The ‘Concrete Straitjacket’

Nov 22, 2013 by

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go on a tour of the Los Angeles River.  Since I enjoyed the bicycle tour of Long Beach so much (which you can read about here), I grabbed my camera and my notebook and headed out on another adventure.

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The LA River near Griffith Park

The LA River is a famous river, though many Los Angelenos are not even aware of its existence.  It has served as a location for many movies including Grease and Chinatown, yet few people go down to the river.  Because the river is prone to flooding, it was channelized between the 1930’s and ’50s by having its banks and riverbed reinforced with concrete.  This was to protect the increasing urban property nearby, although it has been derided as being like a ‘concrete straitjacket’ for the river.  These days it is very easy to cross the river and not even realize it.  In most places it looks like a flood control channel, and in fact that is what many people call it.  The purpose of the field trip I went on was to gain a better sense of the river as an actual river rather than an ugly cement ditch.

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The Arroyo Seco River as it flows into the LA River

The first stop on the field trip was at the Glendale Narrows, more specifically North Atwater Park, which is opposite Griffith Park from the river.  This area is one of three sections of the river where it still has its ‘soft bottom,’ meaning that the riverbed is dirt and plants instead of cement.  The banks of the river are still cement though.  This area was bicycle and horse friendly, with trails and plenty of scenery to enjoy.  There are even plans to build a bridge for horses over the 5 freeway to connect to the extensive horse trails in Griffith Park.  North Atwater Park was funded by clean water lawsuit funds:  companies that dump pollutants into the river were sued and a portion of that money was used to beautify the river.

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downtown Los Angeles, only a little bit hazy

Our second stop was at the location where the 110 freeway crosses over the LA River.  This was a very different area from the Glendale Narrows:  we were in an urban area where homeless people tended to reside and the river was completely channelized, meaning there was no soft bottom, only concrete.  Still, we ventured down to the river to see where the Arroyo Seco River meets the LA River.  This is the birthplace of Los Angeles:  at the juncture of these two rivers.

After this we went to Eleysian Park for lunch.  From here one could see downtown Los Angeles in all its urban glory.  We went into the thick of it to get to our next destination:  the 6th Street Bridge.  Here is the famous part of the river.  Here is where Grease, Chinatown, Into the Wild, and many other movies filmed scenes for their movies.  It was smelly and littered; water ran through at a trickle and stray cats wandered around.

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The most famous, and most dirty, part of the river

This is the image that the world sees of our mighty river:  a urban eyesore where bad things happen.  Policemen even drove up to us while we were down there, suspicious that we were up to no good.  We left soon after that.  But before leaving we learned about plans for the 6th Street Bridge:  apparently it is structurally unsound and would not hold up in the event of a major earthquake, so plans are underway to rebuild it.  There are also plans to beautify the area and make it more green, so people can use it as a park of sorts.  This would be a stark difference from the river as it is today.

The last stop we took was in Long Beach at what is called the Dominguez Gap Wetlands.  This is an area that filters water from the city before it enters the river.  Here we saw hawks and more greenery, and of course bicycle and pedestrian pathways.  This area was created in response to a federal mandate that limits the amount of trash going into the Los Angeles River (because we couldn’t do it on our own, we had to get the federal government to come and tell us how to take care of our river).  The area is also designed to absorb water in the case of a flood.

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The Dominguez Gap Wetlands

Overall, the river tour was  a very enlightening experience.  Like many people, I didn’t even know there was a river until a few months ago when I moved right next to it.  I would travel through all the big cities of Europe and admire their rivers, and wonder why Los Angeles didn’t have something like that.  Now there is a revitalization movement that is gaining momentum that aims to make the river a landmark again.  Places like North Atwater Park show where they have succeeded, and places like the 6th St. Bridge show where plans have been made to make the river more people-friendly and accessible in the future.  While the river will never be completely free from its ‘concrete straitjacket’ (the risk of flood is too great for such a large urban metropolis), with each project the stays are being loosened and the river is being seen more as an asset than a risk.

For more information on the Los Angeles River Revitalization Project, including a history of the river and maps, follow this link:


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