Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

The Los Angeles River: Past & Future

Sixth Street Viaduct
Sixth Street Viaduct under construction

By the 2000′s the Los Angeles River had become little more than a joke in the city to which it gave its name. used only as a post-apocalyptic location for action movies and as a punchline for late-night chat show hosts. Despite the fact that many of Los Angeles’ inhabitants probably still don’t even know of its existence, it nevertheless winds its way behind apartment blocks, underneath freeways and past enormous rail yards, industrial wastelands and low-income communities, a prime example of the city’s destructive impact on the natural environment that gave it life (and continues to sustain it even now). Well, this week the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to approve a new masterplan that aims to exhume the river and bring it back to life, so this might be a good time to check-in on this long neglected and very important LA feature.

Los Angeles River watershed
Los Angeles River watershed

In pre-Columbian times the Los Angeles River served as a source of food, water and community space for the Tongva, the First American people that occupied the area of today’s Los Angeles. There were an estimated forty-five communities along its its serpentine path, drawn by the abundance of animal and plant life to be found along its banks. Of particular use were the oak trees, which grew along the river’s length, providing shade, wood and acorns.

However, unfortunately, change was coming – a tidal wave that would sweep aside the old Tongva way of life for and, ultimately, the Tongva themselves. The Spanish Crown had long claimed much of what’s now the U.S., west of the Rocky Mountains. Now concerned about the Russians, British and French encroaching on what they considered their domain, the Inspector General of New Spain, as Mexico was then known, José de Gálvez, gave orders to send an expedition up the West Coast from Mexico. The aim being to find out what the land contained, in terms of resources the Spanish could exploit, and establish a series of missions and military bases, to assert their control.

What became known as the Portolà Expedition was duly dispatched from Sonora, worked its way up the coast and, in early August, 1769, the explorers camped on present day Boyle Heights. On looking down on the river below one of the members of the expedition, the Franciscan missionary Padre Juan Crespi, named it el Río de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula, which translates to the River of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula. Crespi was much taken by the area, describing it thus:

A good-sized, full-flowing river with very good water, pure and fresh. (It is) a very lush and pleasing spot, in every respect. Southward there is a great extent of soil, all very green, so that really it can be said to be a most beautiful garden.

Of course, the obvious thing to do nowadays would have been to ask the locals what they called the river that ran through their land – but Spanish Conquistadors didn’t work that way. Unfortunately now we don’t even know what the Tongva called the Los Angeles River, but over time the small settlement that was built on its banks took its name from the river. And that’s how our city became Los Angeles.

One of many myths about Los Angeles is that it was built in a desert, in fact the climate is Mediterranean and when it does rain here it really rains. In a normal year we get around fifteen inches of rain (almost all of it between January and April), but in the mountains it can be as much as fifty inches. So the river was unpredictable, spilling over into the surrounding flood plain during particularly heavy storms (our climate is dominated by the El Niña/La Niña weather system).

This abundance of water actually turned parts of the Los Angeles basin into marshland, which in turn facilitated the growth of large forests. It also led to the river completely jumping its banks after particularly severe storms in 1825 (or 1835 – historical accounts differ) and, rather than making a right turn south of Bunker Hill and heading towards Santa Monica, it instead made a beeline for Long Beach. Indeed it’s followed that course ever since, leaving its old estuary to become the marshland now known as the Ballona Wetlands.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Los Angeles River, and its various tributaries and source streams, supported extensive farming, which was one of the main industries here at the time. Additionally, the river served as the principal water source for the city until 1913, when the LA Aqueduct replaced it.

The river continued to run through the center of town, relatively unmolested, until the Great Flood of 1938. Caused by severe storms in February of that year, the resulting floods killed no less than 115 people and caused $40 million worth of damage to the city and the surrounding area, destroying over five thousand buildings and several bridges. Afterwards Frank Shaw became the first mayor of a major American city to be recalled from office, partly due to what was seen as his incompetent handling of the crisis, which compounded a rising corruption scandal at City Hall.

Following this disaster, the Army Corps of Engineers went to work encasing the river in concrete as a flood-prevention measure. They straightened, deepened and widened the river so thoroughly that there’s never been a flood since, but they also had the effect of reducing the once beautiful river to a grey and very ugly shadow of its former self. Officially the river ceased to exist, technically transformed into a flood-control channel.

And so it would remain for seventy-five years, until 2013, when the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation announced plans to transform the river, well, back into a river, with a proper riparian ecosystem. Part one of the plan involved officially declaring the river to actually be a river – it turns out that names really do matter.

The Los Angeles River has some great bike paths

Since then, popular support for the revamp has steadily grown, culminating in the announcement that Frank Gehry had been commissioned to design the masterplan, which was approved this week (although many environmental advocates are opposed to significant elements in it). Since then numerous other riverside projects have been announced running the gamut from bridges (such as the Sixth Street Viaduct and La Kretz Bridge, which have already been completed), to parks, housing and, critics argue, gentrification. The Los Angeles River, it seems, is back, no longer the butt of bad jokes, and a new chapter in its history is being written.

One of best places to see the Los Angeles River is from Griffith Park – which is the only place from which you can see almost all of it. We talk about the importance of its water to early LA on our daily Mount Hollywood Hike, that starts at the Greek Theatre and climbs to the top of Mount Hollywood.

If you have any feedback on the Los Angeles River: Past & Future please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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