For much of its history, Los Angeles was a river city. Yet a mere 30 years ago, most Angelenos knew little about their local river, dismissing its concrete-encased trickle as a joke when they didn’t ignore it altogether. This is no longer the case. In the last decade, interest in Los Angeles’s urban river has skyrocketed. Politicians, environmental activists, designers, and ordinary citizens are increasingly embracing their forgotten waterway, seeing in the Los Angeles River a degraded natural feature in dire need of rescue. The reasons for this renewed interest are varied and complex, but a common denominator — ranging from the bureaucratic to the environmental to the artistic — is a narrative that hews closely to the familiar declensionist plot in which the river begins as a wilderness and ends as a wasteland, destroyed by the “improving” forces of science and technology.
Years ago most Angelenos knew little about their local river, dismissing the concrete-encased trickle as a joke when they didn’t ignore it altogether.
Thomas Cole’s classic representation of this narrative, The Course of Empire, suggests that the progress of history is not linear, but cyclical. 1 His five panels, painted from 1834 to 1836, portray the rise and fall of civilization, beginning with The Savage State, which shows early humans (depicted as Native Americans) hunting and fishing in the wilderness; progressing to The Pastoral State, which illustrates the beginnings of agriculture and the invention of the arts and sciences; culminating in The Consummation of Empire, with the apex of culture envisaged as a scene of revelry in a marble-clad city; meeting its end in Destruction, with the city under attack, consumed by fire; and ending with the empty scene of Desolation, at once an end and a new beginning.
In this last painting, we see the concept of wasteland in its full complexity. A lonely column rises amidst a scene of devastation; the remains of the once opulent city are abandoned and overgrown. But if the scene contains a moral lesson — excess leads to annihilation — Desolation’s ruined column has a double message. In its incompletion, irregularity, and imperfection, it portends future growth and change. With vines creeping up the shaft and the heron perched atop the column, the ruin signals the end of one era and the rebirth of another.
Most histories of the Los Angeles River conform precisely to this type of cyclical narrative, and now engineers, city officials, artists, and designers are vying to “revitalize” and “restore” the river. The power of this narrative, with its themes of death and life, destruction and creation, sin and redemption, cannot be overestimated. If not for the galvanizing effect of a set of historical ideas — the belief that a site, destroyed and degraded by human industry, could be transformed into something evocative of its original condition through the power of “nature” guided by enlightened design — Los Angeles might have continued to forget that it ever was a river city. 2
The Savage State
During the centuries before it entered into the historical record (and for some time afterward), the Los Angeles River and its tributaries meandered over the 500 square miles of largely flat floodplain now covered by the streets, freeways, and houses of metropolitan L.A. For much of the year, the river was little more than a stream trickling through a wide sandy bed. But when the heavy winter rainstorms arrived, the stream would swell into a torrent; waters would rush down from the mountains, carrying gravel, silt, boulders, and trees. The sudden dramatic appearance of what Angelenos now call “rain events,” combined with the fact that the river’s normal flow was not sufficient to establish a set course or firm banks, meant that winter rains often led to flooding. The river basin was overspread with springs, marshes, and shallow ponds (the very name of La Cienega Boulevard recalls the landscape’s original swampy character), and the debris from the mountains, deposited over centuries, created a layer of alluvial silt that in some areas lies 20,000 feet thick. Flooding was the cause of the river basin’s remarkable fertility; Los Angeles was in fact one of the most productive agricultural regions in the United States until the introduction of commercial fertilizers and pesticides in the 1950s. 3
The river and its rich soils made the Los Angeles basin extremely attractive for settlement.
The river and its rich soils made the basin attractive for settlement. The valley was one of the most populous areas in precolonial North America, with no fewer than 45 Tongva villages located near the river’s banks. 4 But the relationship between the river and the humans who depended on it changed forever with the arrival of the Spanish in the second half of the 18th century. Between 1769 and 1777, Spain founded eight missions and three presidios, or fortified military encampments, in Alta California. But these early settlements struggled to grow food and relied upon supplies shipped at vast expense from central Mexico. It became clear that local pueblos, or agricultural colonies, needed to be established to provide the new settlements with a reliable food supply, and in 1769 a group of Spanish explorers, led by Captain Gaspar de Portolá, governor of Baja California, journeyed north to Monterey to scout sites.
