Graffiti, the Los Angeles River, and the Federal Stimulus

December 28, 2009 § 4 Comments

Graffiti pieces reflected in the waters of the mighty Los Angeles - photo copyright Urban Photo Adventures - click for info on their tours

“Glad to see drab concrete restored back to its pristine condition” writes one presumably-sarcastic commenter on today’s informative L.A. Times article about recent graffiti abatement efforts on the L.A. River.

The story of L.A. River graffiti goes back quite a while. It’s a mixed bag; there are lots of different types out there – from fascinating hundred-year old hobo graffiti to beautiful elaborate pieces to irritating irreverent tagging. L.A. Creek Freak won’t attempt to be exhaustive here… but what follows are some anecdotes and thoughts about graffiti on the river… and better uses for federal stimulus monies than a short-term paint-out.

The Los Angeles River is a tangled mix of jurisdictions. Though it’s changing a bit right now, I used to tell folks that you could tell who maintained which area based on what graffiti was visible. The local Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (LACDPW which is the operational arm of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District LACFCD) includes the painting out of graffiti as part of their routine maintenance duties. County electeds and staff are a little closer to their constituents, hence they will receive calls about graffiti and will paint it out. They see graffiti as a quality of life issue. Their maintenance crews have been pretty active and for the most part, there’s very little graffiti in county-maintained stretches.

On the other hand, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE – part of the federal government) generally sees their ongoing responsibility as limited to maintaining the flood capacity of the channel. As graffiti has no impact on flood capacity, they would leave graffiti alone. Hence, the best places to view the most elaborate graffiti were the federally maintained stretches: most prominently the central part of the river – from along Griffith Park through downtown L.A. to the old railroad trestle bridge near Tweedy Boulevard in the city of South Gate.

When the Metro Gold Line opened in 2003, L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina pressed for the USACE to paint out graffiti in the portion of the concrete river walls that were viewable from the new train. On the rail line’s opening day, there were stark gray walls visible… but graffiti quickly moved back in. Also, in 2007-2008, Molina lead the county’s charge to paint out the permitted “Meeting of Styles” graf-art murals.

That leads us to 2009. This year the Obama administration made a priority of allotting federal stimulus monies to get our economy going. A chunk of those stimulus dollars came to the Los Angeles District of the USACE – targeted toward revitalizing the Los Angeles River. Despite Obama’s green jobs rhetoric and editorials from folks like TreePeople’s Andy Lipkis to spend stimulus on green and not gray… $837,000.00 of federal stimulus monies locally go to a 1-year project to paint the walls of the river… gray.

There’s, of course, a lot of outcry from local graf-art bloggers about the buffing of famous/infamous murals like SABER and MTA. I suspect, given the limited-term nature of the 1-year contract, that these murals will be back in full force… until a possible future round of gray stimulus funds.

More sad news is that the USACE is just painting out graffiti on the walls under its direct jurisdiction, so when those walls run next to a city historic bridge, a Caltrans highway, a Department of Water and Power electrical tower, a community mural, a Mourtains Recreation and Conservation Authority mini-park, or a privately-owned building… well… the other graffiti remains. So there’s still plenty of graffiti in the river viewshed… just none on the river’s concrete walls.

Creek Freak sees a big missed opportunity here. If I had nearly a million dollars to spend on creating jobs to revitalize the Los Angeles River, I’d invest it in groups like the Los Angeles Conservation Corps‘ River Keepers or North East Trees‘ Youth Environmental Stewards… or any of the hundreds of projects that would actually result in longer-term changes. As the river becomes greener, and is perceived by the public as a river, and valued as a natural and recreational resource… that’s when the public will respect it and will less likely to vandalize.

Just painting the walls gray is a Sisyphean task – a serious outlay of funds with an effect that will likely either disappear quickly when the current contract ends (and taggers rush in to fill the void) or it will use up future monies and still result in no real change.

I suspect a much better investment would be creating a small park that cleanses stormwater, like the 8th Street Park Project on the Pacoima Wash or the Bimini Slough Ecology Park. These projects create real green jobs.  The investment would increase in value over time Рcleaner air and water, decreased flooding, increased water supply, and overall reconnecting communities with nature in our midst.

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§ 4 Responses to Graffiti, the Los Angeles River, and the Federal Stimulus

  • ramonchu says:

    joe, who can I write an email about this to? I’ve been following this story since I got word of SABER’s biggest-graf-piece-in-the-world getting wiped out by stimulus dollars…is their a local USACE office email? Is Gloria Molina worth harassing? I think your suggestions are awesome, and I would even go so far as to say that the artistic expression visible in the examples you give are some of the most creative and cutting edge in the city, worth promoting and conserving through exhibitions and events–a river art park with a free-wall where art comes and goes, ebbs and flows, in harmony with the community of artists who create and maintain it and take pride in the river as the only place where any of this is possible. Let me know how we can end the criminalization and distortion of yet another aspect of river life…

    • Joe Linton says:

      Well… it’s pretty difficult for any politician to come out in favor of graffiti.

      I would say the best thing might be to write to federal electeds: Senators Boxer and Feinstein. I suggest keeping the letters fairly positive: I suggest that you say that painting out graffiti is a waste of taxpayer dollars (I think that would have more political resonance than “graf-art is great art” – but say what you think) I suggest stating what you’d like to see federal stimulus money better spent on. How about bike paths, parks, restored wetlands, natural areas to treat water pollution? Boxer actually got her political start fighting a USACE project in her neighborhood.

      To email Boxer, go here: http://boxer.senate.gov/en/contact/policycomments.cfm
      To email Feinstein, go here:

      http://feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=ContactUS.EmailMe

      Depending on where you live, you might also contact your representative (Ramon – for you I think it might be Xavier Becerra or Lucille Roybal-Allard)

  • [...] The L.A. River’s getting de-graffitied — to mixed responses. Joe Linton of L.A. Creek Freak looks into the debate and concludes [...]

  • [...] the river. He defines culture pretty broadly – from informal to formal – from¬†graffiti to poetry to dance to you name [...]

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