Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Los Angeles River as Our Commons

Yesterday I went on the bus tour of the Los Angeles river put on by Friends of the Los Angeles River (F.O.L.A.R). At our first stop we walked a dirt path down to the river first the the Sepulveda Flood Control Basin in the San Fernando Valley. We stood on the south side of the concrete bank but below this stretch of the river was wide, shallow, full of birds, and with a dirt bottom. So many birds flew in and out of the river. We were right north of the Sepulveda Dam, and right south of the Wildlife Refuge around the river where a thicket of trees goes right down to the river itself. The wooded area of the river just north of us is what the river must have looked like 300 years ago.

The river here is beautiful but also retains the idea of space around river being used for the common good. Just north of the Sepulveda Dam was the only place parkland are on both sides of the river that include athletic fields, parks, a wildlife reserve, a fishing lake, and Tillman Sewage Treatment Plant. Here the river is allowed to flood over the parklands, restoring the underground aquifer. We walked down to the river itself, getting a closer look at the birds and the dam. Here all is peaceful as if we weren't at all in the center of a huge city. Jenny Price, our tour guide who is a environmental writer who graduated from Yale, told us that when the river floods here, the water seeps into the dirt which cleans of it of toxics and then it replenishes the aquifers in this natural flood control. So having parkland on both sides of the river serves not just the public need for parks but also helps clean the river as well as prevent flooding damage to homes.

As we stood on the river bank looking down at birds darting up and down the shallow waters, Jenny Price told us that the history of Los Angeles is the history of its river. The LA basin is surrounded by four mountains--Santa Monicas, San Gabriels, and Santa Susanas, and Verdugos--whose waters pour into creeks all joining up into this 52-mile length as the waters plunge downward to the Pacific at Long Beach.

The river and its tributary creeks provided all the water needed for the city until 1910. Since LA is a flood plain, the river naturally has flooded regularly including huge floods of the 1930s. Then the Army Corps of Engineers put the river into concrete. Developers ruled the city then, seeing only the need to build homes along the river and preventing homes from being flooded. The idea of the river as commons was totally lost. The idea of letting the river naturally flood as good for the ecology was lost except for the Sepulveda Dam basin. Olmstead had created a plan for a long string of parks along the river but that plan was rejected.

Next we stopped at the Glendale Narrows where the river turns right going south through the gap between two mountain ranges: the Santa Monicas and the Verdugos. Just east of the intersection of Los Felix Boulevard and Riverside Drive we walked on another dirt path through a pocket park with bushes, poppies, and trees built in the Glendale Narrows, stopping to eat lunch with our feet dangling out over the riverbank and looking at this other section of the river with a natural dirt bottom. Below us we saw huge tangles of trees, bushes, and boulders that occupy the middle of the river. Here ducks and many other birds cavort.

Around 1990 I went on a river walk right here that F.O.L.A.R. and took a short canoe ride in the river as FOLAR attempted the revive the idea of the river as commons. When I glided around in the back of the canoe, I felt the river enter my consciousness. My Silverlake friends and I would often walk by the river here. In 1995 I took a series of photos here of the the lush rushes, small yellow poppies, and sculptured boulders. Also in 1995 I saw Collage Dance Theater do their Mother Ditch dance right in the river itself with the dancers dancing on abandoned bed springs above the waters with we the audience on its banks.

But at that time the Army Corps of Engineer with regular "cleaning" the river by taking away the plants and boulders until 1995 when they stopped. Now the trees inside the river are taller, the bushes thicker, more boulders and rocks nestle beside them, and there are more birds as nature takes over.

After lunch we walked through the pocket park called the Yoga Park because it had little alcoves to do yoga positions amidst the green bushes and California poppies. During the late 1990s F.O.L.A.R. and Northeast Trees convinced the city to build 7 pocket parks and extend the bikeway. Jenny, our guide, said even though these parks were tiny, they started a major change of consciousness getting thousands to think, of course, we should have a green way by the river. I thought the pocket parks were great, but as a yoga student for twenty years I think few yoga practitioners like to move from site to site to do yoga positions. Instead a few more tables and benches would be good. Many people would like to eat or sit by the river but not on the ground.

We walked down to the pedestrian bridge, then walked over, stopping in the middle, looking at both sides of the river. My companions, Etan and Eileen from Eagle Rock, told me they bike along the bikeway which now extends for seven miles on the far side of the river. We could see a few more people bicycle now and some walkers in this eight-mile stretch of the river with a natural dirt bottom. My spirit is also recharged by a walk by the river here.

