Through a chainlink fence: the Arroyo Seco back and forth in time

August 12, 2013 § 6 Comments

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Fig. 1a. Looking North from Avenue 43. 2013. Hieu Nguyen. Note Southwest Museum on left and a narrowed stream channel.

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Fig. 1b. Looking North from Avenue 43. 1901-1916. Minerva Classics. Note Southwest Museum on left, and tracks in streambed used for quarrying during harbor construction.

As part of coursework for Dr. Susan Mulley’s  Research Methods seminar in the graduate program in Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, Hieu Nguyen chose to examine landscape changes to the Arroyo Seco through the technique of repeat photography. By comparing historical photographs to contemporary views taken from the same location, Nguyen hoped to detect changes in the parkway landscape throughout the years. “I was mainly looking for vegetation changes, urban development, physical deterioration, and obstructed viewsheds.”

Nguyen had treated the Arroyo Seco in a previous Urban Planning project, and was drawn to the topic again because of “the history, design, and uniqueness of the parkway’s scenery.”

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Fig. 2a. Looking Northeast from Marmion Way. 2013. Hieu Nguyen.

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Fig. 2b. Looking Northeast from Marmion Way. 1935. Los Angeles Times.

Narrowing down available historical photographs to 10-15 that could be feasibly be physically located, Nguyen headed into the field. But things did not go quite as expected. Nguyen’s narrative offers a poignant view at how physical access to the arroyo has changed:

During the trip, I found out that I could not locate all of the camera angles that I intended to shoot due to the urban development, fencing, private properties, etc.  For one photo, the walkway was so narrow, I had to grab onto the handrail on the bridge to keep myself balanced while I was taking the photo as the cars were passing by me at 40-50 mph.

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Fig. 3a. Looking Northeast from Pasadena Avenue. 2013. Hieu Nguyen. Note deepening and narrowing of the streambed.

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Fig. 3b. Looking Northeast from Pasadena Avenue. 1955. Los Angeles Public Library. Note California sycamores lining the floodplain in the distance.

For another photo, I had to climb down the Arroyo Seco Channel to get the camera angle that I wanted.  However, I was not satisfied with the angle and wanted to take it from the other side of the shallow running water way.  So I tried to jump across, almost slipped and got myself all wet from knee down.  But when I went home and overlaid the historical photo and the current photo, I realized that the current angle was incorrect because the channel bed today was much lower than the historical one due to the flood management and channelization of the Arroyo Seco (Fig 4a).

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Fig. 4a. Looking Northeast from Avenue 26. 2013. Hieu Nguyen.

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Fig. 4b. Looking Northeast from Avenue 26. n.d. Los Angeles Public Library Herald Examiner Collection.

One of my biggest disappointments was finding a lot of chain link fences on the bridges along the parkway. Because most of my camera shots were taken from the bridges, most of the photos were obstructed by the fences (Fig. 1a). Nonetheless, my professor, Dr. Susan Mulley, and classmates all agreed that the fences were significant landscape changes to the grand viewshed of the originally designed parkway and an important part of my research analysis.

Just as starkly, the historical photographs themselves show a channel that was anything but pristine. Creek Freak co-founder Jessica Hall notes that the Arroyo Seco was once characterized as a shallow and broad river. But even the earliest of the historical photos above already show levees and other substantial encroachments onto the Arroyo’s broad floodplain, which confine flow to a narrowed and deepened channel.

Such encroachments suggest that channelization did not happen in one fell swoop– attempts to control the flow of winter stormwater dated from the beginning of development in the Los Angeles basin and intensified with the changes in stormwater flow regime wrought by devegetation and proliferation of impermeable surfaces. The Army Corp’s famous post-1938 feats of flood control are merely the culmination of this history of efforts at confinement. The final result–  a smooth and clean channel so conveniently free of vegetation or anything that might obstruct the swiftest flow of precipitation toward the sea. Gone is the disorderly seasonal dynamism of the original floodplain connecting the foothills to the coast. Channelization creates a streambed as neat as a conveniently placed pipe. One might imagine that streamflow originates from a magical tap in the foothills, rather than from the seeping of precipitation into the soil, and its slow under- and aboveground migration to the sea, which happens to leave in its wake a messy mosaic of vegetation and wildlife habitat.