One of the men in the party, Father Juan Crespí, was entrusted to draft a report. Crespí’s manuscripts provide some of the earliest accounts of Alta California, including the first description of what we now know as the Los Angeles River and its valley. 5 As Crespí described it, the explorers came upon a “good-sized, full-flowing river with very good water, pure and fresh” that flowed through a “very pleasant green valley.” Crespí noted the large trees — sycamores, willows, cottonwoods, live oaks — that grew in the river’s bed, and the “very large, very green bottomlands, seeming from afar to be cornfields because of their greenness” that extended on both of its banks. 6 He was struck by the “very green, lush, wide-reaching valley of level soil” that stretched as far as the eye could see, as well as by the enormous roses, grapevines, and sage that grew wild throughout its expanse. The valley was “a very lush pleasing spot, in every respect”; to Crespí, its “great extent of soil, all very green,” brought to mind “a most beautiful garden.” The Portolá expedition judged this site to be the best it encountered. “Good, better than good, and grand though the previous places may have been,” Crespí wrote, “to my mind this spot can be given the preference in everything, in soil, water, and trees.” Crespí prophesied that this site, ideal for settlement, would see the construction of “a very large plenteous mission.”
Thus did the river and its valley enter into the narrative of Western history: they were seen, their qualities were identified and enumerated, and they were endowed with a name: El Rio y Valle de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles de la Porciúncula — the River and Valley of Our Lady of the Angels of the Porciúncula — “because of this day on which we have come to it being, in our Seraphic Order, the one for winning that well known indulgence.” 7 The Spanish crown was petitioned for permission, and, in 1781, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Ángeles was founded close to the spot where Crespí and his companions had first encountered the river. 8
In his report, Crespí compares the valley to a field of wheat and to a lush garden; he uses the Spanish word vergel, connoting a pleasure garden of flowers and sweet-smelling plants. 9 It was clear that the river was the source of astonishing fertility, and equally obvious that it was prone to flooding. Describing the dry bed of an adjacent tributary (probably the Arroyo Seco), Crespí speculated about “what big torrents it must carry, with dead trees visible in its bed that it must carry down from the mountains.” To the early explorer, the causal relationship between fertility and flooding was immediately evident.
The Pastoral State
From its founding by the Spanish in 1781 to the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, the city of Los Angeles was completely reliant on the river for its water. The fledgling city was nourished by the river and, crucially, by an ever-expanding network of zanjas, or ditches, which included the main artery of the zanja madre, or “mother ditch.” In the years following the Gold Rush and California’s statehood, as the city’s fields flourished with vineyards, citrus groves, and vegetables, Los Angeles came to be seen not simply as a provincial farming town but also as an Eden reincarnate. 10
By the mid 19th century, the well-managed river had transformed the young city into a vision of Arcadia.
In 1856, a U.S. Army officer, Edward Ord, was struck by the “willow hedges & zanjas, or ditches, of flowing water. … All around us was a refreshing green, so grateful to the eyes and noses after the arid brown and yellow of the hot plains.” 11 A few years later, the miner and author John Shertzer Hittell rhapsodized about the “2,500 or 3,000 acres of brilliant green — the largest body of land in vineyard, garden, and orchard within so small a space in the state.” According to Hittell, two agricultural features propelled the city’s transformation: the willow hedges and the zanjas. The “zanjas, or irrigating ditches,” Hittell wrote, “run through the town in every direction.” They “vary in size, but most of them have a body of water three feet wide, and a foot deep, running at a speed of five miles an hour. They carry the water from the river to the gardens, and are absolutely necessary to secure the growth of the fences, vines, and many of the fruit trees.” Vividly recalling Goethe’s Mignon’s Song, Hittell likened Los Angeles to a paradise, where “luscious fruits, of many species and unnumbered varieties, loaded the trees. Gentle breezes came through the bowers. The water rippled musically through the zanjas. Delicious odors came from all the most fragrant flowers of the temperate zone.” 12 The well-managed river had transformed the young city into a vision of Arcadia.
