The Los Angeles River

April 11, 2016

“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


Detroit Rocked City

July 23, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about Detroit recently, and it’s probably the first time I have since the 1987 Blue Jays collapse down the stretch, torontodetroitaided by 7 straight losses to end the season including 3 one run games to the Tigers in the final series. Man, those fucking Tigers. A one game lead with only 3 to go! Toronto was 19-5 in September until The Swoon. Fucking Detroit, man.

Fucking Detroit.

It’s impossible to wade through the coverage of the city’s financial turmoil to find a straight forward narrative. Obviously, there’s no one reason to explain how this all transpired although both sides of the political spectrum will tell you otherwise. Unfunded public sector pensions and benefits! Corporate tax giveaways!

One of the more compelling and heartfelt discussions I found was over at The Corner Side Yard by Pete Saunders, Detroit – Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? (If you want to get your fill of Detroit on the Verge of Bankruptcy, check in regularly with Urbanophile.) detroitStill, as with any complex situation, there are no easy conclusions to draw, no simple answers.

A couple parallels do jump out at me, though, that elicit passing thoughts along the Toronto, the next Detroit theme song we will inevitably be hearing sung over the next little while. The first is the municipality as a political football. Like Canadian cities, their U.S. counterparts have a surprising lack of autonomy in the bigger picture decisions. They are granted the crumbs of governance, largely in the day-to-day operations and, can do that poorly with negative consequences to residents. But the macro-decisions are often beyond their control.

And if, as appears to be the case of Detroit, a city’s overseers at the state level are not particularly partial to the city in question or, at least, to those in power at City Hall, they can essentially use it as a punching bag. Remember Mike Harris and the amalgamation of Toronto? underthumbWell, Mike Harris and anything to do with Toronto really.

A city can attempt to mitigate the damage it inflicts upon itself but is helpless if the blows come from above.

So in Detroit’s case, a city that votes overwhelmingly Democrat is manhandled by a Republican governor who seizes the woeful economic opportunity to experiment with his radical right wing anti-labour, anti-public sector, selling of public assets ideology. And there doesn’t seem to be much the local officials can do about it outside of taking the state to court which it’s done. A judge has ruled the bankruptcy filing to be unconstitutional, a ruling Michigan’s Attorney General has vowed to appeal.

It’s not different levels of government so much as warring levels of government.

(Can you say Scarborough subway?)

Such governance dependency on the part of municipalities breeds the type of local politician averse to responsibility. walkintoawallWe’ve all heard it before whenever a city asks for more powers. You really want these jokers with more power? will come the response with a pointed finger legitimately to the one or two walking shitshows that inevitably make up any part of a city council. But it’s a chicken-or-egg argument. Do the conditions produce the politician or does the politician produce the conditions?

It’s easy to see how enabling bad municipal behaviour helps to strengthen the legitimacy of state and provincial governments in a regular game of political one-upmanship.

Detroit also illustrates that once decline starts it sets in motion a toxic civic dynamic that makes the tough choices needed to turn things around nearly impossible. Just as growth begets growth, decline begets decline, and part of the reason is social dynamics.

This comes about because in a city in decline — such as in late imperial Rome — people start thinking only about themselves and no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.

Toronto’s economic situation is nowhere near as dire as that of Detroit’s. The truth is, it’s in far better shape than almost any other city on the continent. But some – hint, hint, it’s duly elected mayor – would have you believe otherwise. chickenlittleThe language of decline will only grow more intense I imagine in the wake of Detroit’s misfortunes.

Why?

Pretty much the entirety of the above quoted second paragraph. “people…no longer come to see themselves as part of a greater enterprise or commonwealth. The city and suburbs, blacks and whites, taxpayers and unions no longer see their fortunes as linked. Rather than rising and falling together, it’s every man for himself.” Political opportunism, pure and simple. “Toronto’s financial foundation is crumbling,” Mayor Ford told the Empire Club early on in his term. Divide and conquer using fear as a tool. City versus suburbs. Taxpayers versus unions.

Create a crisis if one doesn’t exist.

Challenges are very different than crisis. Toronto shouldn’t bury its head and hope there aren’t serious challenges we have to face. Do we have massive under-funded liabilities lying in wait for us sometime in the future? I’m not sure but let’s examine that claim closely before rushing off to slash and burn shit to the ground. We are certainly lagging in infrastructure maintenance, and that’s even before we start talking public transit. detroitarmThe question that needs to be answered is, do we have the political will to do something about that, to reach into our pockets and do what needs to be done?

At this juncture, I wouldn’t bet on it. The rot of ‘poisoned civic culture’, to paraphrase Aaron M. Renn, has set in. It’s very much everybody for themselves, taxpayers versus residents. A terrible but not entirely surprising mindset under actual circumstances of duress like Detroit’s but unnecessarily and arbitrarily destructive in our manufactured case.

It’s not our economic model that requires a complete overhaul. It’s our approach to civic engagement. We’ve given up the greater public good long before circumstances might dictate we would.

warningly submitted by Cityslikr