A Creek Runs Through It

The ad for the house in Hancock Park listed among the residence's amenities an enclosed sun room, a three-car garage and terraced gardens. At a rock-bottom price of $450,000, I had to check it out. Not that I have $450,000, but I, for one, believe that terraced gardens are one of the coolest things about real estate out here. Cooler still at the Hancock Park house: At the yard's bottom, babbling meekly along, was a tiny creek.

The creek, as it turned out, meanders for several blocks along Longwood Avenue before vanishing under Olympic Boulevard. Many of the properties through which it flows have steep, sloping yards, all landscaped around this unique--and virtually secret--geographical feature.

Creeks and streams were once abundant in the topographical surveys of Los Angeles. Poring over maps in the UCLA Research Library, scanning the topo reports for inch-long squiggles of faint dotted-and-dashed blue lines, I found that as recently as 1953 dozens of "intermittent streams," as the U.S. Geological Survey so broadly defines them, bubbled through the hearts of Hollywood and the Westside. By 1966, with the damming of Ballona Creek in Culver City and the excavation of debris basins at strategic points along the Santa Monica Mountains, most of the waterways had been stemmed or cut off from their sources.

Many a golf course and country club in L.A. seems to have had its origins surrounding a free-flowing creek or stream. The Brentwood, Hillcrest, California and Riviera country clubs and the defunct Westward Ho Golf Course (now the Mar Vista Recreation Center) each had their own hearty creeks, all now extinct or channelized. Public playgrounds, such as the Queen Anne Recreation Center in Mid-City, were also often situated near active creeks, whose shifting courses paralleled--or perhaps inspired--major street arteries.

So what happened? James Alamillo, assistant to the executive director of Heal the Bay, conjectures that, while a number of creeks and streams may have dried up on their own, a combination of urbanization and channelization has permanently altered their existence in Los Angeles. "Prior to the 1930s," Alamillo theorizes, "with the urbanization of the L.A. County area and the basin itself, there was a big fear of flooding. Since creeks can spread out, change direction or overflow their banks in heavy rains, early homeowners wanted the water channeled out of their neighborhoods. The Army Corps of Engineers moved or redirected the creeks into specific larger bodies of water to prevent flooding."

Of the four major waterways once flowing through Los Angeles, only the Malibu Creek remains in its natural state. The San Gabriel River, L.A. River and Ballona Creek have all been channelized. "By encasing creeks and riverbeds in cement, and with the installation of storm drains," Alamillo explains, "you don't have to worry about the creek changing direction, especially when natural rocks are replaced by cement. Most of the water today is in man-made courses."

Still, on those rare heavy rain days reminiscent of noir L.A., when the deluge of the typhoon season would wash the streets clean, you can virtually shoot the rapids of the sometime San Vicente Boulevard River--riding the gutter-hugging stream from Sunset Boulevard to Melrose Avenue.

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