Steve Schleier has kayaked spectacular and scenic rivers from West Virginia to Alaska. So when the Los Angeles lawyer heard that his hometown river was opening to public navigation for the first time in decades, he was all in.
It didn’t matter that the open section is a mere 2 1/2 miles long. It didn’t matter that the riverbed is lined with concrete. And it didn’t matter that the course features more warehouses than white water.
For Schleier, like many Angelenos, the opening of a modest piece of the Los Angeles River on Monday was all about redemption and possibility.
“Today,” he said, preparing to put in at Rattlesnake Park, where Fletcher Drive crosses over the water, “is like getting your toe in the water for the revitalization of the river.”
Earlier in the day, local officials and river aficionados gathered to celebrate the opening of the section between Fletcher and Oros Street as a recreation zone for the summer. The designation allows people to boat, walk, kayak or fish from dawn to sundown through Labor Day, Sept. 2. In the past, some of those activities have been allowed but only by permit.
By the time the Los Angeles River runs under the Fletcher Drive bridge, it has coursed and trickled from its source in the Simi Hills. It empties into the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach.
Most of the river was entombed in concrete in the 1930s as city leaders sough a solution to a series of deadly floods. After that, the river became a backdrop for Los Angeles’ unchecked sprawl, a symbol of urban blight — and a punch line.
In the 1980s, local and environmental groups took up its cause and began pushing to remove the concrete and return the river to its natural state. Since then, voters have approved millions of dollars in bond measures for the development of recreational opportunities along its course.
In 2011, a scenic portion in the San Fernando Valley’s Sepulveda Basin opened for guided tours, and tickets sold out within minutes. Today, hiking and bike trails and pocket parks dot its course, and it serves as a habitat for more than 200 species of birds.
Councilman Ed Reyes, speaking at the ceremony, said that when he was growing up, he and his friends hung out at the river, even though it was technically off limits, because the parks were riddled with gangs.
“We needed a sanctuary, a place to go, and the river gave us that,” he recalled. “We were told you couldn’t go in, so — as 10-year-olds — we went in anyway.”
The ceremony was held in Marsh Park, a pocket park in the neighborhood between the river and Interstate 5. Reyes said the park and the new recreation zone should be a model for the broader reclamation of the river.