L.A. Unfolded: Great Maps at the Central Library

October 16, 2008 § 5 Comments

1919 Map of the LA River from LA City to Long Beach

1919 Map of the LA River from LA City to Long Beach

“Maps are not always accurate, are not without prejudice, and are rarely perfect, but they teach us about our place in the world.” Glen Creason, Los Angeles Public Library History Department Map Specialist, from exhibition article in the Library Foundation‘s Aware, Fall 2008

Creek freak got a chance to check out the new L.A. Unfolded map show at the downtown Los Angeles main library. It’s very fun, and reveals plenty about the historic courses of our waterways. The exhibition is up right now in the library’s 2nd Floor Getty Gallery, and continues on view through January 22nd 2009.

1919 Map detail of Confluence of LA River and Rio Hondo

1919 Map detail of Confluence of the Los Angeles River (runs from top to bottom in the middle of the image) and the Rio Hondo (enters at top right) in present day South Gate. Diagonal red line is railroad tracks.

2008 Aerial Photograph of Same Confluence

2008 Aerial Photograph of Rio Hondo Confluence. Diagonal railroad tracks still visible. LA River and Rio Hondo are now straight lines. Curved north/south line is the 710 Freeway.

As a River aficionado, I especially enjoyed the Map of the Los Angeles River from Los Angeles City Limits to the Pacific Ocean, Office of Engineer M of W, LA & SLRR (Maintenance of Way, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad), dated June 1919. It’s about 5-feet by 2-feet, drawn in fine black and red on delicate semi-transparent white linen. The outline of the river’s channel is in black on the (unfortunately poor quality cell phone) picture on the left below. The 1919 map actually has the contours of the later concrete channels penciled in (hopefully they weren’t available as early as 1919 – the concrete channelization didn’t get underway until the 1930′s,) though they’re hard to see in this photo.

Another very beautiful map is the Map of the City of Los Angeles 1884, by H. J. Stevenson “U.S. Dept. Surveyor.” [Actual period after the word surveyor.] It’s about 4′ tall and 2 1/2′ wide and in full color. The river’s channel has plenty of curvy meander in the areas above and below downtown… but the railroads are already present downtown and the river has been straightened from about 1st Street to below 6th Street. The map also labels the Zanja Madre (Spanish for “Mother Ditch” – the original ditch/canal that brought water from the river to the pueblo) running through the Cornfield (now Los Angeles State Historic Park) site.

How our waterways are labeled indicates how we perceive them. The river becomes harder to find as the years advance. A 1938 Los Angeles Harbor map labels a mere “Los Angeles County Flood Control Channel” with no indication that it’s the mouth of the Los Angeles River. It calls the present day Dominguez Channel “Gardena Valley & Nigger Slough Drainage Channel.”

There’re lots more maps – from hundreds of years ago to the present day, representing sites from the original Pueblo to Japantown to the murals of East L.A. Even maps showing California as an Island. It’s a great exhibit that I highly recommend and look forward to spending more time with.

How Long is the Los Angeles River?

September 29, 2008 § 2 Comments

How Long is the Los Angeles River? : A Rashomon-like Tale of Engineers, Librarians, Geographers and Poets

Creek freak, in record-setting verbosity, takes on the burning question of our day: just how long is the Los Angeles River? And while we’re at it: why is that important? and why isn’t that important? Quick, select “Mark as Read” and move on.

The Los Angeles River becomes the Los Angeles River proper in Canoga Park, at the confluence of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek. From there it travels east through the San Fernando Valley, makes a right turn around Griffith Park, passes downtown Los Angeles, then heads south emptying into the San Pedro Bay in Long Beach. It’s not that long a trip. I’ve done it by bike in a day.

Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), where I used to work, pretty much always states that the Los Angeles River is 52 miles long, for example here: “[Taylor Yard] represents the single greatest opportunity for riverfront restoration along the entire 52 miles of the Los Angeles River.” The 52 mile figure gets repeated throughout the non-profit community, including on the websites for The River Project and The City Project (where I currently do contract work.) It also makes its way into the L.A. Times (1997) and the Daily News (2008.)

On the other hand, the county of Los Angeles pretty much always states that the Los Angeles River is 51 miles long, for example here: “Today, the Los Angeles River is lined on 77 km (47.9 miles) of its 82 km (51 miles) length”. This 51 mile figure gets repeated by most governmental agencies, including the city of Los Angeles, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and the regional Water Board. It also makes its way into the L.A. Times (2008) and the Daily News (2000 – not available free on-line.)

