Following the Los Angeles River from source to sea, this photo essay is a meditation on the human desire to tame the natural world, highlighting both the suppression and resiliency of a river that flows through a sprawling city.
As a resident of Los Angeles, California—a megalopolis with the dubious distinction of having one of the lowest percentages of public green space for any city of its size or stature—I find that what little nature remains is indispensable. One of the places I return to again and again to escape the chaos of the city is the Los Angeles River: Southern California’s most poignant symbol of human efforts to alter the natural environment in the pursuit of development.
Because the river is prone to intense flash flooding during the wet winter season, the 51-mile-long waterway became increasingly problematic as the city expanded in the early twentieth century. In the late 1930s, the L.A. River was channelized in what was proclaimed a triumph of man over nature, transforming it into the giant concrete scar that winds its way from Canoga Park to the Pacific Ocean.
Surprisingly few Angelenos are even aware that the massive man-made drainage ditch they see from the freeway was once a verdant habitat for a diversity of birds, mammals, and fish; or that today there are still several soft-bottom stretches where natural springs prevented the concrete from taking hold, offering a rare chance for nature to thrive amidst the sprawl. One has to know where to look, but a sense of what once was here—before all the cars and people—can still, to some extent, be found.
Thanks to the work of a dedicated group of activists, more locals are now advocating for the river, and the city has recently responded with a $1 billion plan to “revitalize” it to encourage more public use—an effort that has been long overdue. But with plans for revitalization, many fear that nearby residents—including a large homeless community and working-class neighborhoods along the river’s banks—will soon be displaced, as developers have set their sights on river-adjacent properties. More housing and commercial developments, in turn, will threaten the fragile ecosystems that the effort purports to bring back.
I can’t help but wonder to what extent the river could return to what it once was, given that this landscape has been so severely altered over the last century. Much of the plant and animal ecology along the river is either gone altogether or—where it does still exist—no longer native, having been largely replaced by invasive species. During most of the year, the water that flows through the channel is primarily treated wastewater; and during winter, when it does rain, the freshwater just flows right out to sea, wasting an opportunity to save it for the dry months.
Yet, for many of us, the L.A. River is also emblematic of what could be.
In this photo essay, I am pondering nature and wildness in a place where the powerful have relentlessly trampled over them time and time again. It’s an exploration of the inherent need for the wild in our lives, despite our unending and often unsuccessful efforts to tame it.
This is also a meditation on the resiliency of the natural world despite what’s been lost; and of a river that might be possible, if we can learn from the mistakes of the not-too-distant past.
Some photographs in this essay will also appear as part of the project South of Fletcher: Stories from the Bowtie.