Posts tagged Los Angeles River

Photo by Jessica Roberts

Step in through AHBE’s office front door and visitors are greeted with an ever-changing makeshift gallery space. Currently on display is a photo series dedicated to the Los Angeles River, inviting all to leave the office for the experience of our city’s river. After looking through previous photos of the river I had taken, I selected an image for the exhibition that wasn’t chosen for its dynamic composition, but for the way it helped me understand what it is about the river I find so unique.

My entry, entitled “Emergence”, is a meditation on experiencing landscape in relationship to the horizon, highlighting the moment when the plane and the horizon interact. The horizon line is a visual component that gives perspective to a landscape, and its quality is arguably the most defining element of a place.

In landscape painting the position of the horizon is critical. If depicted too high or too low, the horizon can draw the viewer’s attention too soon before establishing its relation with the rest of the image. By dividing the picture plane evenly in two, rather than using the rule of thirds for example, the viewer is invited to spend time to interpret and question the intention of the perspective, giving meaning to the horizon line and its relationship to everything else. Similarly, the L.A. River is a horizon-spanning mega-infrastructure that has a sense of place that is all-consuming.

Walking around the channelized landscape of the river, with its concrete underfoot and the harsh sun beating down, one feels a strong sense of self in relation to its expanse. A strong sense of the relationship to others is also felt as people pass by on foot or by bike. Conversely, the river can evoke feelings of isolation unlike anywhere else I’ve ever experienced. Gazing ever further out, the canopy of trees establish everything in relationship to the river, and as part of something bigger. The solid concrete below the horizon defines, positions, and intensifies everything, from what grows above to what travels through.

Being in the L.A. River reminds me of being out in the middle of a desert, except sunken down further into the earth, where any entity interrupting the relentless horizontal stands at once as an individual and in relationship to everything else. It is different than the layered nature of a forest or the density of buildings in a city. The sensation can feel as disorienting and isolating as standing in the middle of a prairie, without even the sway of the grasses to distract attention. It is an uncommon urban experience. The horizon line is commanding and the scale of the built infrastructure makes it seem as though the concrete channel was a natural occurrence, unique to the people who have lived and evolved along side it, unfolding and reordering the human from the natural. The Los Angeles River is a place that cannot be prescribed or repeated again, a feature of the city capable of speaking to the human experience while also testing our capacity to see ourselves in relationship to nature.

Photos by Wendy Chan

After reading my colleague’s thoughts about the plans to revitalize the Los Angeles River, I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness of its current state, emotions eventually counterbalanced with hopes of the river’s proposed future.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I regularly witnessed the river’s transformation from a gentle trickle in the summer into a powerful torrent during the fall and winter after a storm – its raw power sometimes barely contained within the concrete channel built to direct the flow safely out to the ocean. I remember  watching on the news swift water rescue teams pulling out people overcome by the river’s strong currents every year, caught by its surprising strength. Occasionally these stories would end tragically.

Memories like these embedded the idea the river was a dangerous place to be avoided – an unpleasant section of Los Angeles where drug deals happened, trash piled up, and graffiti covered its embankments. Why would anyone want to visit such a place?

But as a little kid, I didn’t understand the L.A River’s past before it was channelized, nor pondered the potential of its future. I simply thought of the stretch of concrete as a flood channel, not as a river. I remember when I first experienced a river as an adult; I thought of the flow of water back at home, suddenly realizing and recognizing the potential of the L.A River.

“The L.A. River could represent the identity of Los Angeles!”

The inklings of the river as a connection and artery between humans and local wildlife began to flow, and my thoughts about the river began to change. No longer was it an off-limits and dangerous place, but the opportunity to offer communities accessibility to nature, alongside a feature connecting all of the communities of Los Angeles it flows across.

The Lower Los Angeles River Revitalization plan is truly a community driven vision, one outlining strategies to turn a dream of a better Los Angeles River into becoming a reality. I’m inspired imagining a city of tomorrow not be defined by its freeways, but instead by the tributary whose history spans long before there was even a Los Angeles.

Photos by Calvin Abe

I get a good look at the Lower Los Angeles River (LLAR) and Compton Creek during my daily commute on the Metro Blue Line Train. Depending on the vegetation management activities of the Flood Control District and the season, what I see can be either hopeful or bleak.

In the summer, after a season of growth where sediment, vegetation, and wildlife establish their territory within both the soft bottom and concrete-lined waterways, I feel an optimistic hope that nature based infrastructure solutions can be restored to the region. Now, at the beginning of the rainy season when vegetation has been removed from the channel and replaced with high volumes of water flowing with suspended trash, pollutants, and dangerous levels of bacteria, it seems as if the ecological destruction caused by paving our watershed will never be mitigated.

However bleak my views about the river have become lately, there remains genuine reason for hope. In December of 2017, the Draft Lower Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan was released to the public, an important document outlining opportunities and constraints for significant future LLAR projects from Vernon to Long Beach. The plan can be viewed here.