Los Angeles was shaped by a dual need to be at a safe distance from its unpredictable, flood-prone river, and in close contact with the river’s highly controlled, artificial reincarnation: the zanja madre and its network of ditches. This relationship between city, river, and ditch is illustrated by the map drawn up by Ord and the surveyor William Rich Hutton in 1849. 13 Agricultural lands occupy the area between the river and the city up on the Elysian Hills, with the southerly extension of both fields and city closely conforming to the route of the zanja madre. At the same time, the problematic nature of the flood-prone river is indicated by this inscription: “sand over which the River spreads its waters which are wasted.” 14 Ord and Hutton’s map positions the river as both essential and troublesome. In this light the zanja madre could be cast as the “good twin” of the wayward Los Angeles River: even as the river was either too dry or overly abundant, the zanja madre supplied water calmly and consistently, and in all the right places. The zanja madre was, in other words, the Los Angeles River tamed and perfected by the improving force of human culture.
The Consummation of Empire
Lyrical visions of the city attracted new settlers, and before long a series of population booms would transform Los Angeles into one of most extensive metropolitan areas in America. But with more people came the need for more water, and a modern water distribution network was soon developed. Already in 1853, William C. Dryden, a former judge, had petitioned for a franchise to build a network of pipes to distribute water to the northwestern part of the city. He formed the Los Angeles Water Works Company in 1858 and built a conduit that began with a 40-foot waterwheel in the zanja madre and ended with a brick reservoir in the middle of the plaza. From this centrally located building, through pipes made of pine, water was conducted underground to the houses of the wealthy. The Los Angeles Water Works Company was succeeded by the Los Angeles City Water Company, formed in 1868, and over three decades a series of dams, reservoirs, waterwheels, and covered pipes began to replace the system of urban water carriers that for decades had supplied the city and its residences.
At the same time, the original dirt zanjas were lined with masonry, brick, and concrete; soon they were a feature of the 19th-century streetscape. 15 Emma Adams, who visited the city in the 1880s, remarked upon the “seventy-five miles or more of canals … forming the Los Angeles Irrigation System,” and described the method by which water was conducted to the city’s gardens, groves, and vineyards. Recalling the sensory delights of this network, she wrote: “the soft murmuring of water as it glides through the zangas [sic] in some of the beautiful suburbs of the city is sweet music to the ear, a happy voice sending out joy and gladness. Wherever it is heard are sure to be seen verdure, flowers, and fruit.” 16 In this way, the wild and unpredictable Los Angeles River was remade into a tractable urban water source.
No longer valued as a natural resource, the ever wilder river was now feared as a ‘predator.’
This modern water distribution system came close to draining the river dry. By 1900 Los Angeles had abandoned most of the zanjas, and the “city of vines,” accustomed to fluctuations in water supply, had been replaced by a metropolis where constant domestic water use was, as the engineer William Mulholland asserted, “necessary for the maintenance of the beauty for which [the city] is famous.” 17 Excessive water use (along with gravel mining and dumping) had transformed the “beautiful limpid stream” into a desiccated sandy bed. This critical situation spurred Mulholland to formulate his “Titanic Project to Give [the] City a River.” 18 With the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Los Angeles River was rendered almost obsolete. Drawing water from the distant Owens Valley, the new 233-mile-long aqueduct provided seven times more water than the original river. 19 From this point on, the Los Angeles River would appear only during those “rain events” — intermittent moments when it flowed with a violence that only intensified as galloping urbanization further hardened the city’s watershed. No longer valued as a natural resource, the ever-wilder river was now feared as a “predator,” able to roam and strike wherever it wished. 20
When California became a state in 1850, the river’s willfulness became a matter of historical record. 21 The data compiled by the new state reveal not only that the Los Angeles River was prone to flooding, but also that this flooding often resulted in dramatic changes to the river’s course. And if the early city had accommodated the volatile river in exchange for agricultural benefit, the urbanizing city had no such tolerance.
The flood of February 1914 marked a turning point. For three decades the city had been growing; its population swelled from 33,000 to over half a million. Unscrupulous developers built neighborhoods in flood-prone areas, and newcomers were lulled into a false sense of security by a long period of flood-free winters. The 1914 flood caught many by surprise, and perceptions of the river were changed irrevocably. Already replaced as a source of water by the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and with its power to do damage exponentially increased due to construction in the extensive flood zone, the Los Angeles River was now understood as a menace. Flooding was an urgent problem requiring an immediate solution.
