Filmmaker and artist Wim Wenders once noted, “Landscapes tell stories, and the Los Angeles River tells a story of violence and danger.” After six decades of taming the Los Angeles River through the medium of concrete and construction, the city’s major waterway can still be dangerous and occasionally violent, but mostly more of a placid flood abatement feature than the wild force it once was.
Today the Los Angeles River is a corridor of public land that serves as a conduit for the movement of water, trains, cars, electricity, trucks, and freight for much of its fifty miles. From its beginnings in Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley, the river journeys out to Long Beach, eventually emptying into the Pacific Ocean. The river’s flow travels through a variety of communities and urban landscapes, sometimes a calm trickle, occasionally a turbulent force reminding us of its former seasonal ferocity.
The river is a witness and materialized carrier of all the changes and development that has happened across Southern California over the decades. Conversely, those years of urban development have also made the river what it is today, a dividing line across the Angeleno urban grid. That’s why I believe it is so important to take a journey along Los Angeles River to fully comprehend its impact as a shaping force of Los Angeles, and the history of the city itself.
“Nobody knows Los Angeles without knowing its river.”- Joan Didion
From small scale green streets and pocket parks, all the way to larger regional scale projects across the city, the Los Angeles River plays a vivid and complex role as an artery of the city. The river’s waterfront is a paradigmatic symbol of the inherent complexity of a natural mutable system continually lapping up against an immovable constructed edge, the river’s length continually busy with human activity determined to make use of its water for work, leisure, and as a reliable resource. It is at the very heart of one of the largest urban transformation projects, one that will undoubtedly reshape Los Angeles.
Angelenos can bike, hike, bird watch, and even kayak along the Los Angeles River. It’s a place where visitors can relax and spend family time in some of the pocket parks found along the river. Those seeking more environmentally-oriented activities can partake in the annual LA River Cleanup events. The Los Angeles River is also a famously popular site for film, television, and commercials. You’ve probably seen plenty of footage of it as a backdrop; anyone who’s seen one of the numerous Hollywood movie car chases over the last 30 years will recognize the 51-mile structure that runs from San Fernando Valley through to Long Beach.
Somehow it seems appropriate our city’s most important river has been mapped and immortalized by a cinematic hand versus a cartographic one. In that sense, anyone can journey along the Los Angeles River with a thoughtfully LA-centric themed list of movies via their Netflix queue, following the path of a river that remained constant even as the city around it continually changed through the decades. That the river itself is now on the brink of being transformed in a
“grand exercise in modern ecosystem manipulation” is reason enough to visit the Los Angeles River before it’s only a memory captured on film.