As Los Angeles grew in popularity and population, people flocked to the flatlands which were actually the river’s floodplains and were being developed despite the risks. These flat areas proved inexpensive to quickly build on and provided housing for a labor force very near the downtown commerce center. All this despite the many repeated and dramatic flooding events which wiped out trellised bridges, railroad bridges and homes.
Particularly in the 1910-1920 time frame, LA exploded in population. The city was home to a large stock exchange, rail lines met here in support of the busy and growing port, and goods passed through Los Angeles on their way to the rest of the nation. The narrative of a green and verdant landscape contrasted with conditions in other regions of the country, and helped drive the huge population boom.
In 1934 alone there were devastating floods, including one the same day voters were asked to vote on a bond for a flood protection measure. Needless to say, it passed. Public Works projects were fully charged with funds in combination with Works Project Administration job initiatives from the FDR Administration (intended to counter the harrowing unemployment of the Great Depression).
Warner Brothers was one of the first groups to privately put a concrete bank along the river behind their studio in the early 1930s as a means of flood protection, and it was the beginning of others doing much the same. This was not a time when people did environmental impact studies, and so the patchwork of efforts against nature instead of with it gained full steam. A great reference for this time in our history can be seen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. There was a huge push to develop the region and LA became a cultural capital on the world stage, meaning flood control was something of a nonnegotiable – regardless of the cost or collateral impact.
In the mid-river section, the “Glendale Narrows,” those familiar with the river today will notice the bottom is not concrete but instead is natural. It’s a rather stark contrast compared to the concrete chute which gapes open-mouthed at the sky for dozens of miles in either direction from it. This “holistic” river segment is the result of a quirk in the water table, which is closer to the surface through this stretch than elsewhere. As concrete was poured to cover the river, it was abutting the water table and wouldn’t cure. It’s the one place the river bent the engineers to its will.
Another notable turning point was when we stopped using the river as a source of drinking and farming water. There was a time when the mayor of LA controlled the canals and water of the entire city, and you could cut someone off for not paying or as political retribution. Truly a Mad Max landscape. Having developed other “consistent” water sources, including water from as far away as Mammoth and the Colorado River, meant no longer needing the river for drinking water. This promptly meant we no longer thought of it as something that needed protecting. It essentially became a flooding liability we could and should flush out into the ocean as soon as possible.
Related to this is the interesting fact that California was the first place in America to have steel-reinforced concrete bridges. This concrete is what built California and is why our bridges look the way they do compared to places like Pittsburgh, for example. The sense of American exceptionalism informed our thinking at the time, insisting that we could engineer our way out of every problem. So we created these bigger and bigger projects, like the river’s concretization, because concrete was cheap and made from a mix of quarry rock from nearby, and the river’s rocks themselves. These factors all worked in concert to create the river we see today.
Part of the river’s tragic story is the way families were forced to live downstream from heavy industrial sites like those in Vernon by virtue of redlining. Black Angelenos were sequestered to south of the 10 Highway, into a region choked by highways with poor air and water quality. (For an idea, childcare facilities cannot be within 500 feet of highways in Los Angeles because of the effect the pollutants have on young, developing brains. Cancer rates, asthma, and other conditions spike in corridors as much as 1600 feet from highways.)
There were voices of dissent at the time, and among them were the Brothers Olmstead. Their father, Frederick, designed both Central and Prospect Park. They consulted with the city of LA, recommending that the river be used as a greenway its entire length to ensure everyone would have access to open, green space. The city’s rejection of this idea in about 1930 sealed the fate of the costly river infrastructure we maintain and the paved-over river bed which stares blankly at us.
Sadly, California has lost 90% of our wetlands. What you see now is a scant 10% of what existed as recently as our grandparents’ lifetimes. While we could feasibly lose what’s left, it feels safe to say that to anyone paying attention, this is rock bottom.
This all drives home that whatever we do from this point forward, we must be sure to think first about how we think in the first place. What do we value? What is really in play?