The Los Angeles River

“The Los Angeles River today is like a scar on the landscape, a faint reminder of what it used to be.”*

Wait. Los Angeles has a river? Get out of town!lariver6

In fact, you’ve probably all seen it, in movies or on TV. That concrete raceway that regularly hosts filmed car chases. Yes. That Los Angeles River.

“By 1960, the federal government had created the fifty-nine-mile storm drain that is still flatteringly called the Los Angeles River.”

In this semi-arid, desert-like location in the American southwest, a, if not mighty, a persistent, let’s call it, river once did flow. Don’t think of the Mississippi or St. Lawrence. The Los Angeles River (and its tributaries and neighbouring county counterparts) provided enough water to help establish and sustain settlements, going well back into the pre-Columbian era. The city itself owes its original location, called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula by the 16th-century Spanish colonizers, to the river.

The history of the city’s development and its relationship with the rivers running through it offers up a fascinating testament to systematic bungling based on the primacy of self-interest over collective action. lariver5Within about a century of the official establishment of Los Angeles, the eponymous river was near depleted to the point of uselessness in sustaining the communities around it by largely unregulated over-use. When it flooded, which it did regularly and without any discernible pattern, the river was seen more as a menace than a vital element.

If you think political calculation, regional antagonism and mistrust of expert opinion are all part of some modern outcropping of a damaged, corrupt system, don’t despair. They all seem to have been part of the process long before any of our apathy and disillusionment took hold. In the battle to contain and constrain the damaging aspects of the Los Angeles River, possible solutions were routinely ignored and derided. Collective efforts to deal with flood control were undermined by hyper-local and personal interests.

“There was little coordination of effort, and much of the works was in direct conflict. Neighbors became enemies. Farmers were occasionally forced to guard their levees with rifles.”lariver

“Flood protection work at Los Angeles, while more effective than the piecemeal efforts attempted elsewhere, also proved the futility of using a localized approach to combat what was essentially a regional problem.”

Funding the necessary infrastructure through ballot initiatives to contend with the flooding also served as a source of dissension, a very modern sounding problem.

“The chief obstacle to reaching consensus on a flood control bill was a difference in opinion on the way the work should be funded. Some favored he creation of assessment districts, which would tax only those in areas where works was to be done. This method was favored by the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, not surprisingly, since city taxpayers had already spent considerable money on the construction of levees and were understandably reluctant to spend more to help outlying districts do what they had already done. Others, however, preferred a uniform assessment for all taxpayers throughout the flood-prone area.”

And expert opinions? We don’t need no stinkin’ expert opinions. lariver3We go with our gut, my own personal observation and anecdotal evidence.

“Many of those interviewed who had witnessed the great floods of decades past, however, expressed skepticism that such floods could be prevented and that the rivers could be controlled. One man, who had ridden in a rowboat from Long Beach to Wilmington when the river had overflowed, said, “I have seen some pretty good ones, and if you can tell me how you can put a body of water nearly two miles wide…into an eighty foot channel and only six or eight feet deep, then that beats me.”

“Former California Governor H.F. Gage, who lived beside the San Gabriel River, said, “It’s all rubbish what they propose to do. The people should take care of the river.”

“A man from  the road department was down here. [He] had a lot of expensive ideas, but [they were] principally hot air. lariver2The supervisors can find ways of appropriating money for entertaining a lot of people…but try to do something for the citizens of the county who deserve attention, who are poor and need some help – that is out of the question.”

“But the way the proposition is being handled only makes salaries for some engineers.”

Of course, sacrificing the idea of the greater good at the altar of private interests also played a part in the history of the Los Angeles River.

“Even in 1915, the high price of real estate in Southern California inhibited flood control planning. Because the Los Angeles River was no considered a navigable stream, most of its channel was privately owned and, therefore, had to be purchased before work could be done. The cost of land along the river south of Los Angeles precluded engineers from giving the river a wide berth…The confining of the river into a relatively narrow channel would increase the velocity and erosive power of floodwaters, which meant hat levees would need extra protection…The price of real estate, officials said, also made the construction of a reservoir impractical at the only site on the coastal plain where the development of a large reservoir was physically possible…”

A history that is being revisited in much the same manner again these days.

