In the Beginning

Photos by Leor Levine

LOS ANGELES IS GATHERING AT THE RIVER. What is the L.A. River? For decades, that was Angelenos’ most common question about it. But you’ve heard of it now, and know something is happening. And yet you might not know where it is, exactly. Or what, exactly, is going on. Or made a pilgrimage to see for yourself. In the past two years, as river restoration has accelerated faster than winter rains down the canyons, the question has evolved from “What is the L.A. River?” to “What is all this L.A. River stuff?” The myriad answers are in this guide. The 21 new parks, the 76 new projects. Why the funds for restoration increased to $100-plus million last year from around $0 million in 1985. Why urban planners, environmentalists, social activists, architects, neighborhood groups, Public Works engineers, bikeway advocates, historians, Environmental Protection Agency officials, City Council members, county supervisors, and state and U.S. senators have all concluded that restoring the river to a more riverlike state is a key strategy in their diverse agendas for health, justice, environment and community in L.A. And most important, how to get there, and what you can see — because the most eloquent advocate for river restoration is the river itself.


The L.A. River is a central natural fact of L.A. L.A. is a river basin. Just look up at the mountains, and you can see that they have to shed water downhill. The river is 51 miles long, and drains huge sectors of the Santa Monica, Santa Susana and San Gabriel mountains. The San Gabriel and Santa Ana rivers flow through the L.A. basin, too, but the L.A. River swings through its heart -- east across the entire San Fernando Valley, around the northeast shoulder of Griffith Park, then due south through downtown and Southeast L.A. into the Long Beach harbor. The river few Angelenos can locate, exactly, crosses the 405, 101, 134, 2, 110, 5, 10, 105, 710 and 91 freeways, and the Pacific Coast Highway. Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Glendale, Boyle Heights, Vernon, Cudahy and Long Beach all sit right on it, as do Elysian Park and Union Station, and Universal, Warner Bros., CBS and DreamWorks. The river flows through 11 cities in Los Angeles County, and joins them all together in one watershed. To say L.A. has no center is a longtime act of denial.

 Wildlife refuge, Sepulveda Basin

The L.A. River is where L.A. was founded. In 1781, the settlers from Mexico founded El Pueblo de Los Angeles not by the emerald Pacific Ocean or in the cool mountain air, but by the basin's most plentiful year-round freshwater supply, on the L.A. River at its confluence with the Arroyo Seco. In today's preferred navigational lingo, that's the 5/110 interchange. A lush forest of sycamores and cottonwoods lined the river's banks, and willows choked the floodplain; big patches in the future Valley and South and West L.A. were wetlands. The city spread and leapt outward from its original spot: Now, on a map of the county, it's that chaos downtown where all the freeways meet and tangle up. L.A. used the river as its major source of drinking and irrigation water (and its major sewage dump) for 120 years; it was only after 1900, when the city outgrew its river's water supply, that it went pillaging for water in other watersheds. The river itself stayed put. It was polluted, and pumped almost dry. But it was hardly forgotten, because . . .

The L.A. River is the most destructively flood-prone river in a major American city. Mark Twain wrote that he fell into a Southern California river and "came out all dusty." True, the river is not startlingly wet most of the year, and can be seasonally dry in spots. Yet it drops 795 feet from Canoga Park to Long Beach -- 190 feet more than the Mississippi drops in 2,350 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The San Gabriel peaks rise over 7,000 feet, and during storms, all three mountain ranges send torrential rains cascading directly toward L.A. The crescent of land L.A. sits on can hold a megalopolis, but it's small for a river drainage. If you want to build a city in this basin -- and pave over hundreds of square miles of it with impermeable surfaces -- you need a plan to control floods. But what sort of plan?

 Storm drain, Glendale Narrows


The L.A. River is the most monumental public-works project in the West. Well, you could restrict development near the river, and divert floodwaters into a network of wetlands and detention basins. Or you could squeeze the river into a concrete box. In 1938, after a series of the most devastating floods in the city's history, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expanded L.A.'s own concrete inclinations into a flood-control plan of maximum New Deal techno-dreamer verve. The Corps bulldozed all the vegetation, dug the box and straightened the river into it. This took 20 years, with an extra 10 to finish boxes for the Arroyo Seco, Tujunga Wash, Rio Hondo and other feeders, many of which didn't have fixed channels before. And then the county fenced the boxes off with barbed wire and posted "No Trespassing" signs.

