Opinion: Leave the Zanja Madre -- the ‘Mother Ditch’ -- in the ground in Chinatown


It’s not terribly surprising that a construction crew, working on a development in Chinatown, came across a 100-foot section of Los Angeles’ first municipal water system — the famous Zanja Madre, or “Mother Ditch.” The bigger question is what to do with it.

For all its above-ground newness, the subterannean Los Angeles has proved, over the years, to be an archaeological museum of Native American, Spanish and European artifacts. You pretty much can’t dig up the earth for a Metro line extension without finding some remnant of historic Los Angeles.

Over the years we have gotten better at excavating more carefully. We’ve learned the hard way: as the the construction crew working to finish La Plaza De Cultural y Artes near Olvera Street found out a few years ago when they chanced upon the remains of a 19th century cemetery, which had supposedly been removed when the cemetery was relocated. In the rush to finish the project, the crew did not immediately stop work to consult with historians and descendants of the dead about how to proceed, causing a local uproar.


The Chinatown project is not that. The developers and the archaeologist working on Blossom Plaza — a five-story apartment and storefront project on North Broadway — knew there was a good chance they would uncover a portion of the brick-and-wooden waterway that brought water from the Los Angeles River to the early pueblo of Los Angeles. The Zanja Madre was built as an open ditch in 1781 and over time morphed into an elaborate network of pipes. It was enclosed in 1877 and abandoned in 1904.

And portions of the waterway have already been preserved through the historic downtown area that was the birthplace of the city. When construction on the Gold Line extension revealed a section of the Zanja Madre, a portion of it was left visible for present-day Angelenos to marvel at.

So construction crews in Chinatown were ready when they found 100 feet of the Zanja Madre in April. A segment of it has already been excavated at the expense of philanthropist and artist Lauren Bon, who will display it as part of a replica of the city’s original water wheel that she is working on.

It’s good that her project will incorporate part of the historic aqueduct, but what of the remaining portion still in the ground? Increasingly, historians and archaeologists favor preserving artifacts in place. People get to see not just the object but its context as well, a vivid reminder that towering buildings and bustling storefronts were once mere villages with completely different infrastructure.

Certainly Los Angeles doesn’t have to preserve every inch of its historic aqueduct, but why not preserve as much of it in place as possible? Why not have reminders of the Zanja Madre as we make our way through the city? Surely the Blossom Plaza developers and L.A. City Councilman Gil Cedillo — who represents the area — and archaeologists and Bon could find a way to leave at least a piece of the Zanja Madre in place in the ground but exposed enough to be onsite art.

Or as Alexander Ward, a board member of Friends of the Los Angeles River, wrote in a letter to the editor printed in The Times, “The right solution is to leave it where it is, preserved and visible as witness to embryonic Los Angeles and its always fragile relationship with its vital water supply.”