What follows is the script from my final presentation for my Masters class ‘Infrastructure and Architecture’. I intentionally selected a topic I reviled. 3 months later I am in love. Later this summer you will find another of these. After the mid-term I changed directions for lack of time to flesh out my original idea. I’m pleased with this though. The link below will take you to the accompanying Power Point so you can follow along. Without it this is almost useless.
The images below cemented my concept and are a beautiful depiction of the various realities which the river takes on.
The L A River is as storied a place as any in America. Previously Nick shared with us one of those stories, the story of its redevelopment and future. Today I will share the story of its recent past by way of its origin through the eyes of the people around it and the things that came out of it.
A.Geologic place setting
First, a little place setting: The L.A. River travels 51 miles from its head in the San Gabriel Mountains to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean. Along that route, the river travels further vertically than the Mississippi descends along its entire course from Minnesota to the gulf. The raging torrent brings the mountains with it, forming an alluvial fan as water deposits the eroded sediment across the valley floor. The orange and yellow colors represent varieties of loam, which is Geology speak for sandy/silt-y soil. The floodplain is as rich as it is loose, giving the river its unpredictable nature. The river has changed course several times in recorded history.
B. American Settlement and the Early River
For the majority of its life, the Los Angelis River occupied a comfortable swath of land, for a time, serving as a divide between the early settlement and the farms fed by the river.As real-estate interests ascended, the river found itself crowded. Several catastrophic floods in the first half of the 20th century formed the backbone of arguments to quell the river.
To avail themselves of the adjacent land, the whole length was transformed into a flood control channel. Over the subsequent 30 years it took to build the channel, images of families communing with unscathed nature became increasingly rare.
III. LA River Imaged
It’s a common exclamation: “LA has a river?” And who could be blamed? The river was tucked away long ago, behind the warehouses and billboard signs that came with the cars. For a time after the channelization, even maps did not acknowledge the river, labeling the body a ‘flood control channel’. Despite the official nomenclature, and laws barring access, life in the river survived channelization. The river today is a reflection of the city. Mathew Gandy, a prominent geographer, writes of the L.A. River:
“These urban landscapes seem oddly compelling because they reveal the materiality of the city as a functional metropolis. We encounter a late-modern manifestation of the technological sublime where the scale of human artifice is revealed in the form of a Loosian ‘pure urbanism’ devoid of embellishment or ornament.”
An image of the post-canal river begins with cinema in the 1950s. The film ‘Roadblock’ contains one of the earliest depictions of the canonical concrete channel car chase. In traditional film-noir-detective-story fashion, the protagonist is fleeing the police with his beaux when she highlights the driving force behind the role the river plays. Her question, “where does this highway take us?” is met with the response: “This isn’t a highway; this is the Los Angeles riverbed”.
Two of the L.A. River’s best-known cameos are in ‘Grease’, when Danny must race against rival gang leader, Leo, after Kenickie get sucker-punched; and in ‘Terminator-2’ when John Connor, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the T1000 converge on the LA River, with an explosive conclusion.
The L.A. River has played host to a variety of these quintessentially Hollywood scenes. From the epic “To Live and Die in L.A.” the classic ‘Gone in 60 seconds’, the humorous, ‘Freaky Friday’, to the coming of age tale, ‘Repo Men’.
There is a helicopter chase scene in ‘Blue Thunder’.
In the opening scene of ‘The Core’ a space shuttle drops out of the sky over Los Angeles, and adeptly maneuvers into an emergency landing onto a dry, concrete L.A. River bed. In case you were wondering, the scene is an overt reference to Eisenhower’s plan to accommodate B-52s’ taking off and landing on interstate highways.
Films like ‘Drive’, however, shift the focus from seeing the river as a white-knuckle-speedway, to seeing it as the last bastion of open road–the ideal place to experience both car and nature. There is an emphasis on the ‘hidden gem’ qualities of the river.
While driving the female lead and her son home, Gosling’s character suggests they make a detour. The mood is light. Everyone is smiling as the wind ripples through the trio’s hair. The scene transitions to a naturalized portion of the river where the party basks in what I can only describe as golden light; all of this is underpinned by some airy synth-pop.
Likewise, the film ‘In Time’ depicts a member of the upper class spending his last moments stoically gazing out, over the L.A. River from the 7ths St. Bridge.
The Sepulveda Dam serves as the backdrop for Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke’s reflections on the state of their dystopia in Gattaca.
Channeling fear and guilt, ‘Volcano’ casts the river as an unlikely champion. When the city is beset by a new river–one of lava–Tommy Lee Jones re-routes the destruction into the insulated channel of Bellona creek. Ironically, what drains the city of its vital water supply becomes a blessing as it fast tracks the molten rock into the Pacific.
The film ‘Them!’ is built around a snafu involving nuclear testing and giant, radioactive ants, which move into the L.A. sewer. The climax is a scene in which the detective investigating a missing-persons report puts together evidence suggesting that the missing boys must have been flying their toy airplane in the L.A. River with their father when the ants attacked, causing the boys to flee into the sewer.
