March 9, 2012
The LA River, with its rich and diverse ecosystem, was a very crucial part in the development of the city of Los Angeles. Before Spanish settlers came into Sothern California, the river was the foundation for Native Americans that inhabited the land for nearly ten thousand years. Among the many Indian tribes living in the Southern California region, the Gabrielino were the most technologically advanced and prosperous tribes in the area. This was more than likely due to the river and its surrounding ecosystem providing all the necessary raw materials and nourishment needed to expand the extensive trading system they had in place. As the map below shows, these people were spread out through the southland in what is now known as the Los Angeles and Orange counties, including the Channel Islands. Surrounded by other Indian tribes, the Gabrielino were the only tribe that predominately utilized the river, its resources and understood its patterns over the significant amount of time passed since Indians were first there. As a result, their settlement followed the pathway of the river as floods enabled it to erode and meander a new path because it provided a critical foundation for their way of life.
The ecosystem surrounding the LA River was quite extensive, which the Gabrielino made abundant use of. First, Willow trees and large oaks lined the streams and water flow that provided the staple of the Gabrielino food diet- the acorn. The floodplain forest was also extremely useful as it provided the wide range of small animals, seeds and berries that were hunted and gathered for food. In addition, the marches provided raw materials used to build shelters and tools for important use; among these included supportive beams for housing, bows and arrows, and natural bright-colored woods that they would wear to distinguish themselves from prey. However, most importantly, the river was the main source of drinking water and the spot of ritual bathing before sunrise for religious purposes. This was the cleansing ritual supposedly dictated by Chengiichngech, their creator-god that played a central role in their society. Since the Gabrielino settled in association to where water resources were located, they did not utilize agriculture but rather used the native ecosystem for nourishment. This lack of cropping did not tie them to the land and allowed them to be nomadic in nature by re-settling along the river in multiple spots, but were most prevalent in the San Fernando Valley.
The Gabrielino tribe is a great example a community taking full advantage of the LA River and its resources sustainably. Although the LA River was unpredictable after heavy rainfall, changing its water flow many times, the Indians living in the region learned to adapt and thrive in the ecosystem nonetheless. Until the Spanish took over and pushed the Gabrielino out of the area that is current-day Los Angeles, the Gabrielino flourished and prospered on the river that built the largest and most important city of the American West.
There are few people who know that Los Angeles used to be a messy jungle of thorny thickets and oaks, antelope and grizzly bears, marshes, desert washes and quick sand. None alive and only those who read histories remember the days when Los Angeles was known for not only bird watching but bird hunting due to the fact that the air would blacken with migrating geese, ducks and other water fowl like the herons and cranes.
The wandering river, when it was running on the surface, was a meandering river that didn’t have a set path with solid banks to keep it on course. This was due to the fact that it really only ran substantially after the winter rains and with the spring melt from the mountains. During these times it was a raging river that would rip trees out of the ground. At these times there was massive flooding that fed the surrounding marshlands, lakes, and water loving vegetation, and the water followed the path of least resistance to the ocean.
The rest of the year most of the water flow was bellow the surface and the river was no more than a gentle creek and sometimes completely dry. This huge riparian ecosystem with very rich biodiversity was supported by what is now one of the nation’s largest storm drains: the Los Angeles River.
The Los Angeles River is now forced to follow one course to the ocean. This is totally against the natural existence of the river. It is estimated by the City of Los Angeles that 100% of natural wetlands and 90-95% of natural riparian ecosystems have been lost through the urbanization of the Los Angeles River (Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan).The river used to travel miles east or west of its current path and it emptied into different areas on the coast from the Port of Los Angeles to Ballona Creek. Today there is a lot of talk about revitalizing or restoring the Los Angeles River. When people talk about restoring the river it warrants the question, “Restoring the river to what??” The Friends of Los Angeles River state that their mission is to “protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat” (folar.org). The City of Los Angeles claims that the Los Angeles River is a “landmark resource” (larriver.org). Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa says that the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan will create an “emerald necklace” of parks and green spaces surrounding the 32 miles of the river that runs through LA (lariver.org). But what does all this mean for the river itself?
The FoLAR is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1986 with the “utterly attainable” goal of restoring the river and its banks physically but also in the minds of modern Angelenos. The organization aims to change the dismissive view of the LA River as “storm drain” to an idea that the LA River is a place of natural beauty and meditation. Generally the LA River today is thought of as almost a joke and refers in speaking to the LA “River” in quotations. FoLAR however plans to change this image through education of the local LA children and by holding canoeing classes and seminars about the restoration and history of the River.
Obviously restoring to pre-contact times is absolutely impossible. Both sides of the LA River are lined with neighborhoods, 35, 000 businesses, roads and almost 400,000 housing units containing over a million people. To let the river wander like it once did would be the complete relocation of millions of people, cost billions to implement, move more than 80 schools and almost half a million workers with jobs in the Los Angeles River Corridor (lariver.org). Although complete restoration is impossible, current plans bring into question the standards or baselines are for this restoration. The plan shows basically a “bio-engineered” river that consists of rubber dams, concrete eddies, fish ladders and terraced sides (Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan). While these things are necessary in such an overly urbanized area, and will be a great improvement to the current state of the river, the plan also shows green ways and parks that are supposed to provide water clarification, recreational opportunity, and a wildlife refuge corridor. Although there is some mention of using native plant species there are many areas that will be grass to provide areas for soccer fields and such. There are very few to no native grasses outside the bunch grass category in Southern California! While it is impossible to argue that our city neighborhoods don’t need more green space, it would be more reassuring to the conservationist if a bigger emphasis was placed on assuring that large portions of the “emerald necklace” would be dedicated to wildlife.
Another potential issue with the Revitalization Plan is the fact that one of the goals is to create value in some the poorest neighborhoods that border the LA River. From Downtown LA, through Boyle Heights and Compton these neighborhoods have some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation at an average of 20%. The Master Plan argues that bay creating aesthetically and recreationally valuable land along the river, homes values will go up increasing the economic status of some of our poorest neighborhoods. Historically however this does not work. When state or city money is put into a beautification project, money moves to the areas with rising home values. A perfect example of this gentrification is Downtown Los Angeles. After the 50s and 60s, Downtown was down and out. Old movie houses, banks and hotels were changed into cheap or welfare housing for the poor. With the revitalization of Bunker Hill and Historical Downtown Districts there was an exodus of middle and upper class folk into the city (http://www.downtownlagentrification.com). This eventually raised the rent prices and pushed the poor further east to what is currently and also being gentrified, the LA Arts District. Where will the poor go? Although this plan aims to empower and uplift the lower socio-economic brackets it may actually be back-fired upon.
This post was authored by Sherwood Egbert ’13 and Mariah Gill ’12 who are both pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies.
Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, April 2007
The Los Angeles River, Chapter 1 and 2