Posts tagged Friends of the Los Angeles River

All photos: Jenni Zell

For decades Lewis MacAdams, cofounder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, has dreamt of making the Los Angeles River a swimmable, angler and boat friendly destination – a river more similar to the one that flowed across the Los Angeles basin a little over a century ago before the river was channelized and paved in concrete. A fragment of that former cottonwood-willow-and-gavel-lined river still exists today in Long Beach near the Willow Street Bridge. It is where the concrete-lined channel ends its 20-mile run, allowing the freshwater of its flow to mix with the saltwater of the Pacific

It is also the place where Calvin Abe and I recently witnessed an angler catch and release a 29.5” long, 14 lb. carp (a.k.a. Golden Bonefish). Calvin and I were photographing this location to document the astonishing diversity of resident and migratory bird species that can be found in the Willow Street Estuary and upriver, a location where the in-channel baffles slow water and collect sediment. The sediment builds all summer and autumn, supporting communities of vegetation and insects – an annual accumulation of refuge and food available for local wildlife until the Army Corps of Engineers removes the sediment and vegetation every fall in anticipation of winter rains.

Before the riverbed was lined with concrete there were at least seven species of fish that lived within the L.A. River and its tributaries, including southern steelhead and Pacific lamprey. The fish spawned in the river and spent their first 1-2 years in the waters before moving onto the open ocean waters.

Today, most of the fish in the river are washed out to sea along the low flow channel before they can grow more than a few inches. And, because the river is lined in concrete there is no place for the fish to bury their eggs. The ecological consequences of paving and channelizing L.A.’s River are stark, with native fish faring much worse than the birds and the other generalist species of wildlife that make their home in and near the L.A. River.

Photo by Yiran

Photo by Yiran Wang

While I write this post the Chinese Lantern Festival is just winding down. On this evening – part of the celebration of the annual Spring Festival – Chinese families come out to decorate Chinatown’s streets and plaza with all varieties of luminous lanterns. One famous event has participants release lit up paper lanterns into the sky as a symbolic gesture of well wishes for families and for the entire world (those worried about the environmental impact should note the quantity released here is modest).

Photo via Instagram/@kongtagious

Photo via Instagram/@kongtagious

Chinatown is still a good, but not only spot in Los Angeles to observe the cultural practices of Lunar New Year. Hsi Lai temple is a Chinese Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, and a very authentic destination for observing the celebration of the Lantern Festival. Originally a Buddhist celebration dating back to 2,000 years ago, monks of the Han Dynasty lit up lanterns to worship the Buddha on the 15th day of the new lunar-solar calendar year. Fast forward to the present and participants now continue the tradition from a small hill located in the city of Hacienda Heights, now part of LA’s Chinese Buddhism landscape.

Apart from the Asian “foodscape “germinated from the multicultural context of Los Angeles, the religious landscape also plays a significant role in representing the diverse cultural heritages of each region of the city. However, instead of an elaborate essay about this rich and deep topic, I prefer to offer a brief glimpse into the Hsi Lai Temple as a focus. As the largest Buddhist monastery and temple complex in the Western Hemisphere, Hsi Lai Temple is a notable and fascinating example of the Chinese religious landscape here in Southern California.

The temple, as viewed above using Google Maps.

The temple, as viewed above using Google Maps.

While researching about the history of Hsi Lai Temple, I discovered that the temple’s specific location – on top of a hill overlooking the suburban community – was once resisted by the locals before its completion in 1988. The concern was that the Buddhist temple complex was too large in scale and would supposedly detract from the existing landscape.  To this point, I personally do not believe Hsi Lai Temple does not blend into its surrounding landscape as well as other Chinese monasteries. However, just like Los Angeles itself, the temple can be appreciated for its unique architecture.

Creative Commons photo by Andy Nguyen

Creative Commons photo by Andy Nguyen

Unlike Gothic cathedral marked by a tall spire representing the divine form reaching to heaven, or the circular geometry symbolizing the Mandala integral to Indian temples architecture, Chinese temples in both their Buddhist or Taoist iterations are usually built upon a mountain. These geographic features are believed to be inhabited by sacred spirits, and a mountain or hill also adds a level of grandiosity for a religious site. This “borrowing” from the natural landscape is a very substantial methodology in designing for the traditional Chinese landscape.

If one looks carefully, they might note the front of the first shrine of Hsi Lai Temple has many steps, too many steps to meet the ADA standards (but there is a ramp access). The stairs symbolize the journey practitioners must take symbolically in hopes of ascending to the Pure Land from the mundane world. Climbing as a physical act is also an enduring Buddhism Practice. Traditionally, the number of steps would coincide with the number “108”, either exactly or in some symbolic relationship,  a sacred number in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

The Arhat Garden in the temple. Creative Commons: via Wikipedia: Aaron Logan

The Arhat Garden in the temple. Creative Commons: via Wikipedia: Aaron Logan

With its gleaming golden roof tiles illuminated by the beautiful California sunshine, it’s hard not to notice this temple even from afar. The Hsi Lai Temple complex reveals a strong relation to Ming Qing (1368-1911 C.E.) architectural style, therefore it has earned the nickname, the “Little Forbidden City”.  It has a symmetrical layout, with an axis crossing the Mountain Gate, the Bodhisattva Hall, the Main Shrine and Meditation Hall, with two courtyards in between, and the Requiem Pagoda at the end honoring the dead. Additionally two theme gardens balance the temple complex.

