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Que Serra Serra Along Friar Crespi’s Porciuncula

Times Staff Writer

1ST STREET VIADUCT, LOS ANGELES, to GLENDALE BOULEVARD BRIDGE, ATWATER GLEN

A potato, a pine tree and a pack of Camels. Memories are made of this.

There’s not much left of the old Los Angeles now, the one Gaspar de Portola and his jolly friars--Juan Crespi and Francisco Gomez--chanced upon on their way to close escrow on Alta California for the King of Spain.

Not much left of the old Porciuncula River, either. Along its broad banks, from what is now the 1st Street Viaduct to the North Broadway crossing, lay the soul of the city. Capt. Portola saw it first, but it was Crespi, his Boswell, who first recorded his impressions.

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Rows of cottonwoods and sycamores shaded the shores, wrote Crespi--who named not only the city but also hung one of his nine -vara handles on the stream itself: El Rio y Valle de los Angeles de la Porciuncula. (It was Aug. 2, 1769, the day of the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels of the Porciuncula--a chapel where Francis of Assisi received a revelation.)

Scanning the Banks

In vain, a 1985 explorer, commencing his fifth leg up the river, scans the celibate concrete banks for a cottonwood, a sycamore or even a stand of skunk cabbage in the lee of the likes of Arrow Auto Salvage, Smallcomb Wiring and the Crane Bag Co. The shores are stripped to cement, as if growing things somehow violated a city ordinance (“Cheese it, the copse!”). The nearest thing to a row a trees worthy of the name is a neat stand of pines a block away at 1st and Mission, and appropriately enough in the earnest front yard of the Hispanic Urban Center.

“We came into a great vineyard of wild grapevines,” Crespi observed in 1769. Today there are only rotting potatoes, tossed into a trash can outside the riverside Pacific Fruit & Produce Co. Potatoes? If the clue fits, share it:

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In the city’s infancy, vineyards bordered the river from 1st Street to well beyond Macy, the wild vines soon tamed to a pretentious but amusing little vintage by a soigne strain imported by Jean-Louis Vignes (west boundary of his holdings still marked by Vignes Street).

But potatoes ? To preserve the moisture of Vignes’ vines, shipped around the Horn from France, they were embedded in slices of spuds. . . . )

The third clue, the crumpled pack of Camels, lay in a bulldozed clearing just west of Macy Street Bridge and not far from the old village of the Yangna, the area’s first settlers.

The Yangna welcomed Portola with baksheesh of baskets and shells. For his part, Portola, flying in the face of the Surgeon General, sent round a gift package of beads and tobacco.

The Yangna enjoyed a good smoke. So does Smitty, a laborer not in the vineyards but in the still-skeletal Urban Mass Transit project. Fingered as the litterer, Smitty stands his ground, or rather leans on the shovel he’s been using to scrape mud off an access road.

His Best Shot

Smitty doesn’t know from Portolas or Crespis or even sycamores, but he gives the geography of the old Porciuncula his best shot.

“The river?” says Smitty. “I’d guess it starts way up there--say, about 30,000 feet. The mouth has to be at sea level.”

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What sea? Smitty flicks a bit of leaf from the tip of his tongue. “The Tasmanian,” he says. “What the heck, it has a nice ring to it.

“You want history, though, try the bridge. There’s something written on it.”

A bearded young man in a baseball cap from “Bill Bailey’s Meat” takes up the slack, leading the Explorer to the center of the bridge and pointing out a plaque: “In Honor of Fray Junipera Serra, Founder of the Missions.” A bas relief has caught the Good Father in a pensive pose--shaven pate, kindly face but furrowed brow, puzzled perhaps over the spectacle of a yellow Volkswagen scorching along the riverbed below, wondering how the devil the guy got the thing down there in the first place.

The Explorer tracks the Bug all the way up to under the North Main Street Bridge, where it swerves to avoid a crew of workers laying steel mesh over the center channel. (Who knows? Ask Smitty.)

At North Main, watching the workers, is Fiona Carter, a tourist from England pondering the works and ways of the Flood Control District.

“Not much of a river, is it,” she remarks. “You don’t even have the proper terminology. Long Beach should have been called ‘Angelesmouth,’ no? I’m from Bournemouth, ‘mouth of the Bourne,’ dontcha know. And there’s Weymouth and Dartmouth and Falmouth. . . .

“I wonder if there’s ever been a Trench River?”

It is at approximately the North Broadway crossing that Crespi first laid eyes on the “lush, green, wide-spreading valley . . . a most handsome garden . . . countless rose-patches, the soil all dark and friable.”

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Kitchen of La Pasadita

Were Crespi to cross the bridge today, into Lincoln Heights, the only friables he would find--welcome though they may be--would be in the kitchen of La Pasadita, a pastel-blue restaurant redolent of hamburgers, hot dogs, huevos rancheros and chorizo.

The City Ford A-1 Used Cars lot would be disconcerting to Crespi; less so a sign tacked to a nearby telephone pole: Ramon Ayala and Los Bravos de Norte, appearing at the Convention Center. To the south, what appears to be a red-roofed chapel in a handsome triangular green park turns out to be the clubhouse of the Downey Recreation Center.

Ironically, it is only north of the quondam “lush, green valley” that the river returns to a facsimile of Crespi’s Porciuncula. Just above the swift-flowing confluence of the Golden State and Pasadena Freeways, the stark, square channel has modulated into a meandering current flowing once again through the traditional L.A. marshland of cattails and shopping carts--a lush swamp, really, like Sudan’s sudd.

A little too swampy, in fact, for the residents of Elysian Park, more commonly and affectionately known as Frogtown, according to John Visco.