This was an era when both city and the nation were susceptible to heroic conceptions of technology. 22 Already drunk with the development-stimulating waters of its newly piped “river,” Los Angeles sought to take the offensive. “Land here is so valuable it is advisable to keep the right of way as narrow as possible,” wrote the engineer Charles T. Leeds in 1915. 23 Empowered by a countywide mandate, engineers immediately formulated plans to “train” the river: a 1916 drawing depicts it as little more than a line drawn by engineers seeking the most civil path for what they called an “unruly dog.” 24
It took the catastrophic flood of New Year’s Eve 1934 — which killed over 100 people, destroyed 198 homes, and caused millions of dollars in damage — for flood control to pass from local to federal control. In 1936 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was charged with overseeing flood mitigation projects across the nation, including in Los Angeles. And just two years later, the situation reached another critical point; the flood of March 1938 — the most damaging in the river’s history — led unexpectedly to the discovery of a technical solution. Before the waters receded, the Army Corps had begun to assess the performance of the county’s interventions and found the answer to the problem of the Los Angeles River in the Arroyo Seco. 26 While constructing the first reinforced concrete freeway in the nation, the county had begun using the same material to channelize the adjacent Arroyo Seco creek. Where other control measures — like spray-on concrete, channel-training brush piles, boulders, and even car “fences” — had all failed, the freeway-like concrete walls survived the violent flows, becoming the perfect prototype for the larger river. This nearly full-scale “model,” together with new observations and measurements, enabled the Army Corps finally to control the flooding of the willful urban river.
The Army Corps transformed the river from a meandering stream bordered by willows and cottonwoods into the concrete storm drain we see today.
In the next two decades, the Army Corps systematically transformed the Los Angeles River from an intermittent, meandering stream bordered by willows and cottonwoods into the concrete storm drain we see today. Trees were removed from banks, the river’s sandy bed was excavated and lined with concrete, and its course was straightened. “A single drop of rain falling high in the San Gabriel Mountains can now reach the sea in less than sixty minutes,” according to historian Blake Gumprecht.” 27 In a textbook example of the triumph of reason and human agency over willful nature, the Corps created the ultimate Los Angeles fantasy of a river: a “water freeway.”28 That a drought-prone region would celebrate the speed at which water could be drained off to the ocean was an irony not then appreciated by either the military engineers or the public.
The success of the Army Corps of Engineers has been popularly attributed to the technical superiority of its engineers, but this is a somewhat false (if politically useful) interpretation. In fact, the Corps’ effectiveness was at least equally the result of the agency’s influence over local sentiments. A rambunctious public was quelled and marshaled into consensus by a massive flow of federal dollars. An unprecedented expenditure on a single-purpose system for a single metropolitan area was made possible by the largesse of the New Deal and the WPA, and then further bolstered by the technical insights resulting from the 1938 flood. Later on, flagging federal support was overcome by the project’s convergence with national defense interests. All of which is to say that a favorable political, technical, and financial climate precipitated the unprecedented, unquestioned, and unrelenting production of reinforced-concrete flood control. The result was the conclusive taming of the Los Angeles River.
In 1970, when the Army Corps declared the flood control project “finished,” the Los Angeles Times celebrated the damages it had presumably prevented. Barely a generation later, the newspaper would do an about-face, speculating that “maybe one of these days the Los Angeles River will be liberated from the coffin the Army Corps of Engineers poured it into,” and suggesting that “the idea of restoring long stretches of the river to its natural state and lining its banks with parks makes too much sense to resist forever.” 29
High tension power lines and freight rails lined the levees, while prisons were sited along the banks.
What brought about this remarkable transformation in sentiment? Over decades the channelized river had become largely invisible and effectively abandoned. High tension power lines and freight rails lined the levees, while prisons and other facilities the city wanted to marginalize were sited along the banks. Outside of downtown, residential communities pressed close to the contained yet inhospitable river. With only a thin line of water running through most of its course, the river seemed more suited to the filming of drag races or crime dramas than to the re-envisioning of participatory public space. Yet in 1985, the river was reintroduced into the city’s consciousness by three distinct events: the publication of a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times, the performance of an act of civil disobedience, and the opening of a new sewage plant.
