Respect and the River

I’m still pondering the differences in civic attitude towards cycling—and in fact towards urbanity itself—I noted after our visit to Denver. A very nice city, in its central core, at least, but still a second-tier city. Yet you see that it respects cycling—and not just cycling but the very environment that it sits on, especially its waterways.

In LA, the river is an embarrassment. Thirty years of river activism have resulted in a few pocket parks and some bleak bike paths largely hemmed in by asphalt, concrete, chainlink, corrugated metal, and (all too often) the shrieking of freeways. They are useful—I use them myself all the time—but they are not attractive; they are not respectful of the irretrievable minutes we must spend on them to get wehre we’re going. (For that matter, the freeway environments are an insult to those forced to drive on them by our society’s structural coercions.) In effect, many of our riverside bike paths are freeways for pedaling. We are repeating our automotive errors on a smaller, cleaner scale, but repeating them nevertheless.

Below is a photo of the newest section of the LA River bike path through Elysian Valley. This is actually pretty good for LA, but there’s still an atmosphere of empty shabbiness, of halfheartedness, that embues every inch of this river path. Access points are often not much more than a hole in a chainlink fence, dignified by a small metal sign. The celebrated pocket parks are little half-moons of dusty space huddled under looming cinderblock or yet more bedraggled chainlink, often decorated with razor wire at head height. The river’s banks are bare white concrete, decorated only by grafitti. There’s a forlorn quality to it at the best of times—the photo was taken just a after this section was finished. (And yes, there is a river in the photo!)

Now look at this photo of Cherry Creek, a stream that runs through downtown Denver, as the LA River marches sullenly through our own downtown. The river, though still channeled and managed, is actually attractive, a place you want to be. There’s no need to glorify it with remarks about its sculptural qualities or the “poetry of blankness,” as I myself have often done. The bike path—after all a strip of concrete and asphalt, as is ours—is graceful by virtue of its surroundings. Access points are landscaped ramps with signs that actually tell you where they will lead and what other paths they connect to. Instead of being repositories of miles of shabby corrugated sheds, the river’s banks have been redeveloped into civic amenities (you use the river to access the museum and financial districts), parks, and new live/work spaces–and give you access to the rail hub at Denver’s Union Station, now being refurbished to showcase its classic architecture.

The Cherry Creek path is a major feature of the city’s downtown, and functions to improve local transportation networks within a thriving and still revivifying former warehouse district.

We have a fading warehouse district in our own downtown, just east of a nexus of museums, lofts, and new creative spaces. There’s even a winery there. And our river runs through it. Yet the bike path doesn’t even run that far.

Denver, a much poorer city than LA, uses its river and its bicycling culture to create a rich and lively community that is not dependent on the space-wasting inefficiencies of traffic jams and parking frenzies. LA ignores its river and tells its cyclists and potential cyclists that shabby and banal is good enough for us, now get out of the way while we spend a billion to add one lane to ten miles of the 405 on the Westside at a time when driving miles are dropping among all segments of the population across the entire country.

Denver ain’t no paradise—the suburbs there are worse even than the suburbs here—but it seems to know that its future depends on sensible transportation and respect for civic space and its natural features, such as Cherry Creek (and the Platte River west of downtown as well). It’s a city that’s building a future, while Los Angeles seems to be sinking in the quicksands of the past.

We can do better—and there are citizen groups that are working hard to make sure that we do, despite the discouragements of many years. Here’s a short list:

Friends of the Los Angeles River
Los Angeles and San Gabriel River Watershed Council
Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition
Sustainable Streets

There are more, but these are a good start. Check them out, join one or two, get to work. It’ll take more than just good wishes to make things happen.

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