Visco, an amiable man in his early 20s, is one of the very few Angelenos who actually live on the river. His house at the foot of Barclay Street is spotless. The front lawn is spiked by cacti, and a fly swatter hangs within easy reach from a porch nail.

“Mosquitoes,” explains Visco. “You get ‘em all summer here--from the river--and every other kind of bug you can name.

“Still, it’s not a bad place to live. Not many have left--certainly not the frogs. You don’t see ‘em so much any more, but you sure can hear ‘em. The ducks too.

“There used to be a lot of wildlife around the river. And fish, too, big ones. I played down there all the time when I was a kid, exploring, swimming--it was a good three feet deep--and riding down when the water rose, on a raft or an inner tube.

Playing in Dirty Water

“The water’s dirty now, but the kids still play in it. It’s dangerous only when they climb the bank to the other side, onto the railroad tracks.”

Across the river, on the northeast side, is a vast freight yard, off limits even to an explorer. Along the yard runs a set of tracks quixotically called the “Burma Road.” From the Burma Road, one can look the length of a lovely stretch of river. From the Burma Road one can also flee down the bank into the riverbed, which seems advisable when one spots the rail-yard bull advancing up the tracks with a stout club in his hand.

Visco to the contrary, the river at Frogtown still harbors its share of wildlife, or at least a multitude of minor moving things.

A thousand tadpoles wriggle across a muddy little cove, like live licorice jellybeans on a slab of milk chocolate. Disciplined formations of minnows play school in the center stream, breaking ranks to nibble at undulating ribbons of algae. Dark-blue birds skim like bats through seven-foot thickets of reeds, never nicking a frond.

Up on Shoredale Avenue, an ice-cream truck seduces the small fry to the incongruous strains of “Over the Bounding Main,” while at the foot of the street, down by the creek, an Oriental boy and his sister, each about 6 or 7, prowl the shore for prey. Standing on a flat rock, the boy holds the girl’s hand as she reaches into the current with a soup strainer and comes up with a ransom of minnows.

“We’re fishing,” explains the boy, whose name is Hon.

“What do you do with the fish?”

“We bring them home. Put ‘em in a jar.”

“And then?”

“And then we take care of them.”

From a mossy flat, a tiny gusher spouts cold water three inches into the air. Clustered for sustenance around the spontaneous spring are little brown things, globs, really; a cross between sand crabs and slugs.

Upstream is a many-splendored midden, swept by the tide into an ad-lib inlet: a rubber glove, half of an understuffed armchair, a headless plastic soldier, a Castrol container, three Coors cans and a Belgian endive.

Another Kind of Jetsam

A block north, at the terminus of a street that houses the empty quarters of the Orwellian “Leisure Time Chemicals,” is another kind of jetsam: a red four-door Nissan Sentra, stripped of everything but a right front tire. License number? Are you kidding?

The sloping bank opposite the community cements its lingering identity: a huge chalk drawing, rather well done, of a frog in a zoot suit and a fedora, holding a smoking shotgun.

Up in Atwater Glen on the other side of the channel, Tom Babel, manager of the riverside Port of Call apartments, allows as his community is a peaceful enough place to live--"You just gotta watch your back.” Just north, it seems, is “Toonerville, where anything goes.”

Even so, Babel likes living by the river, though he keeps his RV primed for a quick exit. “There’s been occasions when the rain got heavy and the river got two feet from the top of the bank,” he says. “I’d already started packing my important papers in the RV, ready to head for the high ground. . . . “

Larry Wickline, Babel’s stepson, takes a kinder view of riparian life.

“After the rains,” he says, “there’s rainbow trout this big! Keepers! You get catfish, carp, crayfish. Come up to my apartment. I have something to show you.”

Indeed he does. In Wickline’s flat is an illuminated fish tank holding an amazing variety of fish--gold, brown, white--all taken, he says, from the Los Angeles River.

“Good fishing when the river comes up,” Wickline says, “Except sometimes you can’t take a step for all those tiny snakes.

“It’s not so much the snakes, though, as the gangs. I wouldn’t go down there without a gun. At night, I wouldn’t go down there at all. . . . “

Although night is falling, the Explorer chances a last walk, up the east bank from Fletcher Drive to Glendale Boulevard.

The bugs are out, the fish are actually jumping. A couple sits by the shore, playing a transistor. All’s right with the world.

Under the Glendale Boulevard Bridge, hidden from everyone but a stray explorer, five teen-agers huddle around a little fire made of scrub sticks. They are wearing studded jeans and vests. One of them appears to be a girl.

A young man with a pencil mustache and jackhammer arms steps into a path leading up to the street, blocking the Explorer’s way.

“Whatcha doin’, man?”

“Walking up the river.”

“What the ---- for?”

“Writing a story.”

“About the ------- river ?”

“Yeah. Started in Long Beach.”

Long Beach? No -----! Hey, you’re -------- OK. Want a drag?”

The young man proffers a thick, lumpy cigarette, hand-wrapped in bilious green paper. It is not a Camel.

Just Put One Out

“Thanks,” says the Explorer, “but I just put one out, if you know what I mean.” He rolls his eyes, meaningfully, he hopes. Then he decides to press his luck.

“Listen,” he tells the young man, whom he now assumes to be the leader of the, um, social club. “I’ve been asking everybody, why not you? Do you know where the river begins and ends?”

The leader shrugs, then turns to his troops, who stand sullen and silent, offering no help.

“Look, man,” says the leader, “I wanna tell you something.” He points emphatically to the ground on which he stands.

“Everything,” he says, “begins and ends right here ! You understand what I mean?”

The Explorer says he understands. And in a way, he does.


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