On October 20, 1985, the Los Angeles Times published “Up a Lazy River, Seeking the Source: Your Explorer Follows in the Footsteps of Gaspar de Portola.” Written in a wry, mock-heroic style by journalist Dick Roraback, this article was followed, over four months, by ten more pieces in which the author narrated his expedition from the river’s mouth to its putative source, chronicling the riparian habitats of its flora and fauna. Roraback’s picaresque tale turned the Los Angeles River into an incongruous backdrop for a cast of quirky urban characters (the blonde waitress, the salty sea dog, the mussel gatherer, the dog-walking divorcée) engaged in various activities, both licit and illicit, in the river and along its banks. By presenting the river as a neglected urban feature, the series brought its paradoxical charms to the attention of a large new audience, and, crucially, positioned the river as a postindustrial terra incognita — an attractive, slightly dangerous, and alluring urban landscape. 30
That same year, the activist poet Lewis MacAdams, along with the sculptor and architect Pat Patterson, the gallery owner Roger Wong, and the architect Frederick Fisher, cut a hole through the chain-link fence bordering the river and trespassed onto its bed. 31 As MacAdams recalled:
We felt like we were exploring the moon. … The air around us was in an unholy din. A Southern Pacific freight train rumbled up the tracks on one bank. A Santa Fe freight rumbled down the tracks on the other. Traffic on two freeway bridges and the Riverside Drive Bridge roared by. The odor was industrial. The scene was latter-day urban hell.
MacAdams’s urban wasteland is a stark contrast from that “full-flowing river with very good water, pure and fresh,” described centuries earlier by Father Crespí. Yet he continued:
We knew that this must have once been a beautiful spot, a year-’round stream in a climate that only receives about ten inches of rain a year. I envisioned it as a sylvan glen, a thicket, an avalon, a marsh, a place of great blue herons, where a kingfisher darting at a steelhead’s flash might accidentally flush a doe. Today the culvert that links the arroyo with the river is jammed with junk, with so much household garbage it’s practically a flood hazard. People were sleeping in derelict cars.
The characterization of the river as a paradise lost, a place of discarded things and marginalized people, served to ignite a potent landscape imaginary. It also introduced the idea of the river as a space for environmental action. “Luckily,” MacAdams wrote, “it was too noisy to hear ourselves think, so when we asked the river if we could speak for it in the human realm we didn’t hear it say no; and that was how Friends of the Los Angeles River began.” 32
The idea of the river as a paradise lost, a place of discarded things and marginalized people, served to ignite a potent landscape imaginary.
Friends of the Los Angeles River, or FoLAR, the nonprofit MacAdams founded, used poetry, performance, and art to argue for the restoration of the river. The grass-roots group remained small and little-known until 1989, when its vigorous opposition to a proposal to use the concrete bed as a “bargain freeway” to relieve congestion captured the attention of a wider public. 33 Membership surged, articles about the river appeared in local and national newspapers, and politicians began paying attention. But the Army Corps was determined not to tamper with its “clean” (i.e., free of vegetation) and efficient channel. In 1992, as part of a $312-million improvement project, the Corps merely permitted the inclusion of a decorative pattern on a new (and higher) concrete levee. MacAdams’s vision of the Los Angeles River becoming once again “a sylvan glen, a thicket, an avalon, a marsh” seemed little more than poignant fantasy.
Yet that same year another event occurred that was decisively to alter the river’s fate: the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant opened in Van Nuys. Although other plants had already been dumping treated wastewater, the Tillman Plant contributed an additional 20 million gallons of water per day, essentially doubling the volume of water flowing into the river. 34 This infusion of wastewater generated a verdant riverscape, which in turn, and somewhat improbably, inspired comparisons with the earlier paradise described by Father Crespí and sparked talk of a riparian rebirth. As the changing river increasingly evoked that lost, idealized waterway (particularly in the unpaved eleven-mile stretch known as the Glendale Narrows), it also inspired residents to take up walking, bike riding, bird watching, horseback riding, and even kayaking and canoeing — activities that began to supplement (and even supplant) the squatting, spray painting, drug dealing, and drag racing that had long taken place along the river. 35
MacAdams’s powerful evocation of the original Edenic river was given a definitive historical foundation by Blake Gumprecht in his 1999 book, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Gumprecht argued that the river and the city had long been enmeshed in an epic struggle; that although the river “would prove integral to the transformation of [the] pueblo into the largest and most important city in the American West … the rise of Los Angeles would also doom the river and the Arcadian landscape that once thrived along its banks.” 36
Gumprecht’s narrative of loss has profoundly inflected contemporary attitudes, design strategies, and policy initiatives. In the years since the book’s publication, the industrialized river has offered fertile ground for imagining a transformation. Already reintroduced to the city’s consciousness by Roraback’s articles and FoLAR’s activism, and with its flow vastly augmented by the Tillman wastewater, the river has become ground zero for a lively ecological and civic activism. Amidst a swell of public interest and action, it can even seem that the river’s radical “erasure” and “entrapment” may have been unlikely gifts to our generation’s newly enlightened artistic imagination. This deadlocked void, oversized for statistically rare rain events, is now seen as a precious physical “land bank.” For many advocates, the deceptively mutable line work of the river practically redraws itself into a multitude of alternatives, forming an archetypal course for a range of imagined cities.
