The shape and soul of the Los Angeles River will change in the coming years and decades. Dynamic alteration of the riverscape has already begun, and by most indications, the pace of transformation will soon increase.
We often hear that the river once was — and could again be — a resource for all. To realize this vision, the planning process will need to be inclusive, not born of elitism or private decision-making. Indeed, it was through a less than egalitarian process that Los Angeles came to pave the river in the first place. That history provides a cautionary tale.
In the aftermath of disastrous floods in 1914 and 1916, Los Angeles County voters had had enough of the tempestuous Los Angeles River.
Dry most summers, the river often flooded following heavy winter rains, washing out valuable development, drowning livestock and unwary Angelenos, and cutting off rail, telegraph and telephone networks that sustained the metropolis.
As the floodwaters receded, a super jurisdictional flood control body arose with fiscal, political and engineering clout. Voters throughout the county agreed to bond the infrastructural costs of taming the impudent river. But how to do it?
One plan called for building little dams high in the canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains to hold rainwater back from the Arroyo Seco tributary. Caught behind these dams, water would seep into groundwater storage instead of roaring off the mountain, into the Arroyo Seco and then down to the river.
It was a good idea. But getting work crews high into the steep San Gabriels to build enough dams would hardly be trivial.
Others thought the plan was simply not ambitious enough. Early 20th century L.A. evinced little doubt about its ability to control and corral nature. Why not tame the river once and for all? Why not encase it in concrete?
Before the Army Corps of Engineers and county partners could move forward, more information had to be gathered. Two engineers with the corps received a military order: Compile a profile of the L.A. River.
The two engineers were charged with figuring out where the river arose, where it flowed and how that flow had changed over time. They also had to determine what years the river had flooded, and how big those floods were. They used technical training to chart the river’s profile. But to complete their riparian study, they also had to become historians and biographers.
The two men crisscrossed the Los Angeles Basin, interviewing the oldest people they could find. They asked these old people what it was like to grow up in the region before statehood, before the Gold Rush, even back to the Mexican and mission period.
The people they interviewed were nonwhite: indigenous, Mexican, mixed-race mestizos. (No whites, or at least a very few, had memories that stretched back far enough to help.) These elders knew the river; it ran through their memories and lives. They grew up near it, but not too near, lest wintertime floods wash away their adobes. They drank from it, as did their livestock. They irrigated their crops from the zanjas they had carved from it. The river was lifeblood, the defining feature of the landscape.
The elders remembered the floods too. The engineers took careful notes: How big were the floods? What was the flooded river’s carrying capacity? Did it move from its banks and carve out new channels? Where did it go? Did it come back?
In the decades that followed, all this data got turned into concrete. The river was nailed to the landscape with an ocean of wet cement. Its concrete banks have held it more or less in place, sending precious water out to sea.
These interviews were remarkable, and we are lucky to have them preserved. But they played an entirely functional role. They weren’t exercises in public comment, nor were they oral histories per se. Rather, the information was converted into metrics to make the river safe for the future — a future that was assumed to belong to the progeny of Anglo elites, not to the children of the people who had supplied their knowledge and insight.
It may have looked democratic, all that talking to old people. But the project was infused with undemocratic presumptions about who would inherit the L.A. of tomorrow.
Today we are rethinking the river paving. We are far less sanguine about the control of nature than we once were. We want to do it differently.
The individuals and institutions that are shaping the river’s future — some of the most creative and visionary people in Southern California — would be wise to also do as their forebears did: Talk to a lot of people about the river and its meanings.
In particular, they should talk with — and listen to — the many people who live in proximity to the river, up and down its entire course, in the wildly complex tapestry of neighborhoods we call “river adjacent.” For the river rehabilitation project to work best, these communities will all have to be heard.
This time around, we should also be more egalitarian in how we make the decisions that result from all this talking.
Concrete once bent the L.A. River to metropolitan ambitions and needs. A century later, our era is remaking the river once again. We ought to allow the river to remake us too — into a more equitable city.
William Deverell is a historian at USC and the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.