Revitalize the Lower L.A. River? It Was Never “Vital.”

Ralph E. Shaffer
Professor Emeritus of History at Cal Poly Pomona

Let’s “Revitalize” Compton Creek. Or “Restore” Cahuenga Pass. Maybe “Rejuvenate” the steamer S. S, Catalina. Any of these would make about as much sense as talk of “revitalizing” the 19 miles of the lower Los Angeles River, from Vernon to the ocean at Long Beach.

Plans for the river’s revitalization were revealed late last year by the Lower Los Angeles River Working Group, and received a boost last week with an endorsement from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who carried the legislation that initiated the planning. State or local money for the project still needs approval, and the position of the anti-environment Trump administration makes federal funding questionable, if not outright doubtful.

But funding aside, the whole concept of revitalizing a river, in light of its history, is almost amusing. Our river is hardly a river most of the year. That was true long before large portions of its water supply were diverted into settling basins far from the ocean. Those who remember the river before much of it was concrete-lined are aware that from about half of the year, or longer, the river was no more than a lazy stream, trickling to Long Beach.

While the upper part of the river may have been of some significance in the early days of the city of Los Angeles, the lower portion, which is the subject of the massive and expensive project now taking place, was never significant as an urban river.

Advocates of river change have been around since the 19th century. Some of their “revitalization” ideas are mentioned below. The modern movement emerged in recent years as an environmentalist reaction to the concrete lining installed after the disastrous flood of 1938. While some extremists would remove the concrete, the more realistic revitalizes would only tinker with the landscape adjacent to the river’s levees, creating grand attractions not necessarily related to the river.

Those earlier “revitalizers”  over the years had equally grandiose pipe dreams, such as the one in the early 1900s of making the lower river navigable so that freighters, tankers and passenger ships could steam upstream to docks near downtown Los Angeles. The closest to fruition that plan got was when, in the late 1940s, a newspaper sponsored a stunt in which an amphibious vehicle chugged from Long Beach to Los Angeles in an attempt to prove that the river was navigable. Most of the time the “ship” ran on rubber tires on the riverbed.\

For Long Beach, the plan’s emphasis on recreation – trails for hikers, bikers and horses – is paramount. A park bridge that spans the river near Willow street, a pavilion and art exhibits, along with paths that give access to the soft river bottom, are included in the draft proposal.

“Revitalization” in that respect suggests that there was a time when the river was already accessible and enjoyed by SoCal residents for those purposes. Not exactly. While the kids may have enjoyed a visit to the river, with perhaps a degree of fear in their hearts, their parents knew the dangers. In the 1930s, a boy walking his dog along the river near Lynwood was shot and killed in an unsolved homicide, perhaps unintentional, perhaps not.

In the 1880s one parent complained in a letter to an editor that the river was an invitation to immorality. What mischief would boys and girls get into when they visited the river together and without parental supervision?

Today’s “Revitalizers” talk of the trash-laden river that needs to be cleaned up. They imply that in earlier times the river was pristine. Maybe, but in the 1880s, which ought to be back far enough to be in the “good old days” of river purity, the complaint was that large numbers of dead horses were being dumped there. At least L. A.’s sewer system didn’t dump into the river. No, it went into sewage farms at the outer edge of the city.

If the communities along the Lower Los Angeles River need band shells, art exhibits, floating boardwalks, amphitheaters, off-road vehicle facilities or affordable housing, all of which are in the plan, there are legitimate ways to obtain them. But hanging them on the Christmas tree of river “revitalization” is not the way to do it.

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona. [email protected]

 

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.