The L.A. River is one of the worst in L.A.'s long line of missed opportunities. In 1930, the Chamber of Commerce buried a parks plan it had commissioned from a famed team of landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers and Harlan Bartholomew & Associates, to respond to L.A.'s crisis of overdevelopment -- the erasure of all but 1 percent of open space, and of all but 0.59 percent outside the mountains. That beautifully ambitious plan prescribed a wide L.A. River greenway, to create parks, enhance recreation and scenery, and absorb floodwaters. Characteristically, civic leaders instead chose a plan that made the river safe for new suburbs, freeways and industry within an inch of its banks -- that defied ecological sense, and favored unbridled private development over public space. At a crossroads, the U.S. city with the worst shortage of park space per capita -- and perhaps the most beautiful natural setting -- turned one of its most obvious sites for green space into a parks-free zone. A city that constructed 250- to 350-mile aqueducts to import water turned its river into a chute that would rid the basin of its water as fast as possible. And a city prone to carving up its neighborhoods turned its major connective artery into a no man's land.

The L.A. River is the country's most degraded river. A city with mounting pollution crises also engineered a new sort of river basin, in which things could wash into but not out of the river -- in other words, a superbly fucked-up watershed. While the concrete box prevented the river from replenishing soils with nutrients, beaches with sand and the aquifer with water, the county's storm-drain network emptied into the river and its concrete tributaries. If everyone in L.A. knows that the drains carry sewage to the ocean -- which forces the unfortunate and unending beach closures -- many fewer realize that the L.A. River, as the central storm-drain artery, collects trash, motor oil, human and animal feces, herbicides and the hundreds more pollutants in your basic City-America-2001 toxic street stew from across a densely populated 834-square-mile watershed and expresses it to the Pacific. People in L.A. may not know where their river is, but their lawn-care products and bits of brake linings from their BMWs and Toyotas wash into it all the time. Of course, the concrete box also obliterated wildlife habitat. Fish, frogs and birds disappeared, and steelhead trout ceased to use the river to spawn.

The L.A. River is arguably the most extraordinary river in the United States. In a final semantic move, the county rechristened the river the Los Angeles River Flood Control Channel, and referred to it as either the Flood Control Channel or the Storm Control System. Now, the Mississippi contains extraordinary volumes of water -- it could float the QE2 -- and a number of other rivers rival ours for wondrous ecological ruin: In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it caught fire. What makes the L.A. River so peerlessly amazing is that its city actively "disappeared" it: We stopped calling the river a river. And it all but vanished from our collective memory. U.S. cities tended to ignore and abuse their rivers as their industrial cores declined through the 1900s. Still, can you imagine anyone asking, "What is the Colorado River?" "What is the Hudson River?" This act is unparalleled: A major American city redefined its river as infrastructure; decreed that the sole purpose of a river is to control its own floods; and said its river now belongs in the same category as the electrical grid and the freeway system and will forthwith be removed from the company of the Columbia, the Allegheny, the Salmon. In a city with a notorious, extreme tendency to erase both nature and history, L.A.'s ultimate act of erasure has been not just to forget but to deny that the river it was founded on runs 51 miles -- 51 miles! -- right through its heart.


The L.A. River is a well-known joke, and a symbol of L.A. By the 1960s, the L.A. River was a paradox: an infamous unknown river. How could you not laugh at a river with a concrete bed and without much water -- Easterners like Twain had laughed at the river's flow before -- in a city that was supposed to be America's New Eden? It didn't help that the channel is an excellent place to film the sort of scene in which a cyborg Terminator flees on a motorcycle from a liquid-metal alien driving a tractor-trailer. Them!, Point Blank, Escape From New York, Repo Man, To Live and Die in L.A., Point Break, Mi Familia: The river has served as a film set for 45 years of scenes of urban violence and utter alienation. With smog a close second, the greasy trickle in the quality-engineered DMZ between neighborhoods became the bleakest, most laughable symbol of everything gone wrong in L.A.

