“This is the first green street in Los Angeles?” I asked myself when I first visited Oros Street a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t look like much, green-wise. It’s one of the no-through streets in Elysian Valley, between Riverside Drive and the Los Angeles River, two blocks long and lined with modest single-family homes. There’s a fancy little pocket park at the intersection of Riverside, but beyond that, it was just a paved street--it was garbage day, and the bins were strewn around after collection. A couple of guys sat on a low wall in front of one of the houses chatting. There was an “End” sign at the end, and chain-link. Behind that, the river, which you can’t see from street level.
I had first heard of the street when Eric Garcetti mentioned it recently during remarks at the dedication of the Elysian Park Extension. Despite its distinction of having been the first project completed under Prop O, little was written about it in local blogs or newspapers. Even Nature Trumps, Jay Babcock’s excellent (now defunct) river blog, took no notice.
Looking into it further I learned that, according to Garcetti’s office, Oros was: “the first storm water infiltration street in the city. Strategically positioned to capture runoff from the surrounding hills of Elysian Park, Oros Street has long seen water flow over it and into the LA River, polluting our watershed.”
The city’s first “green” street was dedicated in 2007.
“With funding from Prop O and state and federal sources,” Garcetti’s 2007 statement read, “Northeast Trees put together a project that shows how our infrastructure can purify, rather than contaminate, our water-- and how we can do it green.”
Using gravel and natural filtration techniques, Oros Street was refitted to “take the same water it once merely conveyed to the river and now clean it, while providing green space that beautifies the community along the river.”
The project cost about $885,000. At least one similar street has been dedicated since 2007: Riverdale Ave., also in Elysian Valley (AKA Frogtown); it was completed in 2010. We’re certainly going to need a lot more of these completions before we can make a significant start in delivering clean water to the L.A. River.
So, at the time of my first visit to Oros, I imagined a something that would look like a symbolic landmark in the green transition of our city: the pavement would be torn out, replaced with hard packed yellow sand; there would be iron works of trout, bears and herons in the middle of the street; all the flora would be native. I don’t know–maybe I thought there’d be thunder, or brass historic markers, some kind of plaque, at least. I thought a “green” place would be aesthetized in a certain way–a Theodore Payne public showcase.
Which is why the first time I went to Oros, I left and went home to check my Thomas Brothers guide (having forgotten to bring my phone) and read the literature more closely. Perhaps there was another piece of Oros floating around Elysian Valley somewhere (like Silver Lake-Echo Park’s Effie Street, which pops up here and there, wherever you’re not expecting it).
But no, I had gone to the right place. I simple hadn’t known how to read it. What I thought was an entrance to the river was an entrance to a tiny park – Steelhead Park–perhaps 1/16 of an acre, which does double duty as a filtering facility. And, on the residential part of the street, the filtration was easy to overlook–in the medians between the houses and the street, where soil filtration and vegetative bioretention treatments “clean” storm water before it reaches the Los Angeles River. Native oaks have been planted up and down the street as well. But they’re very young. When they get bigger, they’ll be beautiful.
“This project marks the first time that a neighborhood can say that it is contributing no pollutants to the Los Angeles River because the Oros Green Street Project will clean water from this neighborhood before it enters the River” Larry Smith, Executive Director of North East Trees, said in a 2007 statement. “This project … can transform and complete the cycle of restoring nature’s services in an urban environment.”
I came to see the beauty of it--that the most ordinary of places can be transformed from within. Natural systems can be used to create better natural environments in the inner cit–if we keep going. It doesn’t have to look a certain way, it just has to work.