Anyone who is familiar with the Los Angeles River’s Eastside waterfront is inevitably connected by stories about the legendary River CATz. As a kid I looked forward to the weekends when we visited my grandmother in the San Fernando Valley. Heading north on Interstate 5, my siblings and I would anxiously await the curve around Elysian Park to count the illustrations of cat silhouettes painted on the River’s storm-drains. There was always a new cat to see, and sometimes a whole series. We didn’t know anything about the policies or processes that supported or prevented the creation of these images – all we knew was that they brought us joy. These ephemeral, temporary, and fleeting images left a critical imprint on me, one strong enough to motivate me to write a thesis about the value of River-based artistic production and the role it can serve to enhance planning and design efforts related to the River’s future.
The artist behind the River CATz is Leo Limón. Limón’s work is influenced by growing up in the River-adjacent neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, as well as the formative years of the Chicano Arts Movement. Regarded as the unofficial “Arts Ambassador of East L.A.,” Limón has been painting the RiverCATz for over thirty five years. Today Limón continues painting “the famous gatitas.” His work on the River has evolved from an organic, informal, and non-sanctioned arts process to one that has been celebrated and commended by elected officials and public agencies across Los Angeles.
Often dedicated to a specific person in Los Angeles, Limón’s goal with the River CATz is both physical and social – providing an aesthetic improvement to the River’s storm drain covers while working with community members along the Elysian Valley to raise awareness about the River’s historic and creative roots.
Last January I met with Limón at Oros Park in the Frogtown area of the River. We spent a couple of hours together talking about his favorite River storm drains to paint CATz at, and also drove around checking out the community murals he’s painted for local schools. I also had a chance to share with Limón how much the River CATz influenced my concept of informal and arts-based urban design.
For Limón, the largest challenge on the River is access and over-regulation. To address it, Limón envisions unity along the River through the creation of the Art Peace Park. The goal of the Park would be to connect the banks of the River through an educational sister-school partnership. It would include a workforce development program to employ taggers in Frogtown and Toonerville and allow them to use their creative energies to influence the River’s future. Limón also sees more gardens and vegetables, and has hopes for the development of stronger community connections with his native Lincoln Heights and other River-adjacent low-income and minority communities. “It’s important for people to know that the River’s walls can be used for creative and temporary interventions that can create change and engage with local communities on multiple levels,” said Limon.
Check out this video clip of Limón in action. On the cognitive map (above) Limón drew for me, he wrote: “Art Peace Park Place. Be a part of the bigger picture… Peace 4 Peace. Bring a broom, keep it clean. Orale!” For the future of the Los Angeles River, these sounds like words to live by.