Our next stop, the Confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco creek flowing down from the mighty San Gabriel Mountains, was quite different. Only a few miles north of downtown, we walked down by these huge concrete pillars covered with huge colorful graffiti down to the confluence where the river is in its concrete straight jacket. Jenny had us go out into the river itself which was only an inch deep where we walked to get a better look at the confluence of river and creek all enclosed in monumental concrete straight jacket. She said while the river itself is the city's spine, this spot is its heart.

Yes, but the confluence is the bleeding wounded historical heart of Los Angeles. Since the confluence of river and creek was had a rich supply of year-round water, the Tongva Indians sited many of their villages here including the biggest, Yagna, just to the south. The 1761 Portola Expedition sent from Spain said this lush valley by the river was the best place for a village, so they began their pueblo also a little south. But the confluence now is just freeway underpasses, a concrete river, and parking lots--that whole history of this place has been erased as the river was straightjacketed in concrete.

As we stood in the river, Jenny told us a lot of the land surrounding the confluence is owned by different governmental agencies. The city of LA is committed to building a park here, but it's slow going getting the land from there governmental agencies but it has bought a parking lot as its first acquisition. I was glad we had seen the two natural parts of the river first--what it once was and could be--before we saw the Confluence.

Our forth stop was the Cornfields Park where first we stopped outside the chain link fence on the north end. Then the bus drove about a mile to the entrance at the south end. We walked in, saw the many small tree saplings that had been planted, and then walked up to the little mound which had short trees on it and historical plaques in the ground in a circle telling the Cornfields' history: Yagna village right next door; Spanish and Mexican pueblo just south had fields here watered by the zanja madre, the mother ditch; the Yankees built a huge railroad depot and train yards here were thousands of new immigrants poured in.

Below us two teenage boys actually played ball on the grass. No one else though was in the park this sunny Saturday. Nearby Chinatown has no parks--just none. So why aren't hundreds of people here like the elderly Chinese sitting on every bench playing cards and chatting as they do in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco's Chinatown. Because the glacially slow process of park building still leaves the neighbors with next-to-nothing to do here. I say build up a spot on the Cornfields for the elderly Chinese with benches and tables!

Our last stop was at the 6th Street Bridge just south of downtown. We walked through a urine-smelling, trash-lined tunnel under the bridge out into the river again only an inch deep where we walked. On the east bank were train tracks where a train with cars saying it had Chinese goods were heading south to the port. We saw the architecturally wonderful bridges spanning the river both north and south as well as all the graffiti on the concrete pillars of the bridge. The new river master plan has chosen the east, Latino side of the 6th Street bridge as a spot to build another park.

We'd seen more geography of the river as it meanders through its two dirt-bottom sections and its two concrete-lined industrial areas. Jenny argues that putting the river into concrete was wrong for four reasons. Ecologically, the storm drains dump waters into the laden with toxins into the channeled river, increasing the flow and carrying toxins down to pollute the beaches. Before the city was built, only 8% of the rainwater flowed into the ocean but now 80% of it does. Also when the river was allowed to flood its banks, it increased the underwater aquifer. Now it just dumps water into the Pacific Ocean.

Socially, the refusal to build a greenway along the river in the 1930s meant Los Angeles became one of the most park-poor cities in the country, with working class and non-white neighborhoods having the least parks. Chinatown is a good example here--it has no parks at all for 25,000 people. Economically, the city doesn't use cisterns to capture rainwater nor its river water through flooding on parkland but instead spends billions to transport water from far away. Finally, people lost the idea of the river in her lives. I would add that other cities like London or Paris the river is a great unifying force but in Los Angeles we lack that. Instead we have neighborhoods who are divided from one another.

What got lost was not just the river but also the sense of the river as a commons. FOLAR, Northeast Trees, the Chinatown and Latino river activists have labored for twenty years to get LA to adopt its plan to bring back the river; now the city has said, yes, it will commit to having a greenway on the 32 miles the river is within its limits--a huge victory. The city as just issued a Master Plan for the river.

Yet the huge government bureaucracies work at a glacial slowness. We need to engage the citizens more in making the river again our common meeting place. We need to all go down to the river. We should go by then tens of thousands and then talk together what we want for the river. Then hopefully the process of building the parks along the river will be speeded up. Let us all go down to the river.

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