First created in 1997, the Los Angeles River Master Plan was a milestone in its acknowledgement of diverse new opportunities. But it was not until the appearance of the 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan that the river’s civic potential was officially represented. Produced by a team of consultants hired by the city, the LARRMP combines proposals for adjacent areas with new designs for the autocratically managed flood control corridor. 37 The word “revitalization” was selected instead of “restoration” to emphasize a synthetic approach that unites flood control, ecology, public space, bike infrastructure, and development. The new word also communicates the idea of the river as a living entity that can be brought back to life after having been virtually killed by earlier generations.
The pursuit of this revived and civilized vision, publicly vetted and intended to serve the city in every way, is today being spearheaded by LARiverWorks, a planning and engineering division established in 2006 and now overseen by the mayor’s office. Given that the channel remains mostly inaccessible, and that challenging logistical constraints exist on both banks, most recent projects have been limited to adjacent areas, and LARiverWorks tends to support only those deemed “riverly” in spirit. Designs range from the city’s own North Atwater Park, where a minimally funded tributary creek “restoration” has produced a rich, messy, and mostly native ecology, to the river-adjacent Marsh Park, funded by the state agency Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. Here (perhaps due to the agency’s greater public accountability), a sanitized version of the river’s natural history has been created through mass plantings of native plants along the paths and through the exclusion of vegetation from the naturally irrigated swales.
The question of who will benefit from a revitalized river is attracting keen attention.
The MRCA’s involvement reveals the extent to which projects are being driven by entities unconnected to local government. This independence has infused the civic revitalization process with a vital, if disorderly, energy that exceeds what the city could accomplish on its own. The grass-roots organization North East Trees, for example, independently obtained grants to design and build the first pocket parks along the Glendale Narrows. The group combined recycled concrete with river rock, and introduced innovative sustainable storm-water systems well before the city was prepared to adopt similar measures.
The proposed La Kretz Crossing, a $10-million-dollar, cable-stayed pedestrian bridge in Atwater Village, suggests the increasingly complicated politics that are in play. Spearheaded by the nonprofit RiverLA (a strategic offshoot of LARRMP), and named for its major donor, the project has been billed as the city’s “first philanthropically-funded bridge,” and was welcomed as a model of public-private engagement and forward-looking design. Local designers, weary of calls for projects reminiscent of New York City’s High Line, saw the crossing as a fresh alternative to staid programs and stale fluvial aesthetics. Yet the project has not proceeded smoothly. The innovative design and the inherent complexity of operating in the river corridor caused initial cost estimates to double, an overrun ultimately covered by public funding. 38 Local ecologists criticized the cable suspension system, noting that it posed a hazard to birds, and advocated (unsuccessfully) for another design. 39 News reports questioned the motives of the donor; developer Morton La Kretz had plans to redevelop a large industrial site near the proposed bridge and was therefore likely to profit from the “philanthropic” infrastructure. 40
River-adjacent residents fear that improvements will spur rampant gentrification and displacement, and real estate values are already rising.
The question of who will benefit from a revitalized river is attracting keen attention. A recent UCLA study suggests the corridor could be key to solving the city’s housing crisis, but river-adjacent residents fear that improvements will spur rampant gentrification and displacement. Even now, with substantial changes at least a decade away, real estate values are rising quickly, and advocates are calling for the city to take a proactive stance. In 2014 the city created a River Improvement Ordinance District to incorporate an area extending a half-mile on either side; but apparently this zone exists primarily to establish physical design guidelines for new development. In fact, the larger prize sought by local leaders is a special assessment tax that will capture revenue from the projected real estate boom and repay the city’s investment. It’s worth remembering that community-sensitive planning efforts have had limited success in a city in which development has historically been used to raise revenue for improvements to existing infrastructure. 41
Perhaps the most vigorous demonstration of the river’s civic potential has been its promotion of recreational and transportation vectors in and alongside the channel. A growing network of greenways and bicycle paths allows citizens to enjoy, in the rich social texture of the urban plain, the kind of non-motorized movement once afforded mainly by the beaches and mountains. More significantly, in 2012, in a reversal of its long-held resistance to channel access, the Army Corps permitted the establishment of a river recreation zone that allows kayaks and other craft in the river during summer.