So… what’s the big deal? It’s only a mile, right? Well, often the struggle to revitalize the Los Angeles River is a struggle to give it respect, even if only semanitcally for now. There were legendary shouting matches between FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams calling it a “river” and County Public Works calling it a “flood control channel.” If we call it a river, then we can perceive it as one, and will treat it as one. I seem to recall, a long time ago, someone at FoLAR (maybe Lewis, maybe not – I don’t remember) told me the following: Historically the river was 52 miles long. When it was concreted from the 1930′s through the late 1950′s, it was straightened. In straightening, it ended up a mile shorter. As a political and tactical decision, FoLAR continued to call it a 52 mile river because the greater length gave it a greater stature, greater importance. I repeated this anecdote often. On tours I would tell folks that it’s really a 52 mile river, it’s just that it’s trapped in a 51 mile concrete straightjacket.

The blog was going to end somewhere around there, but, in doing his due diligence, the Creek Freak decided to try to verify quickly that 52 mile number by poking around some historical sources. Creek Freak’s own and the blogosphere’s generally impeccable credibility would be at state if I post something on the net that some sharp researcher could prove wrong too easily. I figured it would be a quick bike ride to my wonderful library and a search or two in the historical L.A. Times database (which I’ve used before) and I’d be done in less than 20 minutes, and I’d have incontrovertible proof of how right we river advocates are.

Turns out that it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Even the computer search had its uncertainties. Do I search on 52 or fifty-two? Mile or miles? Los Angeles River or L.A. River or LA River? How about the hypen/s in 52-miles or 52-miles-long? Would the search program smart enough to find those variations or do I have to match them verbatim? Well, I think I tried all the permutations, and I could not find any pre-concrete-era pre-FoLAR-era references to a 52 mile Los Angeles River. I checked with a couple librarians, some books, and nothing turned up. It’s not there (if any of you find it, please let me know, though!) I did find a lot of much more interesting stuff though. Here are some of them chronologically:

November 1939: Scientific American, in a 2-page article River Rebuilt to Curb Floods, states “Most important of the streams, insofar as their rampages may affect concentrated population, is the Los Angeles River. This stream, 70 miles in length, may be bone dry in summer, then carry water at a rate of 90,000 cubic feet per second… during a winter flood.” Wow! 70 miles in a peer-reviewed scientific journal! Who knew? This number might correspond to the length of the river before channelization, but I’m guessing that this number perhaps came from including one of the tributaries, maybe Arroyo Calabasas? That’s the oldest reference I found that stated a length for the river – and the longest mileage-wise.

July 12 1956: The Los Angeles Times, in an article L.A. River Project Due for Completion in 1957, states “Flood-control work on the entire length of the Los Angeles River, a distance of 49.1 miles, will be completed by December, 1957, Col. Arthur H. Frye Jr., district engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said yesterday.” Ouch, doesn’t 49.1 miles sound rather dinky? It’s more-or-less like the number mentioned on the county’s website above, with a shorter paved distance than total length. I’m guessing that means that they’re not counting one of the soft-bottom areas (either the ~3-mile estuary or the ~2-mile Sepulveda Basin). Perhaps the overall length got mixed up with the completely-paved length somewhere between Col. Frye and the author.

March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times

March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times

March 2 1958: The Los Angeles Times, in an article Timesmen Explore Los Angeles River, states “Last week, after 23 years and $101,100,000, the Army Corps of Engineers completed its project of concreting the bottom and sides of 50.9-mile-long Los Angeles River” The article goes on to describe the Timesmen’s trip, in a 5-person rubber boat, down the length of the river. Other than leaving out the word “the” (shouldn’t it be “…of the 50.9-mile-long?) and that not all the bottom was paved, that extra decimal place makes this entry sounds really precise, really exact. It’s probably right, and the 51 crowd is just rounding it to the nearest mile.

April 1 1958: The Los Angeles Times, in an article Army Engineers’ Field Has Constant Growth, states “The paving of the 50-mile-long Los Angeles River – longest channel of this type ever constructed – was an Army Engineer project.” The fifty mile figure gets quoted in about a dozen articles in the times. I take it as a rounded to the closest multiple of ten estimate.

August 1990: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, in an article Mark Twain!, states “I decided to explore the waterway – all 55 miles of it – while it was still neither park nor freeway, to find out what L.A.’s only river was all about.” I’m not sure where 55 came from – maybe the proposed freeway at the time was 55 miles long? Maybe the author rounded up to the nearest nickel?

20 April 1994 Los Angeles Times

April 20 1994 Los Angeles Times

April 20 1994, the Los Angeles Times, in an article River Rescue, states “Its 58 miles are paved with 3 million barrels of concrete.” I can’t really explain this one either, but it’s got a great youthful photo (in color in the original) of FoLAR’s first executive director Martin Schlageter.

