[Image: Erik Gauger].
The first time many people hear the phrase “Los Angeles River,” they seem to think it’s some kind of oxymoron – the Los Angeles what? Yet cutting right through one of the largest cities in the world is an extraordinary riverine landscape, famous for almost anything but its desert water…
As Tad Friend writes in a back issue of The New Yorker, the whole downtown waterway is “corseted in cement – poured in the nineteen-thirties by the Army Corps of Engineers to stop it from flooding – and further hemmed in by twelve crisscrossing freeways.” In the process, the Corps transformed a dynamic and healthy aquatic ecosystem into a “concrete trapezoid,” laced with “geometric arroyo channels.” This turned the river into a weirdly abstract network of drainage culverts, reservoirs, and holding ponds.
The river is now a “blank Corbusierian backdrop” for the city, Friend writes, a “bulk of form without content,” blurred somewhere in the urban background. There is even a “perennial rumor” that the river was paved over “to serve as an escape route in the event of nuclear holocaust.”
Adjusted for inflation, this asphalting of the LA riverbed cost $5 billion – requiring “three and a half million barrels of cement.” The river is thus a uniquely expensive example of urban hydrological surrealism – and one of the most unexpectedly picturesque rivers in the world. Before we lose ourselves in open celebration of this $5 billion sewer, however, it’s worth taking a look at the environmental impact of encasing a river in concrete.
[Image: Charles Long].
The LA River is not some meaningless desert trickle; its forceful and flood-prone dynamism was one of the very reasons the Corps paved it over in the first place. As Mike Davis explains in Ecology of Fear: the “Los Angeles River – growing from a sluggish stream to a storm-fed torrent equivalent in volume to the undammed Colorado [River] – has been known to increase its flow three-thousand-fold in a single 24-hour period.”
In fact, Davis says, “Los Angeles, sited in an alluvial plain at the foot of a rugged, rapidly eroding mountain range, has the worst flood and debris problems of any major city in the Northern Hemisphere.” To protect against these problems, the entire river was simply encased in the “concrete straitjacket” we see today – this despite the fact, Davis points out, that “it was cheaper to keep property away from floodplains through hazard zoning than to keep floods away from property through vast public works.”
But hazard zones are boring.
Of course, Los Angeles is hardly alone in hiding, paving over, or ensewering its natural hydrology. London, for instance, is famous for its own subterranean maze of lost rivers, almost all of which were transformed into sewers during the Victorian era. The Fleet, the Tyburn, the Walbrooke, the Wandle: they were all force-funneled up manmade passages, rounded through brick knots and coils beneath the city. The Westbourne, in fact, once flowed directly through Sloane Square Tube station – disguised inside iron ductwork.
This game of urban hide-and-seek with the ancestral riverways of greater Los Angeles is only part of a larger, almost pharaonic burial of that region under parking lots, roads, and concrete. Again, Mike Davis: “By 1970 more than one-third of the surface area of the Los Angeles region was dedicated to the car: freeways, streets, parking lots, and driveways. What generations of tourists and migrants had once admired as a real-life Garden of Eden was now buried under an estimated three billion tons of concrete.”
As photographer David Maisel asks, in a short essay that accompanies his LA-based series Oblivion: “This amorphous skein of strip malls and gated developments, highway entrances and exit ramps, lays unfurled over the landscape like a sheet over a recalcitrant cadaver. Surely the earth is dead beneath the sheer weight and breadth of this built form?”
One could even be excused for mistaking the geometric abstraction of what was once a free-flowing river for a new piece of art by Rachel Whiteread – or perhaps even the Continuous Monument designed by Italian architectural utopians, Superstudio.
[Image: The Continuous Monument, Superstudio].
Designed to engulf the world in an infinite white grid, the chief irony of the Continuous Monument is that, in some ways, it was actually built, whether or not Superstudio was ever paid for their design. The LA River is something of a hydrological variant on Superstudio’s most well-known idea, a Continuous Culvert that could stretch around the world, perhaps even joining the lost rivers of London.
Of course, I write this at a time when, as New Scientist warns, the “untamed rivers of the world are rapidly becoming extinct.” Incredibly, “82 per cent of the river systems in deserts and 99 per cent around the Mediterranean are dammed.”
Intriguingly, all these dammed rivers open up the possibility of weaponizing whole riverways, or turning them into instruments of war: “Thousands of dams across the planet hold back more than 6500 cubic kilometres of water in reservoirs. Many rivers have ‘staircases’ of dams that can hold more than their whole annual flow – or even four years’ worth,in the case of the Volta in west Africa. Such total control could risk triggering future water wars in some parts of the world. Turkey has enough reservoir space on the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates river system to shut down the entire flow of both rivers into Iraq and the Gulf for more than a year.”
The landscape as weapon.
This Olympian control of the world’s rivers has enormous financial consequences. In Wired, for instance – published nearly a year before Hurricane Katrina – we read how the Army Corps of Engineers has mythologized its own role along the Mississippi River: “We can’t leave the Mississippi to just run amok – the river is one of the primary reasons that America is a superpower. It’s the major artery in America’s heartland that allows goods to travel swiftly to buyers,” a member of the Corps is quoted as saying. “If the river shifts course, America could quickly become a second-world country.” To ensure that the Mississippi River never “shifts course,” the Corps uses an “articulated concrete mat system.” This prevents shore erosion and keeps the river more fully contained in what is, by now, a manmade channel.
[Image: From Howard N. Fisk’s Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River (via Pruned)].
Left to their own devices, both the Mississippi and Los Angeles Rivers would still be meandering slowly over the American landscape, changing deltas, forming oxbow lakes, finding new routes to the sea. The Corps’ attempt to lock these rivers in place, freezing them behind concrete culverts, levees, and paved drains, is topographically absurd – and doomed to failure. London, Los Angeles, New Orleans – these cities are no more than complicated valvescapes through which imprisoned rivers flow.
[Images: Taken from the ridiculously enjoyable and fantastically named Friends of Vast Industrial Concrete Kafkaesque Structures].
The city of Los Angeles, then, presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to gaze upon the stained walls of a river siphoned almost to nothing by California’s faucets and lawns. In that surreal abstraction of a riverway, given over to obtuse angles and sloping walls, there are the almost imperceptible curves of the original landscape now gone into hiding – and, in the tiniest of cracks and the roar of storm drains, we can watch as that landscape returns.
I have made a list of Google Maps satellite images to the several places
referred to in the FOVICKS story you mention. Maybe they could be of
interest to people who (like me…) have never been to LA:
Aliso Canyon Wash / LA River merge
Aliso Canyon Wash.
Near intersection of Crebs and Hart, just north of Vanowen.
Brown’s Canyon Wash / LA River Merging.
Near Mason and Vanowen, Canoga Park.
LA River (left) merges with Tujunga Wash (right).
The two rivers merge here at the CBS studios near Woodbridge and Colfax
in studio city.
Venturi turbulence, Tujunga Overpass, Studio City.
Slot goes underwater, Burbank
Looking Upstream; LAR (left) meets Burbank Flood Control Channel (right)
Verdugo Wash ‘stairs’ to LAR
Rio Hondo merges with LAR, South Gate. (?)
Enjoy! Thanks –