Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

The Los Angeles River: Past & Future

Sixth Street Viaduct
Sixth Street Viaduct over the Los Angeles River, 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.

Early History of the Los Angeles River

The Los Angeles River rises in the far southwest of the San Fernando Valley, running for 51 miles down to Long Beach, where it empties into San Pedro Bay. While mostly fed by aqueducts today, in the past it was a decent sized, free-flowing river.

In pre-Columbian times the 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, by the mid-eighteenth century, change was coming – a tidal wave that would sweep away the old Tongva way of life.

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. It worked its way up the coast and, in mid 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.

The reason for the long-winded name is that August 15 is the feast day in honor of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, when she became Queen of the Angels. The Franciscan Order having a small church called the Porciúncula Chapel dedicated to her, at Assisi in Italy.

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.

Although it was quite a while until people settled on the name of Los Angeles for the waterway, as for a long time it was called the Porciuncula River.

The River Changes Its Course

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 between fifteen to twenty 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 wetlands, which in turn facilitated the growth of large forests (the area would have looked a lot like the Angeles National Forest at that time).

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 Venice, which it had done up to this point, it instead then made a beeline for Long Beach. The river has 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, bringing water from the High Sierra to Sylmar, in the San Fernando Valley.

River Wild Is Tamed

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 waterway to a grey and very ugly shadow of its former self.

Officially the river ceased to exist, technically transformed into a flood-control channel. To make things worse the city turned its back on it, using the banks to build freeways, and place rail tracks and electricity pylons. What should have been some of the nicest parts of the city actually became its ugliest.

Nevertheless it still provided value even then, both as an incredibly efficient storm drain for LA and as a great location for Hollywood movies. Over the years the river made significant appearances in Grease, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Point Break and Chinatown, the latter film being the fictionalized version of a scandalous chapter in the Los Angeles River’s own story (how the LA Aqueduct really came to be built).

Reimagining the Los Angeles River

And so it would remain for seventy-five years, until 2013, when the newly-formed 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 it to actually be a river – it turns out that names really do matter.

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).

The River Today

Over the last few years 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. The canoe slalom event for the 2028 Olympics is due to be held in the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Center, where the river officially begins.

Also the city recently voted to approve a request to the state for nearly $200 million in order to build and renovate 32 miles of bike paths alongside the river, so they can be completed in time for the summer games.

How to Explore the LA River

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.

Another way to see the Los Angeles River is to do this great tour, which goes along the watercourse itself and up into the hills of the surrounding neighborhood. It’s a fantastic introduction to this often forgotten and surprisingly hidden part of LA. You can even have lunch after the tour at Spoke Bicycle Cafe, right on the banks of the river itself.

Talking of a bicycle cafe… a great way to explore the river is to bike it. There’s a nice stretch north of downtown, in the Atwater Village/Frogtown area which is also easy and safe. For more information on how to do it read our article on bicycling in Los Angeles.

There’s also the non-profit LA River Expeditions, which organizes kayaking trips on the watercourse in Elysian Valley (more information here). It’s a great organization and a great way to experience the LA River.

The Los Angeles River has a great bike path and several new bridges

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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