How the Los Angeles River was tamed

“The Los Angeles River,” said my seatmate on our way to Disney. He was pointing out the window at the gray scar that cut below the highway. “They’ve used it for a lot of movies.”

“Like Terminator,” I said, as though I knew anything.

That little clip from my youth is all I knew about the L.A. River. Until my seatmate pointed it out, I didn’t know that what looked like the world’s longest skate park was a river at all. Then, knowing that much, I thought it rather clever of the powers that be to have built a little concrete tributary to carry water through their desert town.

But L.A. didn’t come first. The river came first, and Los Angeles did what it could to humble it.

To be clear, it was never beautiful. This area only gets about 15 inches of rain per year, plus mountain runoff. The 51 miles of river was muddy and tangled and not the sort of place where nymphs paused to examine their reflections.

It river was wild. Dry to muddy most of the year, when the rains came it flooded its banks, spilled onto a grand floodplain and, once the violence was over, changed course to lie in wait to despoil some other parcel of land.

The Tongva indigenous people went with the flow, moving as they needed, respecting the dominance of nature. They were hunter-gatherers and the land was good to them.

Then Europeans came to the Los Angeles Basin, bringing with them disease and development. The Tongva’s dome-shaped homes, called kis and made with leaves and willow reeds, were replaced with wooden and brick structures that boasted foundations and windows. It’s a different thing entirely when a ki is washed away, compared with a wooden and brick home with windows and expensive furniture. A different thing entirely.

Over and over, the L.A. River swelled its banks and swallowed homes. Then it would change course and lie in wait for a new community. It defied all engineering attempts to tame it. And it’s not like people were going to live somewhere else and let the river be. Many of them died for their stubbornness.

In the late winter of 1938, two Pacific storms impregnated the Santa Ana, San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers. One hundred and fifteen souls and thousands of homes were lost.

U.S. Army Corps Engineers stepped in and by the end of that year, the first concrete had been poured. The sometimes-mighty river was deepened and its banks walled. What once was an arrogant, powerful river was now a flood-control channel. It had finally been tamed.

A Los Angeles River levee fails during the flooding of 1938. (via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Never beautiful, no. But now, broken and subdued, it is grotesque. Setting it free is not an option — the city has grown up around it and it would be disaster to let it go back to nature. And yet there is a movement to reverse some of that damage, to begin to chip away at the concrete.

“The L.A. River,” Omar Brownson, head of the revitalization corporation, told National Geographic last year, “is one of the few chances we have to hit the reset button.”

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