Beauty, ugliness and possibility — at the LA River

Changes are coming to the LA River, bringing hopes and fears to the communities long used to a river of concrete.

Sublime: The LA River 1, 2015, by Elena Dorfman. See more of these collaged images of the LA River here.

For the past few weeks, DnA has aired a series called Bridges and Walls.

We are looking at connections and divisions in California, from the wall on our Southern border to high speed rail (connecting folks in Fresno to the rest of the state while dividing farmers’ land) and a bridge over a ten-lane freeway — for wildlife only!

The impetus for this series was the 2016 presidential campaign and candidate Donald’s Trump’s fixation on building a “big, beautiful wall” at our Southern border (Governor Jerry Brown recently posted an open letter to the president in which he wrote: “In California we are focusing on bridges, not walls.” He encouraged Trump to check out the “more than a dozen bridges and viaducts being built for the nation’s first and only high-speed rail line” in the Central Valley.)

We have also explored the LA River.

View of downtown Los Angeles from the Lower LA River at Slauson Avenue (photo: Frances Anderton.)

LA River, Part 1, examines how a river without a clear path became a 51-mile concrete flood channel, and how artists and designers have responded to the ugly-beautiful gash dividing the Southland.

When the Native Americans lived in this region there were floods — after all this whole basin is a flood zone — and the river as we know it did not follow a fixed route. But as the next waves of Angelenos added more and more development near the river — houses and industry and railyards — floods became a threat, to life and property.

On New Year’s Eve of 1934 a major flood struck, killing over 100 people and destroying property and bridges. That led to the total channelizing of 51 miles of the river, turning it into a flood control channel and creating a de facto wall, that reinforced the divide between communities West and East.

In 1997 Saber made this vast graffiti work on the LA river.
A few years later it was painted over by the Army Corps of Engineers

But that wall also served as a canvas — for artists from muralist Judy Baca (Great Wall of Los Angeles) to street artist SABER and artist/activists like Harry Gamboa. It also appealed as a subject to photographers and artists like Elena Dorfman, who makes collages incorporating dozens of individual images into the final scene (see Sublime, above.)

Now the hard river edge is being softened, parks and new bridges are being built that welcome pedestrians and cyclists, and developers are bringing life to long abandoned areas. These many benefits also bring anxieties about gentrification, and even a certain wistfulness among some artists for the raw concrete channel that had served as an ugly-beautiful source of inspiration.

On this broadcast, LA River: Part 1, architects, engineers, activists, scholars, residents and artists — Judy Baca, Saber, Harry Gamboa, Jr, Michael Maltzan, Zoltan Pali, Frank Gehry, Andrew Bird, Jon Christensen, Kat Superfisky and Deborah Weintraub — talk about new and old bridges, the history of the LA River and how it became an inspiration to artists and designers.

Now the Los Angeles River is getting a much overdue makeover; new bridges are being built, old ones are being fixed up or replaced, new parks are being added.

This is bringing a mix of excitement and anxiety. And that is because with the greening of the river comes the other kind of green — investment in the area that is leading to a phenomenon known as “green gentrification.”

The G2 parcel now (photo: Frances Anderton.)

In LA River, Part 2, DnA joins landscape architect Mia Lehrer and urban ecologist Kat Superfisky of Studio-MLA for a tour of the G2 parcel, a disused railyard that will be turned into a park alongside the Rio de Los Angeles State Park and the Bowtie Parcel, all parcels of the former Taylor Yard. (The G2 involves a large team: Studio-MLA; the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering, WSP, Arancha Munoz-Criado, Council for Watershed Health, Friends of the Los Angeles River, Mujeres de la Tierra, HR+A, CWE.)

But costly new condos are already sprouting alongside this park-in-the making and so too in Chinatown, by the new Los Angeles State Park. Jon Christenen and Chinatown activist Phyllis Chiu explain the threats to the existing, low-income communities and ask what developers owe to the poor communities that fought for the parks that will benefit property owners while possibly displacing them.

The second half of the show takes us to the Lower LA River, where there are very few green spots. Instead, says environmental justice leader Mark Lopez, what you find is “essentially a huge cement channel with the occasional kind of spot of green that may be coming through cracks in the pavement.” The experience is made worse by the 710 freeway which runs alongside the river, through  Southeast LA.

But there are plans to improve this, specifically the LA County has embarked on a planning process with architect Frank Gehry, landscape architect Laurie Olin, engineering firm Geosyntec and nonprofit RiverLA. Their task: to update the LA River Master Plan, first made in 1996. Southeast cities are hopeful for an improved river experience, but anxious at the prospect of displacement they’ve witnessed upstream.

DnA talks to Omar Brownson, head of RiverLA, Mark Lopez, Frank Gehry, Mark Hanna, Jon Christensen, Ruben Vives, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Deborah Weintraub and Ximena Hernandez.

This bridge designed by Zoltan Pali of SPF Architects will connect Frogtown to the G2 parcel.