By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
What's so great about the Cornfield? Size: It's the largest piece of open space available downtown in decades. Location: Right by the â river on the north edge of downtown, it's a key greenway link from the city center to the nexus. Location, location: Chinatown has one small park, no middle or high school, and is cut off by two freeways and the barren Cornfield itself. History: Archaeologists have found a piece of the original Zanja Madre, the irrigation "mother ditch" that sustained the early pueblo.
The Alliance -- an astonishingly multi-issue and multiethnic coalition of business, neighborhood, environmental and political players -- has designed a stunning site plan, which State Parks can mine for ideas. It proposes a new river-fed zanja (with bike path) that leads from a school on one end through a "great meadow" to a Zanja Madre museum, Shaolin Institute and Chinatown cultural center on the other. A terraced entrance connects Chinatown to the park and beyond. It turns a no man's land into a grand central-city public space, framed by views of the downtown skyline and the Elysian Hills. (ETA start 2002)
From the Cornfield to Maywood, you encounter seven miles of dead space for greenway projects. The stretch along the east side of downtown is bleak, heavily industrial and barely imagined.
The Boyle Heights Greenways proposal -- from a 1998 FoLAR-led workshop on the river through downtown -- would turn half a dozen old railroad spurs into finger parks to breach the wall of industry here and connect these neighborhoods (squeezed by the freeway on the other side) to the river. As the momentum for restoration reaches into this stretch, it's the sort of project that should (one can hope) get funded and proliferate.
Ideally . . . A greenway with a string of pedestrian bridges would connect the downtown commercial and museum district to Boyle Heights, through Little Tokyo and the Arts District.
The city has almost completed its decade-long restoration of 11 bridges, nine of them over the river. Built from 1918 to the 1930s, most by L.A.'s famed city engineer Merrill Butler, they're deemed some of the largest and most beautiful concrete-arch bridges in the country. Check out the Beaux Arts portals and balconies on the North Broadway Bridge, the Gothic arches of the Fourth Street, the twisted columns on the Spanish Colonial Cesar Chavez, the elegantly modernist copper lamps and octagonal pylons of the Glendale-Hyperion.
L.A.'s Latino communities downtown have tended to remember best the historic role of the river. On Olvera Street, the diagonal pattern of the bricks commemorates the zanja system that El Pueblo de Los Angeles relied on from 1781 to 1904. And you can view an in-the-ground piece of the Zanja Madre -- the Mother Ditch itself -- in the "History of Water in Los Angeles" exhibit in the Avila Adobe, the museum in L.A.'s oldest existing house.
How surprising -- and how encouraging, and apt -- that so many of the ambitious public-art pieces in the Gateway Transit Center (a.k.a. the Union Station Gateway Intermodal Transit Center) invoke the L.A. River. In the complex meant to be L.A.'s 21st-century transportation hub, sited in the historic downtown area, the artwork at once commemorates the centrality of the river in the city's past and imagines it securely into the future.
See especially the "City of Dreams, River of History" pieces in the East Portal lobby: May Sun's river-rock bench and water sculpture, embedded with artifacts (bottles, shells, horseshoes) from excavations in old Chinatown; her bronze inlays of river flora and fauna on the lobby floor; and the same motifs on the borders of Richard Wyatt's 80-foot-long mural of multiethnic faces in L.A. Outside, landscape architect Laurie Olin's verdant, watery "Arroyo" walkway winds up to the bus plaza from Cesar Chavez Avenue and North Vignes Street, and East Los Streetscapers have painted lush, fauna-filled tree canopies -- "La Sombra del Arroyo" -- on the undersides of the pedestrian bridges.
Artist Andrew Leicester designed the Zanja Madre Plaza, at Eighth Street and Figueroa (1992), as an allegorical water garden that traces L.A.'s use of water as far back as the original mother ditch. A "giant water vampire," William Mulholland called L.A. -- hence the big bat wings on the gates, among the many symbolic sculptures here. It's won awards.
Final stop on river tour: Long Beach Harbor
WALK THE RIVER
This stretch is lined with industry and railroad tracks, and fenced off on both sides. Take wire cutters. Just kidding: It's best viewed from the bridges. Take an open mind as to what this bleak landscape could look like.
BIKE THE RIVER
A crucial stretch of the L.A. River Bikeway for both commuting and recreation. The city does plan to build it, and is seeking funds.
Glendale Narrows (Barclay Street) to Union Station, with spurs across the river to the River Center and Taylor Yard and to the Arroyo Seco Bikeway. (ETA start 2003)
Union Station south through downtown to Maywood: The city has funded North East Trees to do the first feasibility study. (ETA study 2002)
Arroyo Seco Bikeway: County Public Works will extend the Avenue 64 to Avenue 43 existing bikeway south to San Fernando Road, almost to the confluence. Dry-season only: It's inside the channel most of the way. (ETA 2002)