Nguyen’s photographs also illustrate how armoring of banks with concrete did more than just alter hydrology and habitat. Channelization thoroughly severs any natural functional relationship between various parts of the larger watershed — literally paving the way to the radically featureless flat urban landscape we know today.

From the Society pages: Botox on the Beach?

July 13, 2013 § 10 Comments

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Broad Beach in 2012 with stone revetment wall, Google Earth

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Broad Beach in 1994 with wider beach, Google Earth

A recent article in the society pages of Vanity Fair details the woes of property owners along Broad Beach in Malibu, where the narrowing of a beach by 60 feet over the last decade has alarmed wealthy residents. Property owners built a 13-foot high stone revetment wall to protect their houses. Now, they are planning to spend $20 million out of their own pockets to import 600,000 cubic yards of sand, hoping to widen the beach by 100 feet.

Apparently even the residents understand the addition of sand (“beach nourishment”) is at best a temporary solution. To maintain the width of the artificial beach, nourishment would have to be supplemented every 5-10 years—a cosmetic solution that JPL climatologist Bill Patzert called “botoxing the beach.” (Cohan and Grigoriadis 2013)

Nor are revetment walls a real solution. Though they appear to protect property immediately behind them, they actually reflect wave energy to other parts of the coast, where erosion is then accelerated.

Some attribute the erosion of Broad Beach to winter storms. Impending  sea level rise certainly will not help.  « Read the rest of this entry »

Fancy dancing at the Supreme Court

October 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

Once the election buzz has passed, angelenos can turn their attention to the Supreme Court for some creekfreaky argumentation.  Commenters – can you offer up interpretations of what this decision will mean for clean water in LA if the County has its way?  (feel free to also weigh in on how you feel about the County using its scarce resources for fighting interpretations of the clean water act when it’s under compliance deadlines.  All the way up to the Supreme Court.)

Tracing the Course of the Eagle Rock Creek in Rockdale

October 20, 2012 § 5 Comments

In February 2010, Jane Tsong posted these photos on L.A. Creek Freak of flooding in the Yosemite Drive area of Eagle Rock in 1934, with a challenge to readers to find the location of the photographs.

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Eagle Rock flood 1934

New Year’s Day flood 1934

The 1934 New Year’s Day Flood is notorious for causing the death of at least 45 people in Montrose and La Crescenta. It inspired Woody Guthrie to write a song of that title. Several days of very heavy rain caused lethal debris flows in areas of the San Gabriel Mountains that had been burned that fall. The flooding in the Los Angeles basin as a whole was not particularly severe, but the deaths of so many people in the foothills focused people’s attention on the dangers of flooding, and gave added impetus to the comprehensive flood control planning for the entire watershed. In the case of Eagle Rock, where no lives were lost, the 1934 flood increased public pressure to complete the area’s storm drain system, and, in particular, to construct the Yosemite Drive storm drain with Civil Works Administration funds. Soon after these photographs were taken, the natural (or semi-natural) creek documented by these photographs disappeared into a 102″ concrete pipe under Yosemite Drive.

Construction of the Yosemite storm drain (USC Digital Library)

The first photograph of the flood shows F. E. Montee’s house at 4815 Avoca Avenue, on the north side of Yosemite Drive. On January 4th, the Eagle Rock Advertiser reported that the house was “almost completely undermined and the family forced to vacate.” The house survives, in a much altered state, while the path of the creek has been turned into an alley; only the large sycamore growing in the middle of this alley provides a clue to the former presence of the creek. On the upstream side of Avoca, however, the old channelized stream actually survives. Completely overgrown with invasive Tree of Heaven, it probably extends as far as Rockdale elementary school; the sides of the channel are lined with corrugated iron and it measures about five feet wide and three feet deep.

Former path of the creek at 4815 Avoca Street

Arrow points to path of the surviving open drain between Avoca St and Rockdale Elementary (Google Earth)

The second and third photographs of the 1934 flood show the creek on either side of the Yosemite Drive bridge, just downstream from Avoca Street and near to the the intersection of Yosemite Drive and Ray Court. The present day jog in the course of Yosemite Drive in this area is a vestige of the need to cross over the creek. The second photograph is looking downstream, with the silhouette of Occidental College’s Fiji Hill clearly discernable in the background; the power poles are running along Yosemite Drive, just as they do today. The third photograph is looking upstream, from the other side of Yosemite Drive, with the now demolished two-story masonry Rockdale elementary school just visible in the background.