The Army Corps’ new stance was spurred not only by changes in public sentiment but also by yet another act of civil disobedience. In 2008, Corps employee Heather Wylie, writer George Wolfe, and a group of kayakers set out to prove the river was navigable — and therefore protected under the Clean Water Act — by boating its entire length from source to mouth. 42 This was followed by a small-scale Army Corps pilot project in the Sepulveda basin, the success of which encouraged the agency to agree to permit river access within the Glendale Narrows. 43
The role of kayaking has been considerable: the prospect of paddling through a cool, lush, boulder-strewn river while making intimate contact with massive sloping concrete walls and railway bridges has proved irresistible to intrepid visitors eager to experience the paradoxical virtues of this re-watered terra incognita. The fantasy of transforming the flood control channel into an arcadian waterway began to seem real. Kayaking has also become a powerful means of introducing visiting dignitaries to a vision of a newly green and civic river (which not coincidentally has smoothed the city’s negotiations with the Army Corps). 44 Today a photo by Catherine Opie of Mayor Eric Garcetti in a kayak, carefully cropped so as to foreground the flourishing vegetation of the Glendale Narrows, greets arriving visitors at Los Angeles International Airport.
The prospect of paddling through a cool, lush, boulder-strewn river while making intimate contact with massive concrete walls and railway bridges has proved irresistible.
Yet the future of this kind of recreational civic engagement — and the status of the river itself — has lately come into question as California struggles with extended drought and the likelihood of an increasingly hot and dry climate. River revitalization may well fall victim to an “integrated” water resource plan that foresees transforming much of the Tillman Plant’s wastewater into a potable supply. Paradoxically, what had first seemed to be a beneficial technocratic solution to the problem of water scarcity now threatens to drain the most popular and visible symbol of a renewed “ecological” public sphere. That the river’s flow is ultimately controlled by the city is indeed an uneasy fit with the romantic narrative that an engineered channel can reassert its essential “wildness” and come back to fluvial life.
Designers dissatisfied with the politics of revitalization have advocated practicing (or at least imagining) a technically integrated approach. In this light, the truly epic scope and complexity of the endeavor become palpable: to redesign a river which by virtue of its altered hydrology cannot return to any old model of what a river is, but can and must be reinvented as radically as it once was by the Army Corps of Engineers. Little wonder that proposals to modify the concrete channel — presumably the crowning goal of revitalization — have been stymied by the high technical demands. Piggyback Yard, an influential speculation by a team led by Mia Lehrer + Associates, integrates economic and hydraulic modeling with community design considerations, but such efforts such are still few in number and small in scale. There remains an urgent need for further exploration of ambitious strategies.
Some current efforts exhibit surprising parallels with the earlier interventions. In 2014 the Army Corps released its latest report: the “Alternative with Restoration Benefits and Opportunities for Revitalization,” or ARBOR, is intended to guide the agency’s new mission to restore the ecosystems that its “improvements” had damaged. Yet the report’s focus is narrow. Its design proposals were generated by a cost-benefit analysis that sought the most economically efficient habitat restoration scenarios. Guided by a set of minimum goals, the project deployed incremental analysis software to generate numerous “alternatives.” Potential projects were then assessed for economic cost and habitat value; the driving design mechanism measured value as a binary of habitat and cost. In the end, this highly reductive method was unable to determine what a sufficient restoration (and financial investment) might actually be. 45
The news that Frank Gehry had been hired secretly by RiverLA provoked contentious discussions.
To be sure, the re-involvement of the Army Corps was fueled more by a symbolic representation of the narrative of decline than by any concern for habitat. And in a subtle mirroring of the consensus-making power of earlier federal interventions, the push to use the most ambitious plan produced by the software analysis largely overshadowed discussion of the extent to which ARBOR departed from the civic vision of the 2007 Revitalization Master Plan. Eventually — after Garcetti lobbied the Obama administration — the Corps did indeed choose the most elaborate and expensive scheme. Yet even this plan will only modify approximately half of the concrete channel within the already confined scope of the Glendale Narrows. Furthermore, according to guidelines originally crafted for large-scale wilderness restoration, only 10 percent of the budget can be allocated to “recreation,” and any new recreational infrastructure “should not include embellishments, elaborate designs, or be ostentatious.” 46. Congress does not currently fund the Corps to focus on urban revitalization, environmental justice, or issues of water quality and conservation, and so it cannot, by its own mandate, address the full scope of its earlier failures.