The first pages of the document offer an eye opening assessment about the community living within the river corridor:

  • Poor (64.1% of households are considered low income and an estimated 2,500 homeless people live along the river)
  • Ethnically diverse (93% non-white)
  • Hot (only 2% of the watershed is covered by shade trees)
  • Without sufficient access to parks (1/3 of the people living within the river adjacent communities have 1/3 the park space than the current LA County average).

This Draft Lower Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan gets into the weeds in addressing site-specific revitalization project for 146 locations throughout the river corridor. The draft also proposes a Community Stabilization Toolkit to help ensure the community living and working within the river corridor is the same population that benefits from planned projects and programs when they’re implemented. The impressive analytics provided in the report will be valuable to the communities that will ultimately take the lead in realizing these efforts.

While many of the opportunities identified in the plan are sandwiched between the channel of the river and the 710 Freeway in the upper river segments, and do not restore the natural hydraulic and ecological functions of the river and flood plain, the middle and lower segments propose spreading basins, wetlands parks, and habitat corridors. Taken in aggregate, these river adjacent projects can have a significant positive impact on water quality.

It is disappointing removing concrete from the river channel is not considered feasible in this plan (except alternate configuration 3 at the Rio Hondo Confluence). However, the most significant impact of this plan may be in the tenacity the plan commits to finding buildable opportunities along the river corridor, combined with the proposed policies and programs for community stabilization. Taken together, this sober plan proposes an authentic vision of the Lower Los Angeles River that is a cleaner, healthier and better-connected version of its current state.

This vision of tomorrow’s river system does not displace people, funnel profits to private interests, or force an idealized version of another river from another place and time. Instead, the plan embraces the complex interweaving of natural and man-made systems representing the essential heritage 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
Ocean.

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.

A significant amount of investment and accompanying interest has focused across the section of the Los Angeles River located north of Downtown Los Angeles. Some of that attention has been directed toward Long Beach where the LA River empties into the Pacific Ocean, but very little public awareness exists about the sections located between the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which include Cudahy [KUD-ə-hay],  Maywood, and South Gate.

AHBE Lab wanted to find out more about these stretches of communities following the river. Jiani Shen, a masters student at LSU, and Estevan Castenada, a bachelor’s student from Cal Poly Pomona, are both AHBE summer interns. They’ve been both tasked to gather information about this section along the Los Angeles River, asked to research upon open space recommendations, as well as report about connections to the adjoining communities. Both summer interns will share their observations about living within the Los Angeles landscape, this being our second post of the series from Jiani:

Our current relationship to the natural environment

We’ve long been capable of manipulating our natural environment to make our surroundings more beneficial for human activities and safety. People have always wanted to tame natural environments and make them predictable. The Los Angeles River is an example, a channelized river with a concrete bottom and sides. Because the river used to overflow its bank and intermittently flood the Los Angeles River basin, the city’s citizens and political leaders contained its flow within an approximately 450 feet wide channel.

The channel tames the river’s course and flow, stabilizing its velocity, and preventing flooding into surrounding neighborhoods.The construction of the channel took 22 years to complete. The stark concrete levee and concrete channel now manages the entire length of the Los Angeles River, from Valley to the ocean. However, this construction comes at a price: it prevents the river’s natural behavior and destroyed much of the ecological systems along the river.

The current flow of the Los Angeles River.

The original Mississippi River is another example of a waterway that frequently overflowed its banks. The river brought sediment down into the Delta during flooding, thus shaping the land. In the last 100 years humans constructed levees all along the river; the US Army Corp of Engineering built a levee to prevent the water directly flowing into Atchafalaya Basin area. The goal was to direct the river’s flow down toward New Orleans, supporting commercial river activities like shipping. As a result, the Mississippi River now has a longer river commercial route, which in turn helped New Orleans become a metropolitan city.

This map of an area just north of the Atchafalaya River shows a slice of the complex history of the Mississippi. The modern river course is superimposed on channels from 1880 (green), 1820 (red), and 1765 (blue). Even earlier, prehistoric channels underlie the more recent patterns. An oxbow lake—a crescent of water left behind when a meander (bend in the river) closes itself off—remains from 1785. A satellite image from 1999 shows the current course of the river and the old oxbow lake. Despite modern human-made changes to the landscape, traces of the past remain, with roads and fields following the contours of past channels.”

Our future relationship the natural environment
The Los Angeles River is now no longer a natural recreational area in the city’s citizens’ daily lives. However, we need to reconsider the resilient relationship between our city’s river and the urban environment that surrounds its entire length. We should find new ways to bring the LA River back into people’s life while preserving the cultural heritage that sprung forth from its existence. I believe there are three strategies Los Angeles needs to do to accomplish this goal of making the LA River an integral part of our city:

  • First: transform abandoned waterfront industries by renovating under-utilized land to improve the quality of life of neighboring communities.
  • Second: increase water front accessibility. For example, connect the bike trail from the upper river to the lower river, and enhance public transportation to river access points.
  • Third: facilitate ecological recovery, including enhance flood prevention capacity; restore LA River water quality and wildlife habitat.

Humans are naturally attracted to water and nature. When the Los Angeles River becomes a safe and ecological public recreational space it could become a new landmark instead of just an ideal place to shoot crime films.