Detail of 1934 photograph with the old Rockdale Elementary circled.

The exact location of the bridge remains a little vague, but an older  photograph of the area taken from Wildwood Drive clearly shows the course of the creek as it crosses under Yosemite Drive and heads across the land that is now occupied by the Yosemite Manor and other large apartment complexes.

View of Yosemite Drive from Wildwood Drive c. 1918. The arrow marks where the creek runs across the center of the picture (LAPL collection)

Yosemite Manor apartments. The path of the creek ran across the back part of this courtyard.

Another useful document for creek freaks is an undated storm drain map, in which the storm drains were expediently drawn over an older topographical map. The palimpsest of the old contour lines clearly describes the path of the creek as it heads towards Oak Grove Drive.

Storm drain map with the path of the creek and location of 4815 Avoca St and Yosemite Manor highlighted.

The most remarkable thing revealed by these photographs is the proximity of the houses to the creek. The potential destructive force of the creek seems to have been entirely underestimated. A portion of Oak Grove Drive (where the High School now stands) was actually built along the line of the creek, with predictable consequences!  It is sad to think that with only a little planning, in terms of prudent setbacks from the watercourse and preservation of floodplain width, the creek could have been preserved in an almost natural state for the whole length of the valley. Large parcels of land along the creek, including three school properties and the Yosemite Recreation Center, were still largely open space in the 1930s.  It is a story of missed opportunity—in fact, a version of the history of the whole watershed, in miniature.

Thanks to Eric Warren at the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society, the staff at Occidental College Library, Special Collections, and Jane Tsong’s Myriad Unnamed Streams

Reflections on River Access

October 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

Sepulveda Basin: Great Blue Heron and Kayakers, Summer (painting by Joan Wolfe ©2012)

As the heat of summer slowly (hopefully) begins to wind down, so too has the second season of the pioneering L.A. River kayak and canoe excursions. The final group dropped into the River this past Sunday, an undoubtedly leisurely paddle between willows and sycamores, shopping carts and plastic bags. The 2012 installment hosted approximately 2,000 participants, an impressive increase from 2011, when the count for the pilot program was 260. The number of outfits operating on the River has also doubled and now includes Paddle the L.A. River (organized by L.A. Conservation Corps, MRCA, The River Project, FoLAR and Urban Semillas) and L.A. River Expeditions (organized by George Wolfe and the San Joaquin River Stewardship Program). I had the pleasure of paddling with both groups as a guest educator (thanks to Melanie Winter and George Wolfe for getting me out there!), a journey every Angeleno within reach of a buoyant non-motorized vessel should be able to experience at least once. « Read the rest of this entry »

L.A. River Kayak Tour Video

September 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

Damon Nagami posted the video above at NRDC Switchboard. It’s an excellent, enthusiastic video review of just how fun the latest round of L.A. River kayaking tours are. It’s been great to see lots of photos and positive reviews on Facebook (some of which we’ve shared at the L.A. Creek Freak Facebook group page.) Angelenos are enjoying their river.  « Read the rest of this entry »

A(rroyo) Rosa Castilla by any other name

August 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

Alignment, Arroyo Rosa Castilla, based on 1926 and 1928 USGS Quad maps. You’re looking at over 14 miles of blueline stream.  Base image: GoogleEarth. Overlay by J.Hall.

I love to see people get creekfreaky, so it was a good day last Friday when friends posted the Eastsider’s story linking to the El Sereno Historical Society’s post on Arroyo Rosa Castilla, the creek that formerly ran along the 710 Freeway.  (Creek Freaks have long observed the propensity for Caltrans-and others-to lay major roadways in the beds of creeks – viz. Arroyo Seco/110, LA River/5 and 710 Fwys, San Gabriel River/605 Fwy, Topanga Creek and Topanga Canyon Road – and Rosa Castilla here among them).   A little sign on the freeway will tell you it is called the Sheriff’s Range Gulch. « Read the rest of this entry »

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