The river has its very own poet laureate, Lewis MacAdams. Founder of one of the most robust river advocacy organizations: Friends of the Los Angeles River, or, FoLAR, he has donated his talents to raising awareness of the river. His book of poetry “The River: Book One” focuses exclusively on the L.A. River. An excerpt is engraved on a plaque along the river. It reads:
” I wish you would walk with me here more often – Red-wing blackbirds next in the cat-tails, electricity humming in the high-tension lines.”
Here, again, the duality of the river is visible.
Professional and armature artists alike have fed off the river. Most noteworthy are the photo-essay by John Humble, and the painting series by Carole Garland titled ‘Postcards from the LA River’.
Of particular interest in the paintings by Garland are the varied activities and moods depicted. Here, a man is reflecting on the slopes of the cement banks. There are heavily saturated scenes, and mute scenes. There’s even a horse.
John Humble’s photographs compliment the paintings, corroborating Garlands assertion that there is a multitude of atmospheres which the river takes on. The gray haze, the pink swirls, with green patches–the life and the void are all aspects of a singular reality that is the river.
IV. LA River in use
Though there are no official records regarding the origin of the L.A. River as a zone of recreation, a lot of credit goes to Ernie LaMere, creator of Ernie’s Walk. In 1988 Ernie started a lifelong grass-roots campaign of beautification. After harassing the city to remove the trash built up along a neighborhood service road for the river, he installed benches and planted flowers.
There are numerous advocacy groups working in a complex cooperative framework toward the common goal of activating the river. At first glance, it may be difficult to distinguish between ’larivercorp.org’, ‘lariverexpeditions.org’, ‘lariverrecreation.org’, ‘lariver.org’, and ‘thelariver.com’, but each does its part to disseminate various levels of information. Each serves the other in a system of check and balances. Lamag.com, ‘latimesblog.com’, ‘ la-bike.org’, ‘kcet.org’, ‘grist.org’, ‘caltrout.org’, ‘themeaningofriver.wordpress.com’, and FOVICKS (Friends of Vast Industrial Concrete Kafkaesque Structures, my personal favorite) are links in the chain of websites spreading the word . More legitimate news channels, such as the LA Times, the LADPW, folar.org, lapl.org, and the digital library of USC, abet the blogs.
If that were not enough, there are events from within this web ring that stand on their own (bike fundraising for the river). The cycling scene in L.A. rivals that of New York. The Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, specifically, is geared toward fundraising for the health and awareness of the river. Their annual ‘River Ride’ is in its 14th year and continuously growing. Last year they attracted around 3000 riders. Prizes include a trip to the Etruscan countryside, a new bike, and hard cash.
Even more so than the M.T.A. of New York, the L.A. Metro is working to promote bicycle culture. They host monthly thematic rides, including this one, along the historic arroyo seco. It seems that novel quality of the graphics is a move toward inclusivity. Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, the city’s bike infrastructure is extensive. The narrow purple, pink, green, and orange lines represent different types of bike lanes. Note the green lines, which run parallel to the river and its branches.
B. Sculpture/Art site
Every step deeper into the river reveals greater intrigue. Not content to remain a subject, the river is a site for art. “The Great Wall of L.A.”, started in 1974 under the direction of Judith F. Baca runs for 2754 ft., the longest in the world. It contains scenes from every decade of Los Angeles’ existence, including one for the dinosaurs who lost their lives at La Brea. When complete its span will be double what it is today, nearly a mile, with 50 more remaining for future growth.
‘The Outpost for Contemporary Art’, an organization for the proliferation of contemporary art, took the stage in 2010, when artist Vlatka Horvat arranged (and re-arranged) 50 chairs in the river for 8 consecutive hours in an effort to display the potential variety of relationships which occupants of the river may have with one-another.
Last but not least there is the seedy underbelly we know and love. I will refrain from going into detail documenting the drug exchanges and gangland cultures under the bridges. There is less research available anyway.
That being said, there are less nefarious illicit activities which deserve to be brought into the light. Life magazine did an amazing job documenting the realities of channel drag racing in the 1950s.
Anarchists of the city can turn the under-monitored river into a temporary paradise. These images are of an ad-hoc concert organized either serendipitously or anonymously. The show played until the police arrived. From what images exist, it appears to have dispersed peacefully.
The most incredible ‘show and tell’ items I happened upon during my research are the wedding photos of this couple. There is no information about who they are, but if nothing else shows an appreciation for the existing conditions, these photos do.
It has been 70 years since construction began on the channelization of the LA River. Though much of the intervening years have been spent obscured from view and off limits to the public, the L.A. River has retained a vital spirit. Countless people’s lives are touched in both mundane and dramatic ways by the river. So hold the bulldozers, please. William Mulholland was right when he recognized that his beloved ‘limpid stream’ was no longer. In its place, today’s LA River stands , providing a robust stage for activism and a focal point for reflection on the human condition.