Fifty years after the river was paved over in what seemed like a final act of the drama, a possible renewal and transformation has emerged as a hot topic. lariver4“The revitalization of LA’s neglected riverfront has gone from social-justice crusade to money-soaked land grab,” Richard Kreitner wrote in The Nation last month. What started as a truly grassroots, community-based movement way back in the mid-80s has become a pitched cultural and socio-economic battle, another stark drawing of lines between the public good and private interests. It’s as if whenever it comes down to water in this city, the specter of Chinatown is evoked.

When it was revealed that starchitect Frank Gehry and his firm had been quietly brought on to draw up plans to transform the river, the normally well-regarded, progressive mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, defended that decision as an attempt to “elevate this [river revitalization] so the civic elite of L.A. realizes this is not a hobby of the activists but one of the grand projects of our time.” ‘The hobby of activsts’. You can’t get much more condescending than that without actually trying. lariverbookAnd, unsurprisingly, once the “elite” get involved, questions of money making and conflict of interest inevitably follow.

How’s that saying go? You can never step into the same river twice, loosely paraphrased. The river may be different. The players involved may have all changed. The politics, though, sound eerily familiar, timeless almost.

 

(* All quotes from the very enjoyable and informative book by Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death and Possible Rebirth).

all wetly submitted by Cityslikr

Traffic

It finally happened. Nearly 3 months into my stay, having painstakingly calculated my every movement in an effort to avoid ever having to experience it, there I was, smack dab in one of those legendary Los Angeles freeway traffic jams.slamonthebrakes My own personal apocarlypse.

There’d been brief whiffs of it previously, of course. Unless you lock yourself away in your house, never venturing outside and bringing the world to you through modern technology, you can’t not be aware of the traffic. Freeways, surface streets, there is always evidence and glimpses of gridlock here. Up until this moment, however, I always had an escape plan at the ready, an alternate route to hop off onto in order to give myself the sensation of getting to where I was going less slowly.

And it wasn’t like I deliberately drove right into this one with no exit strategy. I carefully calculated timing so as to not arrive right at the brunt of rush hour, whatever time that actually was. Left late, arranged stops along the way, happily toodling along the Historic 101, the Pacific Coast Highway, through the beach towns that line the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles.lafreeway2

But just beyond Oceanside, the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base turned me inland from the water, toward Interstate 5 and things began to unravel. Not immediately, mind you. The first stretch of the 5? All good. Zipping right along, all the way up into Orange County. Easy peasy.

The plan, it was working to perfection.

So smooth the sailing, I decided not to return to the PCH at Dana Point, opting instead to take the 73 toll road connection toward the 405, up past Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, well on my way back to L.A. I mean, it was a toll road, for chrissakes! It had to go fast, right? I was prepared to pay for the privilege.

So were a lot of other drivers, apparently. But that wasn’t the source of the problem. An accident somewhere up the way, past Aliso Viejo, ground everything to a halt, a slow, grinding, halting McHalty grind halt…

I will say this about traffic jams. They are the great equalizer. No matter what your vehicle type, a Maserati or a Tercel, SUV or some tiny thing, in a traffic jam, you’re all going the same speed ultimately. lafreeway4Some may offer a better quality ride while you’re idling, a/c when it’s hot outside, heated seats and steering wheel when it’s cold, a state of the art sound system to make it seem like you’ve got nothing better in the world to do, nowhere else you’d rather be than sitting in your car, listening to tuneage.

In the end, though, we’re all still stuck in traffic. The clock keeps the same time. The same number of minutes, ticking away in your life.

How people cope with this on a daily basis I do not know. For many, I realize, it is not a lifestyle choice but one foisted upon them by economic forces. Others put up with it as a fact of life if you want some more square footage, a backyard, a quiet street. Some even embrace it, I imagine, as a symbol of success, of having made it.

Whatever the reasons, it’s just the way it is. So sit back, crank the music and enjoy endure. The coast will clear, sooner or later.

For me, sitting in a car, stuck in traffic, even the rare times such a thing happens to me, I cannot stop wondering how on earth we as a species have advanced as far as we have. roadrageCongestion, caused by an over-dependence on private vehicle use, is not a new phenomenon. As soon as we started building roads and freeways to accommodate cars travelling further and further distances, we found ourselves in traffic jams. The math is pretty basic, the variables few. Volume, dimension, space.

Yet, we keep trying to massage the numbers, rework the equation. Build more roads. Bury and elevate transit lines. Synchronize traffic lights.

So far, to no avail. Congestion is demonstrably worse in large urban regions than we’ve experienced previously. It turns out that there’s simply not enough room to provide for, in workable, sustainable way, more people driving more cars. Never mind the adverse environmental, social and psychological effects of trying to do so.