I decided to check books. In 1975, Anthony F. Turhollow, in A History of the Los Angeles District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1898-1965 (with positively creek-freak-like verbosity and enthusiasm) states (p.146): “One river, the Los Angeles, about 50 miles long, with a source 1,000 feet above sea level is not only at the same elevation as the mighty Mississippi River but also has the same amount of drop in its relatively short length as the Mississippi in its entire course.” In 1999, Gumprecht states (p.1): “Chain link fence and barbed wire line the river’s fifty-one-mile course.” He does mention (p. 228,232) a UCLA researcher who found that as a result of the channelization project the length of the river between between Tujunga Wash and Glendale Boulevard was 28% shorter, going from historically 11.3 miles down to a concreted 8.1 miles . In 2001, Patt Morrison, in Rio L.A., (in her great poetic way) states (p. 21) “For most of its fifty-one miles, it is as unmarked, and as unremarked upon, as a pauper’s grave.” The back cover of that Linton guy‘s 2005 book says 51 miles.

As I spent time searching for that elusive confirmation of the 52 mile source, I began to become more and more comfortable with a good fuzzy approximation like “about 50 miles.” It’s very defensible, impossible to prove wrong. I began to geek out on various ideas. Perhaps I could come up with some kind of graph that would show how the river’s cited length changes over time. Maybe I could map it out precisely using old aerials or USGS maps. I could use Gmap Pedometer or (gasp) go out to the field and try to use a bike odometer to measure the current channel’s length. Through all this research and speculation, I began to think in a deeper way about the length of the river.

The start of the river at the Bell/Calabasas confluence in Canoga Park is fairly arbitrary. Why not call it the Los Angeles River proper at the confluence of Bell Creek and Chatsworth Creek, located about a mile upstream, and quite equally concrete and anonymous? Why was the current upper river channel designated and not the Tujunga Wash? I’ve heard that many years the Tujunga Wash would contribute more water to the lower river than the upper river did. Gumprecht states (p.136): “The Los Angeles River had seldom been visible west of Encino before flood control, even during heavy runoff.” A lot of the river’s water is underground in the Valley and elsewhere, so it’s arbitrary to just base a river’s starting point on where there’s surface flow.

The river system is a fractal: branches folding into branches, a gradient of gradually increasing orders of magnitude as we move downstream. It’s mostly arbitrary where we say that it starts. It’s mostly arbitrary what we call it at a given point: river versus creek, stream, wash, arroyo, gully. The naming is likely an artifact that has to do with what time of the year the Spanish came through and named things. After all, the Spaniards called Arroyo Seco (dry creek) what the Tongva called Hahamongna (flowing waters fruitful valley.)

The mouth of the river is similarly arbitrary. Gumprecht states (p.19) “Such attempts to locate the mouth of the river precisely are exercises in foolishness.” This is a river that some years emptied into the San Pedro Bay and some years swung right out to the Santa Monica Bay and some years swung left out Alamitos Bay. SCCWRP’s Historical ecology and landscape change of the San Gabriel River and floodplain report describes the mouth of the San Gabriel River (historically indistinguishable from the mouth of the L.A. River) as “a complex matrix of wetlands, riparian habitat, and uplands that varied on an interannual basis depending on climatic patterns.” Further it describes their tidal fringe as a “series of sand dunes, sand spits and barrier beaches… alternately impounded and open to the ocean… Following storms, these areas could be impounded for several kilometers upstream.”

The Los Angeles River frequently moved around across its broad alluvial plains. It meandered its way among many low points in a broad braided channel. It was, as most natural systems are, very dynamic. So it’s really hubris that we humans, whether advocates or flood control engineers, pick a single number and expect it to apply as a constant for a river that changes over time.

Any static quantification we do (think average rain year, hundred-year-flood, bank-full width, total maximum daily load) is an approximation – or, perhaps more accurately, a water mark indicating just a point in time. Nature scoffs at these, proving us wrong year after year. It’s important that we do these measurements, that we try to understand the river… but none of us should perceive her in any state as constant, as unchanging. We should learn what we can, but we should expect changes and hopefully surprises, too. This gives me optimism for the future of our river.

So… precisely how long is the Los Angeles River? At this point, I’d go with about 50 miles.

(Creak freak thanks three librarians: Glen Creason, Michael Oppenheim and my mother Marge Linton. Thank you, too, dear reader for getting this far – I promise my next blog will be shorter and won’t be about the length of the San Gabriel River.)