This style of Buddhist architecture and landscape is an adaptation from an originally more spiritual-focused and austere style, adding more ornate and grand imperial design elements. Buddhism played prominent in the Chinese political realm throughout history, and temples designed in the Buddhist-Imperial style emphasized the power and dignity of the deities alongside the grandiosity of the temple itself compared to the more serene focus upon individual meditation. But as far as I know, Hsi Lai Temple’s heritage is only connected historically and culturally to this ubiquitous Chinese religious style, without any affiliation to politics.

Photo via Instagram/@thecaliforniac

Photo via Instagram/@thecaliforniac

One last important dimension while experiencing the religious landscape any Chinese temple is the smell of incense and the sound of chanting sutra. Unlike many Buddhist temples in China, where Buddhist music is performed loudly with groups of monks or nuns chanting together, Hsi Lai Temple is relatively tranquil. This makes the temple feel less touristy and permitting an air of authentic religiosity to permeate its grounds. Still, in front of the Main Shrine there is an incense burner where people pray to the Buddha and offer their incense*. People buy incense to represent high(er) esteem, therefore, the number of incense in the burner or the smoke emanating from it can represent if the temple is really efficacious and popular.  Hsi Lai Temple invites anyone and everyone to participate, offering up to three incense sticks for free. Also, every day between 11:30am till 1:30pm (2:30pm on weekends) is a $7 donation vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet for visitors. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s yet another reason to visit.

Hsi Lai Temple is definitely worth visiting and exploring, alongside other religious landscape in Los Angeles, such as the Hindu Temple in Malibu, the Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood , and the Japanese Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo. I highly recommend taking advantage of this aspect of the Los Angeles landscape, whether to begin a spiritual journey or to simply appreciate the enchanting landscape surrounding it.

*Side note: An interesting fact about the incense is that Indian people used this burnt sticks made of herbs and spices and etc. to repel insects like mosquito.

Hsi Lai Temple
Location: 3456 Glenmark Dr, Hacienda Heights, CA 91745





In 1990 artist Victor Hugo Zayas painted “L.A. River, First Street Bridge” and for 25 years he has continued to paint and sketch the river, often at night and with his feet in the river’s water. His solo exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art is on view through February 7, 2016. The exhibit combines Zayas’ sketch studies with large oil paintings depicting a moody and unknowable urban river landscape. “The River Paintings” and “The Grid Series,” which are exhibited together with a selection of Zayas’ early representations of the river, are composed using a subdued palette of greys, blues, and ochres with a thick, expressive impasto.


VHZ_LARiverPaintings_Molaa_1In the two and one half decades Zayas has been painting the Los Angeles River, little has changed. Ninety percent of the river’s 51 miles have been contained in concrete for over 40 years. In recent years, parks have been constructed near the river, but outside the river channel; none have restored the hydrologic connections necessary for ecosystem restoration. This is primarily because of the sharply drawn jurisdictional lines that delineate ownership and responsibility and that have made connecting the river with its historic wash impossible. (see Landscape Architecture Magazine). Of course the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adoption of the preferred $1.3 billion restoration plan offers hope for significant future efforts to restore hydrologic connections, increase habitat and recreational opportunities.

What has changed dramatically in the past decades is public perception of the river, which began to shift as artists showed alternative ways of perceiving the river. Lewis McAdams – president and co-founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR) – is a poet who considers his work with FOLAR as a 40-year artwork to build a river constituency.

The river transect studies of photographer John Humble, who photographed the river from its origin point in the San Fernando Valley down to it’s eventual end at the Pacific Ocean in his 2001 exhibit “The Los Angeles River: 51 Miles of Concrete,” breaks the cliché of an American river in its ideal state as untouched by mankind, and instead defines a new image of a fragmented waterway dislocated from its natural state, stunningly beautiful and dignified in its non-river likeness. The realism of Humble’s images – portraying a degraded, concrete lined flood control channel that is also unequivocally a river – foreshadowed the EPA’s 2010 designation of the river as a navigable waterway.

Zayas’ work, and the work of other artists studying the river do not prescribe a strategy for the hard work, interagency collaboration, and piles of money needed to make the Los Angeles River into something other than what is today. Yet, each provide the romanticism and realism required to motivate and inspire these efforts. Landscape architects, planners, and architects have been working for decades to transform the Los Angeles River and weave this restoration into L.A.’s emerging sense of place. Perhaps what is most significant about Zayas’ work is how it captures raw dynamic energy, suggesting the river is a powerful force for change.