It was on a recent Tuesday morning, late into the dry season, that I found myself sitting on the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, feeling good. The sun was beating down, the way it nearly always does in this part of town at that time of day, gardens and front yards in the neighborhood I passed through to get here were as parched as one expects nowadays. September in most places brings an end to summer. Here, everything just turns another shade of brown. For some reason, however, right there, right then, everything felt near to perfect. It felt like someplace a million miles away from here, far from the endless flow of traffic at the very nearby freeway interchange.
For the first time I could remember, all I could hear was the rushing of the river, the day's stiff breezes rustling through a nearly tropical thicket of trees, bushes and grass rising out of the water, the occasional whirr of either a passing cyclist on the river trail above me or the fishermen sitting next to me, silent, enjoying a morning of catch and release.
Instead of the usual faint whiff of exhaust, it smelled good – you know, like nature – almost like it had just rained, even if this part of the world hasn’t seen much of that in months. I hadn't intended on stopping long – I ended up losing track of time, completely forgetting why I'd come by in the first place.
Oh, right. After years of being the butt of jokes, the Los Angeles River – mostly now corralled into concrete confines, for flood control reasons – is, we're told, back. More than a billion dollars will now be pumped into the river's transformation to what will ultimately be an 11-mile linear park, connecting a resurgent Downtown Los Angeles with the urban wilds of Griffith Park. This particular stretch the river, running through a neighborhood called Elysian Valley, is now supposedly one of the best places to see and feel, just what the future might look like.
Jammed between concrete channel and a ceaselessly-thundering Interstate 5, Elysian Valley was named not for its idyllic setting but due to its location at the bottom of the crumbling bluffs comprising the back side of Elysian Park, famously home to Dodger Stadium.
Over the years, the neighborhood has become better known – by those who even know it's there – as Frogtown, for the frogs that once serenaded this part of town at night. It's largely still a quiet, working class neighborhood, but in the last few years, a groundswell of change has turned it from a nearly secret enclave to one of the most compelling little neighborhoods in a part of the city that's hardly short on interesting. Creative businesses are bringing new energy to the light industrial area, sagging bungalows are slowly being renovated (and flipped for a tidy profit, in some cases), a sizable riverfront loft development has just been completed. More and more little parklets are popping up, while restaurants and cafes – even a new brewery - are appearing in places you didn't even know there was room for them to take root. Frogtown, it turns out, isn't just up and coming, it's already here. Ready to explore? Here are some essential stops.
Edras Ochoa's indoor-outdoor restaurant, mere feet from the nearest entrance to the river path, is pretty much everything that's excellent about Los Angeles dining right now in one exceedingly popular location. It's smart, it's a scene, but the food is accessible, the vibe come-as-you-are, the prices are great and the welcome is almost exceptionally warm. Two tacos and an on-tap margarita will run you about $15 – hardly what the old-timers in the neighborhood are used to paying – but this is more than just another taco stop. This is one of the city's most talked about restaurants. Come soak it all in and be jealous that you don't live within walking distance, because the parking is terrible.
With a recent and massive expansion, this hidden green space by the river's edge is now quite easily one of the best little parks in Los Angeles. It comes in three pieces – a small nature park along the river, a popular skate park and the sparkling new main area, complete with extensive outdoor workout circuit, an expansive, well-kept lawn – a treat in this part of the world – bioswales, shaded picnic spots and, most importantly, open access to the river. What feels like half of Southern California is usually sitting in traffic on the nearby freeways, but down here, it's so mellow, you might find yourself breaking out into yoga pose or two.
3. Weekends at The Frog Spot
It will take years to fully complete the transformation of the river, but those who can't wait that long are welcome to come hang out in what feels a lot like – hopefully – the future. Open on Saturdays and Sundays in season, this friendly, riverside compound acts as a sort of visitors center and hangout spot for neighborhood families and fans of the river from all over. Come down for a game of bocce, a cup of coffee, live music some days, snacks from the on-premises kiosk, free classes, bike repair and more.
Part bike shop, part live music venue, part café (brewing up beans roasted mere blocks upriver) and all fun, this Thursday-Sunday must-stop at the foot of Coolidge Street (you guessed it, right on the river) is currently evolving to add a proper restaurant. With booze. Watch this space – preferably from Spoke's cheerful courtyard on a sunny afternoon, artisanal paleta in hand.
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