The Death and Birth of the Los Angeles River

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

When I first started exploring Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, meaning, really started looking at the city beyond the beaches, people were surprised when I mentioned its river. “It has a river?” Not anymore. In Places Journal, professors Vittoria Di Palma and Alexander Robinson show how increasing numbers of Angelinos have not only discovered their river but are working to rehabilitate it, creating parks with places to bike, jog, and watch wildlife.

The Los Angeles River has come a long way since the days when characters in Repo Man burned trash in barrels in its dystopian cement riverbed. Di Palma and Robinson examine the river’s historical narrative through the lens of Thomas Cole’s 19th century five-part painting series, The Course of Empire. First claimed by colonizers from indigenous people, the river has been tamed and spoiled by Western industrial civilization — and now, hopefully, modernity can return the River to some of its original splendor. The authors describe the river as a “postindustrial terra incognita,” a place “of discarded things and marginalized people”. Can the city ultimately change that?

In 1970, when the Army Corps declared the flood control project “finished,” the Los Angeles Times celebrated the damages it had presumably prevented. Barely a generation later, the newspaper would do an about-face, speculating that “maybe one of these days the Los Angeles River will be liberated from the coffin the Army Corps of Engineers poured it into,” and suggesting that “the idea of restoring long stretches of the river to its natural state and lining its banks with parks makes too much sense to resist forever.”

What brought about this remarkable transformation in sentiment? Over decades the channelized river had become largely invisible and effectively abandoned. High tension power lines and freight rails lined the levees, while prisons and other facilities the city wanted to marginalize were sited along the banks. Outside of downtown, residential communities pressed close to the contained yet inhospitable river. With only a thin line of water running through most of its course, the river seemed more suited to the filming of drag races or crime dramas than to the re-envisioning of participatory public space. Yet in 1985, the river was reintroduced into the city’s consciousness by three distinct events: the publication of a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times, the performance of an act of civil disobedience, and the opening of a new sewage plant.

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