The L.A. River is a 15-year cause, fought with vision and tenacity. As a flood-control solution, the concrete looked final; as a river, it looked unredeemable. So in 1985, when Lewis MacAdams, an artist and writer, took a few friends and a pair of wire cutters to the river's edge and vowed to resurrect it, the response was underwhelming. People said, What river? "We asked the river," MacAdams says. "We didn't hear it say no." In 1986, they founded Friends of the L.A. River. The cause seemed zany, but lovely. In 1990, after the chairman of the state Assembly Transportation Committee proposed to turn the channel into a freeway (but only during dry season), Mayor Tom Bradley appointed a task force on how to make the river more riverlike, not less. In 1991, FoLAR sponsored the first conference on restoration; the '90s would see three more. The county Board of Supervisors directed Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and Regional Planning to produce a master plan, which was published in 1996. North East Trees planted the first trees in 1994, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Trust for Public Land opened the first new park in 1995, and the city of L.A. opened the first new bikeway in 1997 -- all in the Glendale Narrows stretch north of downtown. Restoration began to draw $2 million to $3 million each year in state, county and city funds. County Public Works itself, and even the Corps to some degree, joined the cause. In 2000, this momentum took a quantum leap, as propositions 12 and 13 sent $82-plus million the river's way, Speaker of the Assembly (and Prop. 12's author) Antonio Villaraigosa championed the river as L.A.'s number-one greening priority, and Senator Barbara Boxer stood on its banks and declared that she hoped to be able to kayak down it in the near future. In 2001, the astonishingly multiethnic, multi-interest Chinatown Yard Alliance has all but wrested the "Cornfield" land from Ed Roski's Majestic Realty and into the hands of California State Parks. The concrete ditch has inspired the brand-new Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (the state's first urban conservancy), four large parks in the works (three downtown), and a cool $41.85 million in the energy-obsessed state budget for this year.

The L.A. River is one of the city's most powerful loci for visions to make L.A. more livable. Because it turns out that when you get people together to think about how to restore the river, the conversations quickly turn not to wild fantasies but to vital agendas. Want to restore the river? Okay, here's what you have to do.

1. Green the banks.

2. Clean the water.

3. Remove concrete. Though not necessarily all of it -- remember that the legendary Seine runs through Paris within a concrete channel.

As you talk about greening the banks, you're inevitably going to lament the fact that L.A., of all American cities, has the least park space per capita. Parks can be vital meeting and recreational spaces -- which L.A. neighborhoods are so short on. They are walkable and bikeable spaces -- which L.A. is terribly short on. Trees and other vegetation clean the air: We can use more of that. Soft ground drains rainwater back into the aquifer: The Owens Valley and every Western state would be delighted. And just as the poorest urban communities generally suffer the worst environmental problems -- and L.A. is an egregious offender, and a hub for environmental-justice activism -- the poorer, almost entirely nonwhite communities on the L.A. River in downtown and South L.A. are among the most carved-up and park-starved. Maywood has a scarce 0.8 percent of its land in parks, while Boston has 9, New York City has 17, and the city of L.A. has 4. West L.A. has 1,300 park acres; Southeast L.A. has 75.


How do you clean the water? What people dump into the river directly is the least of it. You have to strategize how to clean up the whole stew of pollutants that washes off lawns, roads, driveways, gas stations and parking lots into the storm drains. You have to join the increasingly mainstream efforts -- as Santa Monica is doing -- to find alternatives to the shelves and shelves of toxic products we all rely on, and that wreak such damage on human health and on the city's air, water and wildlife. And again, the worst health problems -- the dumps, the spills, the EPA superfund sites -- are in the poorest communities.