The announcement in August 2015 that architect Frank Gehry had been hired secretly by RiverLA provoked new contentious discussions. To that point the river community had benefitted from a relatively open and coordinated decision-making process. Suddenly the revitalization effort was transformed into a chess game, with activists scrambling to take sides where none had previously existed. Gehry Partners declared that its approach would be “all about the water,” meaning it would focus on what was technologically possible in order to generate an ambitious, hydraulically informed, countywide design. 47 But to date the firm has made little mention of the civic aspects of revitalization, and many longstanding river advocates wonder whether Gehry’s involvement will catalyze new ideas or serve merely to disrupt a process that was already well underway. 48
A Wilderness for Creative Wills
Meanwhile, other factors are shaping the river and its future. One of the lesser known benefits of federal largesse in the New Deal era was the incorporation of a human dimension in the design of the concrete banks: that the river channel’s section is trapezoidal rather than vertical is due to a WPA standard that required a high ratio of hand labor in project materials. The result is that the channel has long been easily accessible to people and vehicles — a perfect stage for the many Hollywood car chases filmed along its banks. 49
More recently an ever increasing cohort of artists, designers, grass-roots groups, and ordinary citizens is using the river as a medium for politically bold projects and creatively subversive civic acts. Some projects, such as the seasonal in-channel parks proposed by the River LAnding Collective, are shoestring DIY productions. Others, such as “LA Noria,” the waterwheel created by artist Lauren Bon, operate as a kind of municipal icon, an expression of “avant-garde nostalgia” for historical infrastructure and of the desire to destroy the bureaucratic logjams impeding revitalization. 50 Clockshop, an arts non-profit, has used the state-owned Bowtie parcel to cast the river as an urban wilderness, sponsoring campouts, interpretative signage, and land art and design discussions. 51 The group of artists known as the Los Angeles Urban Rangers began leading tours in 2004, greatly expanding awareness of the river’s postindustrial allure. 52 Building on this, the arts collective Project 51 (named in honor of the river’s total length) produced a deck of cards entitled “Play the LA River.” The underlying ethos is that a good map and creative attitude are all you need to enjoy the river. A website titled FOVICKS, or “Friends Of Vast Industrial Concrete Kafkaesque Structures,” celebrates the river’s industrial aesthetic while hinting at a preemptive nostalgia for the concrete manifestations of flood control, now possibly threatened by river revitalization enthusiasts. 53
Artists, designers, grass-roots groups, and ordinary citizens are using the river as a medium for politically bold projects and subversive civic acts.
Inspired by the river’s abiding dystopian character, these varied projects provide refreshing and valuable perspectives on what can be achieved with minimal intervention. Given the political and technological constraints limiting the city’s own efforts, these creative appropriations could become valuable models for future engagement. Indeed, the remarkable activity generated by the Los Angeles River — which as yet remains largely a concrete channel bisected by a thin course of water — testifies to the profound power of the city’s desire for ecological redemption and urban rebirth, and to ways in which civic or even poetic acts have found purchase within a byzantine network of managerial interests.
Nonetheless there remains the distinct possibility that moneyed interests will distort the original ideals. Even as Los Angeles seems to pulsate with the river’s irrepressible spirit, the river’s future is clouded by a fog of unresolved social, technical, and environmental factors. It is useful to recall the historian Jared Orsi’s acute analysis of the failures of earlier flood control efforts. Orsi describes a history shaped by a “structured disorder” in which “feedback loops, intricacy, and historical dynamism” have combined to produce the river the city now rejects. 54 The Los Angeles River has always resisted anything as simple as a “solution,” and has always responded to multivalent provocations, observations, and adaptions. So rather than seeking to “solve” or “redeem” the river, or to force or fix it into an idealized image of revitalization, it may be best, in the spirit of Lewis MacAdams, to understand it as an incessantly responsive “40-year art work,” with epic civic and environmental repercussions.