Photos by Mathew Scott

Helen Leung

River Playground

“My dad worked the graveyard shift, so my mom took care of us, but my mom was busy oftentimes at the sewing machine meeting her deadlines. We got to go play when we didn’t have to support her.” Helen Leung cherished the moments when she and her sister were given free reign to explore the neighborhood, but their preferred playground wasn’t one with slides or swings. Rather, it was in a concrete channel of the LA River that their childhood curiosity and imagination found space to flourish.

“My sister and I knew every single fence that we could jump over or climb under to get to the river, through Churchside and Parkside.”* Here, the river functioned more like a toy store than a waterway. “Our toys were what we found on the LA River.”

From discarded playthings to dolls swept up by the river’s currents, Helen recalls an assortment of items from her childhood that confirmed children can in fact create toys out of anything.

Once, she and her sister became mutually enthralled by a dumpster full of cardboard boxes near one of the many factories lining the river. They both had the same idea: they needed to take the boxes home and construct an “amazing cardboard house as [their] toy.” They received permission from the owner of the factory — whom Helen would bump into and share this story with in her adult years — and immediately lugged the packaging supplies home with them.

Now, reflecting back on these memories as both an urban planner and the Executive Director of LA Más, a community-based organization that designs and builds initiatives to promote neighborhood resilience amongst working class communities of color in Northeast LA, Helen understands that rivers hold “good things, bad things, weird things, and probably dangerous things.” Still, for her and her sister, the LA River was (and is) a place of creativity, imagination, and possibility.

*In the neighborhood of Elysian Valley/Frogtown, Churchside refers to the part of the neighborhood closest to St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Parkside refers to the part of the neighborhood closest to Elysian Valley Recreation Center.

Helen Leung is a product of working-class Chinese immigrants, born in Los Angeles and raised in Frogtown (Elysian Valley). She is currently the Executive Director of LA Más, a community-based organization that builds collective power in Northeast Los Angeles. Prior to this, Helen worked for former mayor Eric Garcetti, Living Cities, the Office of Sustainable Housing & Communities at the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, and the Office of Political Affairs at the White House under President Obama’s administration.