Can you remove concrete? Is it possible? If you dare to pursue the most heretical and hard-fought goal, you need to control floods in the L.A. basin by . . . well, how? The central strategy is to reduce the volume of storm water in the channel. To start, capture and use more water on-site -- L.A. shoots more than half the water it gets from the sky, for free, directly to the ocean (which is measurably less water-starved). And it's not a trivial amount: By one estimate, a truly heavy winter storm can pelt L.A. with a year's water supply. Also, restore small patches of wetlands to hold and divert floods -- which also renews the aquifer, filters and cleans the water, and restores wildlife habitat. And it's a smart idea to use less water, too. All of which, in turn, would reduce L.A.'s fabled thirst for the water imports that drain and damage watersheds in the Sierras and the Rockies.

In short: You have to build a 51-mile greenway that could be the backbone of a basin-wide network of greenbelts and bikeways; clean up hazardous threats to public health across half of L.A.; and restore the health of the river's watershed, which is a huge and essential step toward reversing two centuries of environmental devastation.

Even shorter: Restoring the L.A. River is about far more than the river. It's about L.A. -- and beyond.

The L.A. River has become a unifying force in L.A. A lot of agendas meet on the river. That's logical, since the river literally connects this fragmented megalopolis. It is one of the few things that does. And the campaign to restore the river draws connections among causes that too often remain separate -- making clear why a green-space shortage is a social-justice issue, and why a big urban area still requires ecosystem management, and how vast economic inequities are also serious environmental problems. Like an antidote to partial blindness, the river makes visible these connections up and down the L.A. basin. If you want to build new parks in Maywood, it helps if you think about parks, habitat, flood control, community, lawn care and water economics in Sherman Oaks.

So the movement has forged, not surprisingly, a few of the city's more remarkable and wide-ranging coalitions. The Chinatown Yard Alliance has brought together such players as FoLAR, the Sierra Club, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Mothers of East Los Angeles and the Latino Urban Forum. The Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council (founded in 1996 by Heal the Bay activist Dorothy Green) brings dozens of stakeholders -- water agencies, FoLAR, the Mayor's Office, cities north and south, the EPA, TreePeople, the Corps, County Public Works, the Forest Service -- voluntarily to the same table to coordinate water-related projects in L.A. (and what isn't one?) and to work toward an integrated approach to sustainable watershed management. Like the Council, the brand-new Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, which will purchase, preserve and improve lands for open space in the San Gabriel and lower L.A. River watersheds, joins disparate interests -- city governments, environmentalists, water managers, county supervisors -- that to anyone familiar with L.A. politics look more like a recipe for a Molotov cocktail than a viable working alliance. All of these coalitions, however, have proved that they can make dramatic on-the-ground progress to reform L.A.'s worst habits.

The L.A. River could be a vital, beautiful urban river. To resurrect it means to return it not to its past, but to a state of health. A restored L.A. River would be an unapologetically urban river. Chicago, Portland, San Antonio, Denver, Milwaukee, New York, Cleveland: A growing number of cities are re-greening and cleaning up their rivers to redress the urban crises of health, environmental quality and social cohesion that the 20th century created. A 51-mile rehab of such a devastated river would take two decades or more. But if L.A. were to succeed, the river would be the "anything is possible" of a more sustainable L.A., and of river restoration and urban revitalization nationally.


In Them! -- the 1954 sci-fi classic, and the first film set in the concrete box -- gargantuan mutant ants use the L.A. River's storm drains to stage an invasion of the rest of the world. For a sunnier metaphor, how about the 1997 Volcano, in which smart-thinking Angelenos guide the lava into the channel, and the river saves the city? What is the L.A. River? Advocates for its restoration would like to turn it into a major social and environmental asset. A river that shows what a city can do with its river. A river that re-creates the ultimate symbol of what's gone wrong in L.A. as a symbol of things done right. It's hard to imagine a swan in the social and ecological landscape of L.A., but the L.A. River, if restored to health, could be, in the future, an exceptionally lovely duck.

Downtown  From the Narrows to South L.A.

The Valley From Canoga Park to Griffith Park

The Glendale Narrows  From Griffith Park to Downtown

The South  From Downtown to Long Beach Harbor

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