Places to Visit: Rio Vista Park in El Monte

September 23, 2008 § 6 Comments

(This is the first in a “Places to Visit” series. I hope we’ll blog about various parks/streams/places and other noteworthy spots so that you, my faithful readers, can go and visit and enjoy these places!)

Rio Vista Park 2

I first visited Rio Vista Park as part of last week’s conference on the San Gabriel River. Rio Vista Park is located on the Rio Hondo in the city of El Monte. It’s slightly difficult to find as it’s tucked away in a residential neighborhood, but well worth it. The address is 4275 Ranger Avenue, El Monte CA 91731. It’s on the west bank of the Rio Hondo directly across from the El Monte Airport, and a short walk or bike ride upstream from the El Monte Transit Center. (Note that the park is on the opposite side as the Upper Rio Hondo Bike Trail – to get there from the bike path, go west on Valley, right on Arden, right on Bisby and right on Shasta)

The current Rio Vista Park, which opened June 2008, is a rehabilitation and expansion project of an existing small park – and the site has a good hybrid/palimpsest feel of an older site that has been enriched by recent additions. The project was spearheaded by Amigos de los Rios partnering with the County of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, and the city of El Monte. It’s part of what Amigos de los Rios call the Emerald Necklace – a large string of parks on the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River.

Rio Vista Park 1

The park celebrates multiple histories of the site, from the Tongva Native Americans to Hick’s Camp. Shade structures (visible in the picture on the left) are designed to resemble Tongva kich (pronunced “keesh”) housing made of thatched willow cuttings. Informational signage details the Tongva names and uses for native plants growing on-site.

Hick’s Camp was a colonia – a longstanding village that housed working class families, mostly immigrant agricultural workers. Hicks Camp occupied the park site and most of the surrounding neighborhood beginning from 1900 until it was demolished in the early 1970′s. Former residents of Hick’s Camp still gather for reunions. The park commemorates this history with a listing of the the names of Hick’s Camp families and a large camp map both etched in the sidewalk at the park entrance at Ranger Avenue. Interpretive signage explains the history of the site with time lines and historic photos. These tell important stories including the 1933 Berry Strike and the 1940′s successes in desegregating El Monte schools. Historic photos show the youth of the camp swimming and playing in the adjacent, still-natural Rio Hondo.

The park features an ample grassy area, picnic tables, a tot lot (with playful child-activated running water features) and an exercise course. The site features bioswales that detain and infiltrate stormwater. The plentiful new vegetation along the Rio Hondo is all native, with plenty of oak trees. Surrounding the park are more great gates by artist Brett Goldstone.

When folks from the conference visited the park last Tuesday night, there were plenty of local families using the park for walking, sitting and exercising. Mothers walked with strollers; kids cruised on the bmx bicycles. The winged residents were at home there, too: A small raptor (which we think was a juvenile Coopers Hawk) flew in and rested a while on a eucalyptus branch. We walked and toured the park, and looked east out over the Rio Hondo running wet in a concrete canyon and imagined what this place was and what it will be again.

Building a Healthier San Gabriel River Watershed Day 1

September 17, 2008 § 3 Comments

 I’m attending the “Building a Healthier San Gabriel River Watershed” conference in El Monte today and tomorrow.  Thanks to the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council for hosting.  For me, today’s stand-out presentation was by Eric Stein of Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCRWP, affectionately called “skwurp.”)  Stein, with others, is the author of a report called Historical ecology and landscape change of the San Gabriel River and floodplain which is available on SCCWRP’s website as Technical Report No. 499 (a 17MB PDF file.)  Jessica referred to this report in an earlier blog about L.A.’s historic streams.

Stein’s team compiled various historic San Gabriel River sources.  Primary sources included coastal resources mapping (1850s-1880s), Disenos - Spanish Land Grant maps (1830s-1860s), Irrigation maps (1880s), soil survey maps (early 1900′s) and early aerial photos – as well as secondary sources including the early County Flood Control District Interviews (that Jessica fondly blogged about here and here.)  From these, the team was able to map the changing historical configurations of the San Gabriel River.

In early accounts, the San Gabriel River was a tributary of the Los Angeles River.  Their confluence was where the Rio Hondo meets the L.A. River today.  In heavy rains in 1867 the San Gabriel River shifted out of its bed and moved to more-or-less its present course, emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Seal Beach.  Initially the new San Gabriel River course was simply called “the new river.”  Over time, the new river came to be called the San Gabriel and the old San Gabriel was re-named the Rio Hondo.

