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River of Dreams

The City of Paramount Has a Vision Thing

October 27, 2002|GINNY CHIEN

The Los Angeles River's concrete-lined channels can summon bleak images, whether it's a bystander being swept away in floodwaters on the local news or a liquid-metal shape-shifter hunting Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." But the southeast Los Angeles city of Paramount is offering a different perspective with a rainbow of three murals painted on the river's levees during the past three years. At Rosecrans Avenue, Somerset Boulevard and Alondra Boulevard, riverbed graffiti has given way to painted processions of Orcas, sharks and sea turtles frolicking along the embankment.

The three murals are part of an ongoing revitalization effort in a city that was declared a disaster area 20 years ago in a Department of Housing and Urban Development study measuring crime, welfare and other social indicators. Since the late 1980s, however, soothing fountains and outdoor sculptures usually reserved for silver-spoon neighborhoods have sprung up throughout the city. And white picket fences line frontyards where chain link once stood (the city pays 75 cents on the dollar for homeowners to make the switch). "Things like the murals are just baby steps, but when you do enough of them, it's a huge stride toward erasing blight," says City Manager Patrick West.

For the river project, Irvine-based artist Adel Rakhshani devised "happy" sea creatures at the request of city officials hoping to soften cold concrete and deter taggers. "It's like the kids know not to abuse the nice stuff," West notes. The artist, brought on board at the recommendation of West's stepson, a Newport Beach landscape architect, also integrated a subtler message--he positioned the animals swimming upstream to show that "it takes courage to go against the current."

Rakhshani produced one mural measuring nearly 40 feet by 350 feet during each of the past three years. "Let's face it, the river is not exactly beautiful," says the artist, who has also created public art for Burbank and Santa Ana. "People don't really take care of it, but I think we've made a very nice change."

Long the center of a tug of war between environmentalists striving to restore natural habitats and bureaucrats bent on preventing flood damage, the 52-mile L.A. River (four-fifths of which is encased) often sits untouched, its potential stifled at times by policy gridlock and litigation. Paramount is trying to buck the trend. Along with the murals, which cost about $60,000 and come from the city's general fund, the city plans to expand a park that lies between two of the three murals, which were strategically placed for maximum beautification. "We wanted them at the three bridges that lead into town so people can see these great big aquatic scenes when they're coming home or going to work," West says. "When you drive through Southeast L.A., you're going to see a lot of tough areas. Maybe the murals will give people a little break from that, perhaps even put a smile on their face."

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