“Ideas, like large rivers, never have just one source.” – Willy Ley
Last Sunday, my three-year-old Andrew wanted to go on a bike ride. So my husband put Andrew’s bike in the back of the car, strapped in Andrew and his little brother Alex, and drove to the Tannery Arts Center campus, where I work, and where there is plenty of paved, safe open space.
I hopped on my cruiser to meet them there. I live about a block and a half from a trestle bridge that connects this side of Santa Cruz to the Boardwalk, and at the bottom of the bridge is the starting point for the River Walk, a long path that meanders next to the San Lorenzo River. The river runs through downtown and past the Tannery Arts Center, which is where the River Walk ends. The small miracle of this means that when I ride to work, I only have to be on surface streets for a block and a half. The rest of my ride I’m flying by the flora and fauna that call the river home – flowers and countless species of birds and tiny skittering animals – and eleven minutes later I’m at the front door of my office.
The sad part? I was largely alone on that ride. It was a perfect, sunny, 70-degree Santa Cruz early spring day, and almost nobody was out enjoying the river. No paddlers, no picnickers, no pedestrians. No families out for a stroll or packs of cyclists in their spandexed glory.
The San Lorenzo River is the historic and environmental heart of this city. These days, the community is both literally and figuratively cut off from it. A series of levees built in the 1950’s blocks the river from view; and as criminal activity increased next to it, the community avoided it, and many have forgotten about it altogether. But it wasn’t always so. A century ago, it was the celebrated lifeblood of the community, and even supported the most anticipated annual event in Santa Cruz: the San Lorenzo Venetian Water Festival. Four days of celebration included fireworks displays, dancing on a temporary floral pavilion, night parades, and lavishly decorated boats and barges. Thousands of lights were strung from shore to shore.
Now, the river doesn’t meet federal water quality objectives; it has a high concentration of criminal activity adjacent to it, and local policies prohibit access, so there is no swimming, paddling, or any other recreation in the water. Some community members don’t even realize we have a river running through our city, and many that do generally avoid it, as it’s not seen as a safe place.
The river should be our pride and joy. It should be a place where we come to celebrate and recreate. It should be an engine of economic activity and should be recognized as our main source of drinking water, wildlife habitat, and flood protection. It should inspire, delight, and restore us as we wander down its path.
There have been many stalled and unsuccessful attempts over the years to remedy this problem. Now, though, something is afoot that has the potential to, if you will, turn the tide. Greg Pepping of the Coastal Watershed Council has created the San Lorenzo River Alliance. The Alliance is a coalition focused on revitalizing the health of the San Lorenzo River and transforming it into a safe and welcoming community destination. Greg is working on pulling together partners from a wide swath of interests to collectively work on this vision. It will take years, but I believe he will be successful.
And the arts are going to help him get there.
The Arts Council, in partnership with the Coastal Watershed Council, the City of Santa Cruz Water Department, the City of Santa Cruz Arts Commission, the Tannery Arts Center, the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center, and numerous incredible local artists including Kathleen Crocetti, applied for a significant grant from the California Arts Council. This grant, through the Creative California Communities program, would invigorate both the river and the Tannery campus, and bring together some seriously awesome folks, many of whom have never worked together before. Here’s the “project thumbnail” from the grant:
Unlikely partners will unite to transform the community’s relationship with the San Lorenzo River and the Tannery Arts Center through the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project, a yearlong collaborative arts and educational initiative culminating in a Kinetic Sculpture Parade & River Festival. The Project will spark a movement that builds constituencies for the Tannery campus and the river, elevates water literacy, inspires hubs of economic activity, and strengthens cross-sector relationships.
Sounds fantastic, right? We will create a large sculptural fountain which includes a water catchement system with a spill-way to the Tannery Garden. The large, round planters around campus will be decorated with water-inspired mosaics. We’ll do a series of educational workshops co-led by artists and water experts. We’ll create temporary public art at five River Walk access points to call attention to those locations and educate community members about the river. And it will all culminate next June in a Kinetic Sculpture Parade & Festival, featuring work by Tannery and community artists, who will create sculptures that will parade down the river – or the River Walk, if the flow isn’t high enough – ending at the Tannery where we’ll celebrate with dance, music, artmaking, and food.
We’ll engage the environmental population in the arts, and arts audiences in a celebration of the river. We’ll use the energy and momentum created by the festival to advocate for friendlier policies for the use of the river (with habitat and conservation always at front of mind, of course). We’ll bring thousands of people to the Tannery campus. And we’ll help realize the potential of the river and the campus as major hubs of toursim and economic activity.
What if we don’t get the grant? I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t regret all of the time and energy I put into bringing these people together. Just the process of brainstorming the idea, and crafting the proposal led me to meet some fantastic folks, and to begin to deepen relationships with some I already knew. I’m happy to now be serving on the San Lorenzo River Alliance’s River Oversight Committee, and my own “water literacy” has been dramatically raised since I started working on this proposal.
And I’ve fallen in love with our river. I ride my bike on the River Walk whenever I get the chance, and I look forward to the day when my Sunday afternoon ride is idyllic in a different way : maybe not as quiet and peaceful as last Sunday, but wonderful in its own way with the sounds of kids laughing, paddlers splashing, cyclists spinning, birders spotting, and community members of all kinds finding a place to relax, reconnect, and restore.
If you live in Santa Cruz county, and if you are interested in sharing your vision for the river and shaping the work of the San Lorenzo River Alliance, please complete this survey. Your input is extremely valuable to the Alliance!