This shifting behaviour is not unusual for Southern California Rivers, which tend to move around the relatively flat alluvial plain.  The shifting courses of the L.A. River are mapped in Gumprecht’s book.  Our rivers have many mouths, many distributaries.  Indeed, Stein makes the case (as the Watershed Council does) that the San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers are historically inseparable.  They’re one overlapping and intermingling system.

Stein further states that the very dynamic local San Gabriel River system consisted of large continuous zones of floodplain – a large swampy area with sloughs, lakes and wetlands dotting the landscape.  These would sometimes dry up leaving vast seasonal alkali flats.  Stein characterized the main drivers of changes to the landscape (that is: near total loss of historic wetlands) as including: transportation (initially railroads followed by impermeable automobile roads), extraction of groundwater, and construction of flood control infrastructure.

The report has lots of excellent color maps that tell the story well.  I will try to get some of these and blog them here soon. The free conference continues tomorrow from 10am to 4:30pm.  Sorry for not blogging this sooner, but if you’re interested in the San Gabriel River, come on down and join us at the Grace Black Auditorium at 3130 N. Tyler Ave in El Monte, CA 91731.

Some Summer Reading Picks

July 31, 2008 § 5 Comments

The best way to learn about your local creeks, watersheds, and rivers is to go there and walk, bike, throw stones, kayak, etc., but, in case you’re looking for something to read on the bus on the way there, I offer some recommended reading. I will recommend other electronic reading and other books and publications again soon.

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Rainwater Harvesting by Brad Lancaster

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Volume 2 Water Harvesting Earthworks by Brad Lancaster (Rainsource Press, $32.95), Foreword by Andy Lipkis

This is one of the best books that I’ve read all year! It’s filled with lots of clear illustrations and step by step details on how to retool your landscape to catch and infiltrate rainwater. It features lots of real life examples, too. It’s a bit wonky, hence probably not for everyone. For us to remove concrete from our local waterways, we’re going to need to heal our watersheds. Brad Lancaster talks about treating rain as a welcome guest – invite it to slow down and stick around a for a bit. If we can allow rainwater to slow down and soak in, then we solve lots of problems for our waterways – water quantity (flooding), water quality (pollutants break down in the earth), water supply (increased infiltration means more groundwater available locally to drink), and greening our neighborhoods.
Excerpt: [A] well-designed and built [rainwater havesting earthwork] system can operate as a “beneficial ruin” once established since it can be largely self-maintaining. Long-abandoned earthworks located throughout the world still function and help support pocket oases of vegetation. Examples in the Southwest U.S. include check dams, terraces, contour berms, and stone mulches constructed by prehistoric Native Americans and more recently by the 1930′s Civil Conservation Corps projects. Each time I come across one of these old earthworks, I find a lost world full of life.
Totem Salmon : Life Lessons from Another Species by Freeman House (Beacon Press, $17.00)
This is another of my latest favorites. It’s a great narrative about an intrepid band of very human river activists in northern California who endeavor to preserve and restore salmon runs on the Mattole River.
Excerpt: A race of salmon is an expression of the river, the intelligence of the terrestrial home traveled to far seas – always to return to its place of birth. Salmon return to their riverine homes with the wealth of the great sea embodied in nutrients they will deliver to the waters and plants and animals of the forest at the completion of their lives. Migration is an adaptation toward abundance: more fish are born than the river can support; thus out-migration to the pastures of the sea. In the case of salmonids, migration and return is a dynamic ritual binding population to place.
The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Re-Birth by Blake Gumprecht (Johns Hopkins University Press, $21.95)
A perennial favorite (and I am happy to be mentioned in the foreword to the paperback edition.) This well-written and very readable book is full of maps and historic photographs. It shows the histories of flooding, water supply, agriculture, and current efforts to restore. I learned a lot about the history of Los Angeles from this book.
Excerpt: [The 1768 Portola Expedition] entered “a very lush green valley,” [diarist Father Juan] Crespi wrote, where they found the [Los Angeles] river … It was a “good sized, full flowing river,” about seven yards wide , he estimated, “with very good water, pure and fresh.” … Just upstream from the point where they first saw the river, the explorers noticed another stream that emptied into its channel, but its large bed was dry on that late summer day. This stream we now know as the Arroyo Seco. “The beds of both are very well lined with large trees, sycamores, willows, cottonwoods, and very large live oaks,” Crespi wrote. … He noted the presence beside its channel of great thickets of brambles, abundant native grapevines, and wild roses in full bloom. Sage was plentiful near the river, and the calls of turtle doves, quail, and thrushes filled the air near the camp. It was “a very lush and pleasing spot, in every respect,” he wrote. “To (the) southward there is a great extent of soil, all very green, so that it can really be said to be a most beautiful garden.”

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