To understand the Los Angeles River’s present and appreciate visions for the river’s future requires an understanding of the river’s past. Unfortunately, Los Angeles is a city infamous for erasing its own history, for re-building and re-developing with such rapid turnover that photographs from forty years ago look entirely foreign. Much of Los Angeles’ history is buried while some of it hides in plain sight. The LA River is no exception.
The Los Angeles River is not an incorporated part of daily LA life. It’s buried, blocked-off and lined with concrete. Worst of all, much of Los Angeles doesn’t understand how the river came to be that way. Some Angelenos aren’t aware of the river’s natural past at all, seeing it as a man-made aqueduct rather than a controlled force of nature. Because of this, in part, the river tends to be a void in the Los Angeles landscape – overlooked, misunderstood, and generally mistreated.
“I think the disrespect of the river comes from a lack of historical consciousness. And it has to be worked out. Maybe over generations,” said Abe Hoffman, a professor of California history at Valley College. To get a deeper understanding of the river’s past, I reached out to the Los Angeles City Historical Society, asking for voices to hear and brains to pick. Within minutes, they directed me to Hoffman.
I spoke with Hoffman about why the majority of L.A.’s citizens doesn’t understand or appreciate the river now – the answer is far more nuanced than simple misunderstanding.
Lack of historical consciousness is a truism for Los Angeles. LA still exists in the popular imagination as the final frontier and the city is filled with newcomers who don’t know or understand the region’s history. So, instead of growing, Los Angeles is re-imagined and re-born every few decades. The river has been left out of these re-imaginings altogether.
“This city’s notorious for [erasing its own history],” Hoffman sighed, “and the one reason why is that there are so many new people coming and they don’t know what was there before – they don’t know the city. They have a very superficial understanding of it.”
Hoffman regaled me with stories of his neighborhoods, car dealerships that used to be filled with so much life but are now vacant, natural spreads that were paved over for a burgeoning suburbia, and a particular diversion of the LA River known as the Zanja Madre – now totally lost apart from one plaque along Olvera Street and one untouched segment in the Cornfields, a state park north of Chinatown.
Los Angeles was founded because of the river. When the Spanish entered what is now California territory in order to build sites for their mission work, Father Juan Crespi first recorded encounters with Los Angeles and the river in 1769 – then called the Rio de Porciúncula – before the original Los Angeles pueblo was established. By 1781, El Pueblo Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles was established on the river’s bank. Nearly a hundred years later, when the Southern Pacific railroad reached Los Angeles, its tracks were laid alongside the river, where they remain today. The city’s population leapt from 11,000 in 1880 to over 50,000 in 1890, largely due to the cheap train fare west. Settlements encroached on the river’s banks, only to fall victim to the wild, unpredictable flows and floods.
“To show how dangerous the Los Angeles River can be,” Hoffman said, “There was a deputy sheriff at that particular time named Martin Aguirre. In this flood that was caused by the LA River overflowing its banks and going down toward the ocean very quickly and destroying bridges along the way, people were caught out in the river and he waded out on his horse and he rescued about 20 people, pulled them out. And he was a hero.”
Given the river’s unassuming trickle today, leaving much of the concrete exposed and bleaching in the sun, the river’s history of fierce flooding is difficult to imagine. To grasp a better sense of the river’s torrid past, I spoke with members of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). Willy Arroyo is one of the nature guides at the Frog Spot, FoLAR’s community center in Frogtown, a neighborhood in Elysian Valley that’s difficult to find unless you know where you’re going.
Arroyo led me to a patch of dry land in the middle of the water in a section of the river known as the Glendale Narrows, a stretch of greenway that runs from Griffith Park to Elysian Park.
“The reason why it caused so much flooding is because this was a seasonal river,” Arroyo said while we watched the water swiftly run past, “which means it would only flow when it was the rainy season. So a lot of people weren’t prepared for it. Half of the year there would be no water, so a lot of people would put their houses where the river passes. And because it was a seasonal river, it had a direction, it just didn’t have a path. So it would go everywhere and [towns] would get flooded and people would die.”
Truthfully, the river is still powerful when it rains. Arroyo pointed toward several plastic bags ten feet up in the greenery. He told me that because of a recent rainstorm, the river had run high enough for trash to get caught in tree tops.
“The Army Corps of Engineers tried to figure out the fastest and cheapest way to fix it,” he said, gesturing toward the concrete bank on the other side, “because it was right in the middle of the Great Depression. There wasn’t a lot of money to go around. So they figured just channelize the river, add cement and that will solve all problems. But they didn’t realize that in the future that was going to cause the natural resources that were in the river to die off.”
The river that was created in the late 1930s is the river we have today, for the most part. It’s remained largely unchanged, apart from the Glendale Narrows, where the natural resources did grow back and wildlife did return – somewhat miraculously. The stretch of the river visible from the 5 freeway near Griffith Park and Atwater Village is dense and green, unlike the miles of concrete that mark the river’s downtown stretches. In fact, when the river was paved over, the water itself was buried under the concrete, where it still runs unseen today. In the Glendale Narrows, however, the water broke through before the concrete could set and, over decades, the natural resources grew back and the wildlife returned to this seven mile portion. Other than this special stretch, concrete lines the rest of the LA River’s 51 miles from Canoga Park to Long Beach.
According to Hoffman, it took around 20 years for the Army Corps to set the concrete along the 51 miles. The river, erratic and fickle, was tamed: a flood control project rather than a beast of nature.
Though the current of the river may be low for most of the year, trash in tree tops in the Glendale Narrows is one harrowing sign that the river – made largely inaccessible to the public by chain-link fences, barbed wire, train tracks and freeways – still has potential to wreak havoc.
“They put those things up because the view, I think, of the protection of the river is that it is an attractive nuisance, not an attraction,” Hoffman said. “There’s a big difference.”
Only a firm understanding of the past can help the Los Angeles River grow and develop rather than enter into the Los Angeles trap of re-imagination. The future of the river is taking shape in a way that does pay homage to the river’s past, remembering its temper and respecting its power, but uncertainty about the exact plans have Angelenos concerned. With over twenty master plans from various factions of the city, the confusion and the distress are understandable.
Then this summer, a mere whisper of the name Frank Gehry thrust the river into Los Angeles’ consciousness with alarming clarity. The LA Times announced that Mayor Eric Garcetti would be working with architect Frank O. Gerhy to conceive and execute a plan for bringing the LA River into active play as part of the city’s future urban design and development.
What does this plan look like, and how exactly is Gehry involved? And who gets to participate with him? Who are the decision-makers? The stakeholders? What is, in fact, at stake?
Stay tuned for chapter three of Currents, in which I talk to the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, who are working with Gehry.