“The reality of making podcasts, audio documentaries and any kind of terrific documentary is that the story is never what you think it is,” said Cameron Tenner ’20, one of 13 recipients of this year’s Braden Storytelling Grant. Tenner will use the grant, an annual award of up to $2,500 given to Stanford undergraduates to research and create an audio podcast documentary, to explore how Los Angeles River impacts its history and legacy.
Each year, grants are distributed during spring quarter, and recipients begin research in the summer. Recipients receive a monetary award to assist with research expenses, and they also receive mentorship from faculty of the Stanford Storytelling Project (SSP).
SSP is an arts program offering courses, workshops and live events aimed to illuminate the transformative experience of storytelling and to empower students to share their own stories. In 2012, the Project expanded its scope by establishing the annual Braden Storytelling Grant, as well as a radio show called “State of the Human.”
According to its Soundcloud description, “State of the Human,” “shares stories that deepen our understanding of single, common human experiences — belonging, giving, lying, forgiveness — all drawn from the experiences and research of the Stanford community.”
Recipients in past years have explored stories ranging from that of a small town in Texas, fighting for water, to that of black communities using hip-hop as a rhythm of resistance in Havana. This year, recipients plan to explore various narratives in destinations including Philadelphia, Ecuador and Kenya.
Tenner attributes his interest in creating podcasts to his parents, who he says are loyal listeners of radio shows like NPR.
“Whether it was a roadtrip or a 10-minute drive to the store, NPR was always on,” Tenner said. “When I was a kid, I hated that… I [wanted] music. But as I got older, I started to really appreciate NPR, and programs like ‘This American Life,’ and their ability to tell these extraordinary stories.”
An Introductory Seminar Tenner took in freshman year, titled “Who Killed Jane Stanford,” encouraged him to get involved with SSP.
“We made a podcast about the death of Jane Stanford, who was [a] founder of Stanford University,” he said. “From there, [my interest] has just grown as I’ve written and made more podcasts.”
For his work with the Braden Storytelling Grant, Tenner said his story will focus on the history of the L.A. River. Specifically, he said he will explore how the river’s past informs its present, its future and, more importantly, “how its future will impact the people of Los Angeles.”
Until the 1930s, the river was untouched and frequently flooded with raging currents. To control the frequent and disastrous flooding, many sections of the river were paved with cement. In its current state, according to Tenner, the neglected river “looks like a sewer.”
“It was always this kind of ugly thing that I saw, but I also remember, as a kid, driving on the freeway over the river, there are some sections of the river where you have life springing up,” he said.
Reeds, egrets, and crayfish, for instance, call the L.A. river home. Noting the portions where life has cropped up on the riverbank, Tenner said he initially felt excited upon hearing that the city of Los Angeles planned to restore and revitalize the river.
“That’s what got me involved initially when I heard about this project that Los Angeles is undergoing,” he said. “I started looking into it, and then I realized, it’s huge. The scale of the project is huge, its impact is huge, and the nuance in what’s going on is enormous.”
Tenner added that he was enthusiastic about the “idea of the river as this restored habitat,” until he realized that “in that process, we might kill a lot of the life that has learned to live there.”
Recognizing the complexity of the city’s plan, he said, “What is our vision of restoration? Is it returning [the river] to something that was — before it was paved? … Should we be conserving the life that has sprouted out of this pavement? Should we be preserving what has faced adversity and overcome … or should we kill that and try to bring back something that’s been gone for almost 100 years?”
Aside from its ecological repercussions, the plan to restore L.A. River may cause social upheaval as well. The communities that live along the river are populated by predominantly working class and Latinx residents. Without parks and with poor access to clean air or water, these people have been “disenfranchised for a long time.”
While one of the aims of the project is to provide “essential environmental amenities” to these under-resourced communities, Tenner said he fears it could also lead to “green gentrification.”
“In this push to bring these environmental amenities to these neighborhoods, we make them a lot more appealing to outsiders to live there,” he said. “We increase property values when we create parks, and this could lead to displacement, or to gentrification. In our attempt to reach our end goal, we might miss it entirely because we’re not necessarily fully thinking through the implications of what we’re doing.”
L.A. is not alone in its desire to restore a nearby river. In fact, the L.A. River project follows a recent worldwide trend of urban revitalization. From Boston’s Charles River to Barcelona’s Rio Besos, many cities have completed similar riverfront projects.
“We are in this very important, monumental moment within Los Angeles and also within the world, where it’s the idea of the rebirth of cities,” Tenner said. “In the 70’s and 80’s, the scholarship of urban cities was all about decay, crime and the ruin of cities. Now, we’re in this moment where it’s all about the rebirth of cities and urbanism.”
Regarding the significance of the river and what becomes of it, Tenner discussed the symbolic meaning that the river holds.
“The city of Los Angeles exists because of the river,” he said. “That’s the reality of it… It was the lifeblood of Los Angeles but since then has been lost, has been forgotten, and has died in a way. I think the river tells the story of Los Angeles and provides a peek into the future of Los Angeles about whose city this will become. Will it become a city for the rich and the elite, or will it become a democratic place, an egalitarian place where all people are valued?”
Tenner noted the parallels between the past and present. In fact, the prospect of displacement “is in spatial proximity to a past incident,” known as “The Battle of Chavez Ravine.” During the 1950s, the city of L.A. used eminent domain to take over Chavez Ravine, a land expanse that was home to a large Mexican-American community.
Although displaced residents were promised affordable housing that was to be built on the land, the city ultimately decided to construct the Dodger Stadium. In an article for The Guardian, Jerald Podair questioned the “relationship between public and private power, the respective roles of urban core and periphery, and the modern identity of Los Angeles”.
“Dodger Stadium’s legacy is a city of contested dreams – past, present and future,” he wrote.
Discussing whether history will repeat itself on a larger scale, Tenner said, “[The L.A. river project] is a microcosm of what’s happening in Los Angeles and… in so many other cities around the world.”
Currently in the preliminary stages of his project, Tenner has researched green gentrification, “hotspots” of gentrification, and the housing crisis in L.A. He has also started to identify and contact possible sources, including city officials and community non-profits. He plans to be “on the field” interviewing sources in late August.
Tenner is also looking forward to kayaking the L.A. river and “unraveling” the true story behind its restoration. Aware that the storyline may be unpredictable, Tenner said he is prepared — and excited — to face the unexpected.
“I know it’s going to change a lot,” he said. “And it’s one of the things I love so much about this.”
Contact Regina Ta at rta.19 ‘at’ presentationhs.org.