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Patt Morrison asks: L.A. River scholar Matthew Gandy

Patt Morrison asks: L.A. River scholar Matthew Gandy
A view toward downtown Los Angeles from the Los Angeles River in Maywood, Calif., on Sept. 30, 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

Within living memory, the Los Angeles River has been pretty much a sump, a dump and a joke, its long life as a real river deep-sixed and paved over.  The new master plan for reimagining the river just began its slow-mo rollout, with architect Frank Gehry as its marquee name, and with a website laying the groundwork for decisions by marshaling a lot of data. Matthew Gandy is a Cambridge professor who lives closer to the Thames than to the L.A. River, but he's studied it for more than a dozen years, written about it in his book "The Fabric of Space," and here, he sizes up the river's comeback chances, and the daunting conflicts along the way.

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How do you see the role of the renowned architect Frank Gehry as leading, as changing, as raising the profile of anything that happens to change the profile of the Los Angeles River?

I think that Los Angeles is not so different from a number of other cities and urban redevelopment projects where a high-profile, if you like, star architect has been chosen to play a role as perhaps a figurehead or some kind of a design leader of a particular project.

Urban rivers have become trendy, that there's more interest or attention placed on urban rivers. I think we've seen many examples of urban development projects where a high-profile architect takes a pivotal role in the new project, but I think it's an ambiguous strategy because I think potentially it can ignore the grassroots perspective and all of the rich knowledge of places, of local communities, if you bring in somebody from outside who doesn't have such a deep knowledge and connection to the place that's being redeveloped.

Every great city grows up in some fashion or another around a river, and Los Angeles is no exception.  But that's pretty much where the resemblance ends. What's different about Los Angeles and its relationship with our river?

Maybe the first thing to say is that the river for Los Angeles has performed specific functional task to take storm water as safely and quickly as possible out to the ocean. It's only relatively recently that the river has been effectively rediscovered as part of the city in a similar way let's say to other world cities, like London or Paris.

Why do you think it was so easy for Angelenos to forget – generations of Angelenos, from the 1920s and '30s – to forget that there is even such a thing as the Los Angeles River?

Probably the critical turning point was when the Olmsted Bartholomew plan for the river back in the early decades of the 20th century, when that plan was abandoned, in other words, the idea that the river could be some kind of flood plain stroke nature park, a kind of large public space in the city was basically given up. And so the attention turned to engineering solution for the city. And inevitably, for structural reasons, that meant that the river was no longer a river in the sense of an ecological landscape that people would respond to.

It became a functional landscape that was actually cut off from the rest of the city.  I think that's perhaps a key turning point, if you like: when real estate interests basically were dominant, over alternative conceptions of regional urban planning.

That was the fundamental tension which we see, incidentally, in other cities now. For example, in London, the fundamental tension is, can we  give over large areas of land to create some kind of a floodplain park, or be forced to go through these large-scale engineering solutions to flood risks?

One of the features of London since the 1980s is that the post-industrial riverside landscape has been redeveloped for a variety of different purposes such as parks, new housing projects and so on. There's certainly a sense of an industrial river becoming a post-industrial or abandoned space, and then redeveloped, particularly to the east of the city. So I think that in some ways London and Los Angeles have both been playing with similar dilemmas on what to do about these abandoned spaces in the vicinity of their rivers.

I was surprised when I was working on my book about the river to find it was treated more as a nuisance than an asset for its recent life.

I think that you could even say that many people have even feared the river at certain points in its history, because it's seen as a marginal or even dangerous space.

The river may be better known to most people – even if they don't recognize it – as the setting for car-chase and racing scenes in movies like "Grease," and "Terminator 2," and "Repo Man." At least the Hollywood part of Los Angeles has looked at the river and said, We can do something with this!

I think that the way the river has been portrayed cinematically has been very much to represent, if you will, the dystopian side to the city, or the hidden side to the city. So there are certain cultural motifs that have played out through the use of the river.

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When it was converted into a concrete drainage channel by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the strange concrete landscapes were over time a source of inspiration for artists, filmmakers and so on.   I think one of the tensions now is this particular cultural interpretation of the concrete river will be forgotten or displaced by this new phase in terms of the cultural appropriation of the river.

There are many more governments than the city of Los Angeles that have a hand on the tiller when it comes to deciding the river's future.

Yes, I think one of the basic tensions is the government structure of the Los Angeles metropolitan region, because you have a very complicated set of different local authorities and jurisdictions, and there isn't a strategic planning authority that can very easily bring together all these interests or allow different communities to effectively engage with each other in relation to the future of the river.

I think if there was a truly integrated plan for the future of the river, that could actually imply a change in the way Los Angeles itself is governed. That would be the critical point, whether all of these different bits and pieces, if you like, are actually brought together to create a sum that's larger than the individual parts in terms of re-envisioning the river.

What are the biggest obstacles to bringing the river back to a vital part of the literal and cultural landscape?

One thing is making sure what happens to the river is connected to local communities and public culture, so that there's genuine participation and discussion about what happens. Will local communities be consulted? Will their voices be heard? Will existing environmental groups, such as Friends of the Los Angeles River – will they have a strong voice in terms of talking about the river's future?

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I think the other challenge obviously is the cost of modifying or developing the Los Angeles River. It's a major fiscal challenge.

And I think that the third main challenge or barrier, we should say, is this fragmentary nature of regional government for Los Angeles, whether that could be changed in some way to accommodate a more ambitious set of plans for the river.

Given those obstacles, what odds do you give us for getting it done, for getting done even close to right with the Los Angeles River?

In one sense, I'm optimistic, in that the period in which I've got to know the river over about 12, 15 years I have seen these small scale initiatives and changes which are really fascinating. I think the more difficult question is when the river becomes effectively integrated into more large-scale land and real estate speculation and at that point.

We're almost going back to the dilemmas of the early 20th century and what happens when urban planners encounter real estate interests, and the raw politics of urban development begins to come into the fray.

I think that a sense of concern about the potential secrecy of large-scale environmental planning and urban development projects; another possible point of tension is the question about the underlying motives for some of these large-scale plans.

The real estate interests, just as Olmsted and Bartholomew had to contend with these real estate interests in the early 20th century, these real estate interests are very much still there, they're very present. And the question is how clear these conflicting interests [are] in the public imagination and what role the public can actually play directly in the discussions about the future of the river.

Do you think it's any different now?

I would be very surprised if it's changed that much. I mean, I think that fundamentally a lot of these tensions that were there in the early decades of the 20th century could very easily resurface in relation to an ambitious plan for the river that balances ecological needs, cultural needs, flood risk dimensions.

When the river paving began, the point was to get rid of the water quickly. Now, in the midst of drought, we're wondering why we are wasting the water that does get flushed through the river. Can the master plan for the river make saving water a priority?

There's no question that enormous quantities of water are simply lost because of the hard surfaces of the city, the very high proportion of space for parking spaces, roads, highways. The hydrological potential of Los Angeles has been under-utilized or under-explored. So ultimately it's not just a question of the river but the whole hydrological imagination for Los Angeles.

What is your favorite part of the river, exploring it as you have done?

I like the Dominguez wetlands site, an area which I looked at very carefully about 15 years ago, and then I came back again and saw how this small part of the river – not the river itself but some of the adjacent drainage channels – had been changed in a dramatic way to create an extremely interesting kind of ecological park.

And in fact, the first thing that I noticed when I revisited that site, coming away from the highway, was the birdsong, like a wall of birdsong, a kind of acoustic transition moving from the highway to these remodeled ecological landscapes adjacent to the river -- a dramatic transition I think.

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