Photos by Mathew Scott

Melanie Winter

Building the Foundations

As Director and Founder of The River Project, and the former Executive Director of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), Melanie Winter is no stranger to the many opinions people hold regarding the future of the LA River and its surrounding communities.

Over the years, the development of high-rise luxury apartments, large commercial retail spaces, a sports stadium, and even a freeway have all been proposed for the last remaining open spaces along the river’s banks. And nowhere have such proposals been more hotly contested than at Taylor Yard, a former feed mill turned railyard turned future site of a 100-acre river park.

Original plans for Taylor Yard did not include this park, 18 acres of which is now known as The Bowtie and is part of the greater Rio de Los Angeles State Park. Like other parcels with a history of industrial use, Taylor Yard seemed destined to become another lot of warehouses — until community members from neighboring Glassell Park, Cypress Park, and Elysian Valley protested in the late 90s.

“People had been very clear that they wanted Taylor Yard to provide additional open space because the community absolutely desperately [needed] it,” Melanie remembers.

In those years, imagining a future where the LA River was more than just a flood control channel was tough. For many, including some municipal leaders, it seemed like little more than an austere concrete channel. Melanie recalls some people even being surprised to learn that a river was in fact flowing through Los Angeles!

In order to adjust the public’s perception of the river, Melanie knew she’d have to organize. In 1998, alongside FoLAR and a host of other neighborhood coalitions, she assembled the first ever “River Through Downtown” conference. In gathering elected officials, community leaders, and representatives from local organizations, the conference made space for participants to consider the river’s significance across many aspects of civic life in LA.

The first of many community listening sessions on the matter, this initial gathering helped cement Melanie’s commitment to a process of revitalization that is as holistic as it is responsive to the community’s needs. For Melanie, framing is key.

“You can’t address any problems on the river or transform the river if you’re only looking at the river. The river is the result of the entire watershed. That’s what creates it.”

Melanie Winter is the founder and director of The River Project, a non-profit organization that encourages responsible management of watershed lands and the revitalization of rivers. Her goal is to provide communities with the tools they need to reclaim their riverfront lands and restore our local water supplies. Winter organized a coalition of local groups that secured the land and $45 million in state funds to build the LA River’s largest park: Rio de Los Angeles State Park.

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