5 Questions for L.A. River kayaker and neighborhood councilman Steve Appleton

By Nathan Solis

Elysian Valley artist Steve Appleton lived a Huckleberry Finn lifestyle growing up in Michigan near natural springs, rivers and other bodies of water. So it’s no surprise to find Appleton leading groups down the Los Angeles River via kayak as a tour guide for L.A. River Kayak Safari. The river is a lifestyle for Appleton, part of his backyard. Now with Mayor Eric Garcetti announcing a $1 billion renovation plan for the river, Appleton knows that a lot more attention will be paid to the neighborhood.

“Anybody here for any period of time is feeling the uncertainty of change in the air.  That’s a constant concern on the street.”

As President of the Elysian Valley Neighborhood Council, Appleton, 53, is familiar with most residents’ concerns and is proud to be part of such a close-knit community. Often he compares notes with other L.A. River artists, like poet Lewis MacAdams or Brett Goldstone, who makes ornate metal gates along the river. They share ideas about their relationship with the river, and how that romantic aesthetic plays out in their lives.

“Spending more time with Lewis in the last year has revealed to me how the river flowing above ground also flows as an undercurrent to relationships,” Appleton said.

Do you often kayak by yourself? Have you ever had a moment where no one is around to share that experience?
In the past I had more alone moments than now!  The real answer though is that kayaking on the L.A. River is a combination of being with others and being alone.  The experience of paddling a kayak is literally “self-balancing.”  You need to both balance the boat and balance your stroke.  You also become acutely aware of your posture and how shifting position or stroke propels and navigates you.  For me, kayaking in a group reminds me of fond childhood memories of falling asleep on a couch during a party.  There is some comfort in knowing and hearing all that surrounds me.  I feel aware and strangely rested even though I am making effort physically.

How has Elysian Valley changed since you’ve sat on the neighborhood council?
Streets are a bit cleaner, path is improved, lighting better, more parks.  The gang has softened a lot and the worst of the old violence and drug distribution have receded.  We also have a very active group of citizen who really care about their community. That’s been a constant for years but it seems we are getting more traction with the city in decision making process about the future. Personally, I feel my relationship with people here continues to deepen, sometimes in surprising ways.

I am really sad to see some of the old time businesses close up.  I teared up a bit the other day talking with John Grindley — owner of Grindley Machine Shop that just closed up business after being in our hood since 1956. The reason: up-and-down business combined with an offer he could just not refuse to convert the old metal building to live-work.

What importance do you think the river holds for the future of Los Angeles?
I truly believe that the LA River is the thread that will weave a tapestry of a new kind of urban experience in Los Angeles.  Not just parks but also new kinds of economy.  I think we greatly underestimate the ways that this new economy could be a real creative powerhouse.  I think we underestimate the value of taking care of some of the old buildings and structures and repurposing them in creative ways. I think we underestimate how much of a destination we can create for others to visit if we pay attention not just to coffee shops or beer pubs but also creating a context for creative business active in design, art, new technologies but also the crafting of real things.  Our neighborhood is known for all of its excellent craft, something that has for decades provided employment.

What one issue do you feel is often overlooked when it comes to the river or its surrounding communities?
I think there is the impression among many in L.A. that the river has just been discovered.  Not so. Even when the river was only a channel and when the bike path was a service road, local community used the river. One man now in his nineties told me about that plywood boat that he and his buddies built. They would take turns riding the boat all the way into downtown with the other trailing as they could on bike. They’d bring the boat back together and the other would get his turn. This is very important because it establishes that local communities have a historic established use of the river and pathway.  So as we plan the future that use must not be displaced.

For people who have never traveled by boat on the L.A. River, what should they expect and what should they do to prepare?
For taking the trip down the L.A. River, first and foremost wear the right clothes, shoes, bring water, sun screen – all the basic right stuff. Expect far more of a journey than you might first imagine.  The trip is a real adventure with lots of lazy river but also some small rapids.  You will most certainly see wildlife you don’t expect.  Come ready and open for a challenge and to be surprised a bit.

Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis’ stories, reviews and photos at Smashed Chair.

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