAC Design Build
Recently, I've been back to Frogtown.  Local hero Bruce Chan introduced me to LA River Cafe, a now-and-then popup of coffee, breakfast, and keen conversation steps from the river.  Eastside stalwart (and part of the all kinds of yum community) Cafecito Organico provides the fuel, and from there the program, menu, and venue vary.

The first one we went to took place at RAC Design, an architecture firm at the 24.7 mile marker on the River path.  They'd set up an espresso machine under a wood roof on their ample patio, and next to it, a food truck served up breakfast.  The highlights were the people, and the space:  we all ran into people we knew as Julia and David discussed future plans for the Glendale Hyperion bridge with architects from the firm over excellent cappuccinos in orange mugs.   The sense of community, and a vested interest in the city, were strong.  As we sat, more hungry folks rode in on their bikes, introductions were made, the circle of conversation grew.

Stephanie and I sneaked away to give ourselves a tour of the studio.  It's an awesome space.

The next time the cafe popped up, it was over at Elysian.  This time the community utilized the space's sunny garden as well as the indoor area, as David oversaw the open kitchen, churning out slightly fancier brunch fare like lamb meatballs with eggs, currant scones, and beautiful sauteed snap peas.  And again, conversations at communal tables turned to the future of Frogtown, the outside interests eyeing its unique location, and the efforts of the community to drive the area's evolution in a direction that sits well with its residents.  And of course, the hot topic was Frogtown Futuro, a series of film screenings, talks, art projects, and workshops exploring the past, present, and future of the area from every angle.  And subsequent pop-ups have taken over other Frogtown businesses and included activities like bike rentals and River tours.

striped citrus in the Elysian garden
The LA River is not beautiful in the way you might think of the Danube or the Nile.  It's an apt waterway for our concrete jungle.  But it's ours, it's awesome and getting better every day, and I look forward to seeing where it winds.

There are myriad groups and tons of information out there on the LA River.  Start with coffee: follow the LA River Cafe to find out about the next pop-up.

1 comment:

  1. What a gem of a find Tannaz! Thanks for the insider tour, looks amazing. I didn't know you could get that close to the river, I'm so out of the eastside loop ;)