June 11, 2012

Los Angeles River's Beautiful Ugly

Technically, it's still illegal to visit the Los Angeles River, a feature of Los Angeles' past and present which exists somewhere between watershed project, natural resource, real estate development, and public open space.

For years, the river's locked gates have been a beacon for homeless, gang members, and the other disenfranchised, disadvantaged, and ne'er do wells of the city.

There are stretches of it which have been turned into greenways with bike paths and river walks, but technically, it's still illegal to go there.

Thankfully, on Sunday, we had a key. And a permit.

The Los Angeles River isn't known so much as a river but as a concrete channel that cuts through the city. Because of the films and TV shows that have featured it over the years, most people know it more as a white-washed, dry ditch hidden in the nether regions of LA, home to body-dumping, skateboarding, and drag racing à la Thunder Road.

But thanks to a water reclamation project, for the first time since the river was covered in concrete as a flood control measure, there's a steady supply of water to the river, which was once fed by a number of creeks and tributaries in a time when LA was actually quite wet.

You can see the beginnings of the LA River at Owensmouth Avenue in Canoga Park (formerly called Owensmouth), where the Arroyo Calabasas meets the Bell Creek. Their concrete walls are conveniently labelled as such.

At the headwaters, the LA River lives up to almost all of its stereotypes: it's industrial, rusted, abandoned, green, and slimy. We didn't see any cadavers but there were a few healthy pigeons enjoying a bath.

A short distance away, near Balboa Park in Encino, the LA River becomes a real river at Sepulveda Basin, one of three soft bottom stretches of the waterway....

...near the Sepulveda Dam which was also built to control the floods that ravaged the Valley in the 1930s.

But whereas most of the Valley was left with a channelized, hot, dry, concrete-floored "river," Sepulveda Basin has managed to thrive as an open space with a nearby wildlife refuge.

We felt confident enough to actually get in the water with our bare feet...

...dodging mostly rocks and plants and birds...

...and the occasional gook.

The area is wild to visit because it looks quite similar to the stretches of the river that run through downtown, with the various bridge crossings and the high-banked sides...

...but this section, though not swimmable, would be fully navigable by water vessel.

And unlike Glendale Narrows, another soft-bottom section where nature has more or less taken over and the waters continue to break up the concrete floor, whose fragments simply float away, this section seems almost untouched. I wanted to spend all day there.

Instead we moved on to visit The Great Wall of Los Angeles, an extensive mural project that runs for a half mile along the concrete walls of the Tujunga Wash, a tributary of the Los Angeles River in the Valley Glen area...

...depicting the history of various ethnic minorities in California from prehistoric times to the 1950s, as well as other pop cultural and social milestone events like the Baby Boom and the birth of Rock and Roll.

The mural, like much of the LA River, lies behind a fence.

In fact, for the last 60+ years, it seems that all people have done is try to hide the LA River - limiting its access, obscuring the view of it with hedges...

...and turning their houses and buildings away from it.

At least now, when you're driving through downtown, or Studio City, or Burbank, you get to see those blue and white signs identifying the river, so you have some sense of its crossings...

But it's impossible to follow the river from beginning to end, or along any long stretches - by foot, bike, or car (or boat). It's a stop-and-start waterway that sometimes sends you walking in circles, the path dead-ending at, for example, CBS Studios, which is not letting in recreational visitors anytime soon.

For those of us obsessed with uncovering the hidden treasures of LA, exploring their beauty where others only find ugliness, the LA River has tremendous draw.

But those who have dreams for the river wish to remove the concrete and restore it back to its natural state.

Even upon my second day-long visit, I don't want to change it. I just want to get to it.

Related Reading:
Los Angeles River's Ugly Beauty

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