But wait! What about smart, self-driving cars? Won’t they be the solution to all our transportation problems? Technology will save us. trafficcongestionTechnology always saves us.

No doubt such technology will alleviate some of the stresses that cause congestion. Reduce the number of accidents that snarl traffic. Increase the smart decisions that can help traffic flow, instead of the random, stopping and starting, weaving back and forth between lanes that constitute driver-led traffic management we witness now on our roads. Maybe it might even lessen the need to own our own automobiles.

Self-driving technology will very likely even make sitting in a traffic jam more enjoyable. Without having to concentrate on driving, car users will be able to go about their daily business while still behind the wheel, getting a jump start on work, helping their kids with homework assignments, even just sitting back and enjoying the scenery. Just like you can do now on a commuter train or subway car.

Rest assured, self-driving cars will not eliminate road congestion. By making driving more enjoyable and feasible, you will entice more people to (self) drive. Having more people in cars on the roads means…

We know what it means. sittingintrafficJust look around, the next time you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam, inadvertently or not, wondering why and how to make it better. The answer’s obvious. We remain stubbornly convinced that there has to be another way, and determined to find it, no matter how long it takes us to get where we’re going.

traffickingly submitted by Cityslikr

Take It Easy

I’m standing on the corner… no, not in Winslow, Arizona. Why would that be the first thing to pop into my mind? sandiegolibraryI fucking hate the Eagles, man.

San Diego, California, actually, having just toured around their gherkin-shaped Central Library, a symbol of the city’s downtown renewal that hasn’t yet cleared all the streets of their homeless and indigent. Maybe next trip. Fingers crossed!

That was unduly harsh. It’s the fucking Eagles, man. I tell you. Just talking about them gets me blood-boilingly irrational.

I’m on the corner. The traffic light changes, signalling my turn to move. I take two steps into the street when I stop up suddenly, staring as a car runs the red light. Another car, coming surprisingly quickly through the intersection with the green light, expertly swerves behind this car, avoiding a serious t-bone collision I am absolutely convinced is unavoidable. A second vehicle stops successfully, allowing the red light runner to crawl through the intersection, in a manner I’m imagining to be sheepishly, out of harm’s way. runaredNo harm, no foul. OK. Some foul language shouted out the window by one of the drivers. But no harm.

As I continue across the road after all this excitement I notice the car that had run the red, a white Jeep Cherokee, I believe, how I know these things, I do not know, has pulled over to the side of the street. Sensible, I thought. Collect your thoughts. Regain your composure. Take a deep breath and thank you lucky stars. It could’ve been so much worse.

Only afterwards do I think I should’ve walked over to the parked car, that white Jeep Cherokee, tapped on the passenger side window and asked if the driver was alright. Maybe assure them that mistakes happen. This one was a close call but, you know, all’s well that ends well. Or something like that. I am terrible at consoling people.

No matter. I didn’t. I just proceeded on my way which, when you stop to think about it, is really weird and inconsiderate. reliefIf such a scenario had happened under any other circumstance, someone slipping off a curb and falling down, say, or two people, both distracted, running into each other, knocking one another to the ground, a cyclist hitting a bump and going ass over tea kettle, most of us would stop to make sure everybody was OK, nobody hurt enough to require medical assistance.

Granted, there was no actual physical damage or possible injury with the automobile near-miss. Maybe the driver who ran the red light wasn’t rattled at all, maybe they simply stopped to finish sending that text they were in the middle of when the light so rudely changed to red on them. I don’t know. I certainly didn’t stop to check either way which I still think is odd.

The automobile enables us to not really give a shit about anything or anybody around us. There’s outside the car and there’s inside the car with very little overlap between the two. We give ourselves leeway to disregard laws while driving that we would rarely do outside of it. takeiteasyWe shout profanities out the windows, lean on the horn at the slightest little perceived slight or inconvenience, and just generally act in aggressively assertive ways that would be shocking if we behaved similarly in a restaurant or theatre or elevator. Politeness and civil behaviour are for pedestrians. Behind the wheel of a car we are all battle-scarred warriors.

And when a driver throws out the anchors to steady their shaken nerves after a near-death experience, one they are almost entirely responsible for, we just keep on walking, thinking to ourselves, Just another inconsiderate asshole driver.

self-reflectingly submitted by Cityslikr