Monday, May 16, 2011

Los Angeles River's Ugly Beauty



On Sunday's Hidden Los Angeles / Friends of the Los Angeles River tour of the LA River, our tour guide Jenny Price told us that she liked to start the tour pretty, get ugly, and then end again on pretty.

But obviously her perspective - one she shares with FoLAR and many of the other community organizations rallying around raising awareness for the river - is that nature (as seen in the Glendale Narrows section, and in the wetlands of Long Beach) is pretty, and concrete is ugly.

I beg to differ.

I came to the LA River for the concrete, for the city's industrial heritage. Its long, white-washed expanses of smooth, steep, sloped walls drew me in, down into the river.

Both parts of the river collect trash - empty bottles and jars, shopping carts, plastic bags - but the trash seems to collect more in the overgrown, swampy areas that now house a number of flourishing species of seabirds.

Everything seems to just pass through the concrete stretches, one of LA's many wide open spaces - this one, depressed under street surface, tucked away beneath bridges and overpasses and chainlink fences. Are those not beautiful too?

The current campaign for the LA River is essentially to clean it and green it, which, they hope, means removing the concrete, which had been added to its banks and bed to control flooding. They want to give Los Angelenos a sense of identity, reminding them that the city was built around this river. Many of LA's residents don't even know the river exists, or where exactly it is.

But will changing it - trying to return it to nature, to restore it to its pre-concrete existence - do that?

As I stood under the bridge at 6th Street in Downtown Los Angeles, I mourned the LA River I'd seen in so many TV shows and movies, now with water constantly flowing throughout its entirety (making it entirely navigable, an essential quality to it earning its EPA designation). But it's hard to celebrate the river's new-found flow, when we were warned to stay away from the water - not because of rising levels, but because of its potentially toxic quality after the morning's rain.

No reenactment of Thunder Road for me.

I would argue that all of today's LA River is beautiful. I would hate to treat the river's concrete as merely a mistake or a bad decision, and try to return the river to its prior state, ignoring the history of which it now serves as a reminder. That kind of attitude is what leads to the demolition of important buildings simply because they're deemed "ugly." Arts and Crafts furniture was once used as kindling because it was ugly. Except, decades later, someone decided it wasn't ugly, it was important.

Isn't the LA River important?

Here are some photos from the so-called "pretty" to the so-called "ugly," back to the so-called "pretty." Decide for yourself.

Glendale Narrows:




























Arroyo Seco Confluence:










Downtown (aka "Thunder Road")


Maywood Park:




Long Beach wetlands:












For all the photos from this tour and a prior visit to the Studio City stop along the LA River, click here.

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