A tree grows on Beaudry: echos of the creeks of Echo Park

October 6, 2009 § 50 Comments

P8310050 Bicycling down 2nd Street one day, this arroyo willow caught my eye.  Located in a vacant lot at 2nd and Beaudry, the willow has taken root in the path of the former Arroyo de los Reyes.

I wrote about Arroyo de los Reyes over a year ago, with promises of telling more -as the creek’s origins are in Echo Park.  As you can see, I am slow but faithful in my follow up.  To be truthful, posts at Chicken Corner on LA Observed about Echo Park’s creeks and the lake also nudged me considerably.

Arroyo de los Reyes originates near the Catholic school on Glendale Boulevard – right by the 2 offramp.  It flowed southward, along Glendale Boulevard, occupied the area now taken by Echo Park lake, and continued down 2nd Street, crossing through downtown LA, about a block or two south of Pershing Square, where it spread and created a big muddy mess.  These flows eventually connected with the Los Angeles River, when they didn’t seep into the ground first.

There are historical photographs on the wall at Masa – look closely and you can see a dry wash along Glendale Boulevard (north of Sunset) – that’s the one actual photograph of the creek that I’ve seen.  Not clear, and most likely highly altered from its original state – other maps indicate a perennial stream.  There it just looks like a big sandy mess.

Fellow creekfreak and mega-cyclist Ron Milam forwarded me this quote, about the creek, which he found at an exhibit at the LA Public Library.  The quote is by Leo Politi, one of Echo Park’s famed writers, recalling a friend’s reminiscence:

He told me of his boyhood and how he learned to swim in a pond at Second and Beaudry streets. It was a natural pond formed by a brook that ran down from the Echo Park reservoir.  Along this little creek grew cattails and water lilies. Also there were sweet-waterfishes which are still to be found in great quantities in Echo Park lake.  He remembers frogs croaking after dark.

Another stream joined Arroyo de los Reyes at Echo Park lake – this drainage came down from Echo Park Avenue.  Rumor – and that’s all it is still – has it that there are capped springs up the street, possibly at Elysian Heights Elementary School.  I’ve scouted for signs on many a walk up to FIX, and can’t confirm anything.  But maybe one of you can.

Echo Park Lake was indeed originally a reservoir, formed by a dam, and as noted at Chicken Corner, captured stormwater runoff from the watershed.  At one time, even after burying the stream, the groundwater was quite high.  A former DWP employee told me that he took borings in Glendale Boulevard, under the Sunset bridge – and hit water at 5′ below the surface!  Not surprising, then, that in 1959, Arroyo de los Reyes struck back with a little flooding.

1959. Source: LA Public Library. Image no. 28410.

1959. Source: LA Public Library. Image no. 28410.

But the dam my have served another purpose early on.

1888-echo park

This 1888 Detail Irrigation map shows us many streams in the area – and also ditches/zanjas.  See the darker blue lines?  Most of those are ditches/zanjas.  Rusty red and fainter blue colors are streams.  So we see a ditch very clearly, also coming down Glendale Blvd/2nd Street.  Last year’s Public Library map exhibit included a map that named the ditch coming down alongside the stream:  Woolen Mill Ditch.  So, conjecture – there was a wool mill, which may have needed a water wheel, which needed a dam…?

Sheep in Garvanza. 1878.  Source: LA Public Library, photo no 69363

Sheep in Garvanza. 1878. Source: LA Public Library, photo no 69363

I can just imagine the little sheep running all over the hills, there’s great photos of them over in Garvanza.  Someone’s got to shear them, and someone’s got to do something with all that wool, yes?

Speaking of those rusty red creeks, pan over to the right of the map, and you’ll see that Chavez Ravine and Solano Canyon both had streams (not surprisingly).  Another rumor I heard in my time living in Echo Park was that staff at Barlow Respiratory Hospital could hear the flows from a capped spring in a stormdrain flowing through their parking lot – and that subsurface water flows were responsible for their parking lot needed to be fixed up a lot.  Which brings to mind that we are poised on the brink of another lost opportunity if the Barlow Hospital is redeveloped as mega-housing on the edge of Elysian Park.  Before even the Chavez Ravine debacle, it was bad enough that what was obviously once part of the extensive public common land – Pueblo Lands of Los Angeles (as marked in the map above) had been sold off, developed etc – the bright side at Barlow being that here’s a sliver of privatized land that at least served a public good – soon to be turned over to inaccessible private property?  Add to that a probable buried creek to be further lost to infrastructure.  My only solace will be if the descendents of the dispossessed Chavez Ravine dwellers get first dibs on the housing.

Creekfreak gets sent to the (not-a) Cornfield

September 28, 2009 § 3 Comments

But not in a Twilight Zone kind of a way!  I am giving a talk at the Farmlab/Not-A-Cornfield space, located next to the historic Cornfields aka Los Angeles State Historic Park.

When:  Friday October 9, noon

Where:  1745 North Spring Street, Unit 4, LA 90012

Under the umbrella of Los Angeles & Water, I’ll probably touch on all my favorite subjects – water, Los Angeles, creeks, urban design, political will, birth control…

Come on down!

L.A. City Rainwater Program Looking for Westside Owners

July 22, 2009 § 9 Comments

City Rainwater Harvest Brochure Cover (click image for brochure)

City Rainwater Harvest Brochure Cover (click image for brochure)

The city of Los Angeles is looking for homes and businesses to help harvest rainwater! This is an exciting program for me for a number of reasons.

First off, I am happy just semantically. Agencies usually write “stormwater” – implying: perilous, foreboding, dangerous. We creek freaks, taking a lead from Brad Lancaster, usually write and say “rainwater” – implying more natural maybe even pleasant, romantic. I’m really happy to see that word rainwater in a city document, whether it’s from the city or their PR consultants (who forwarded L.A. Creek Freak a press release about the excellent program.) The language and the collaborative way the program is described signal a positive approach which bodes well.

Another promising aspect is that the program is decentralized and upstream. Often cities look at huge centralized end-of-pipe solutions: collect lots of tainted water, then pump it through an energy-intensive factory to clean it all. This innovative program aims to enlist 600 property owners to harvest rainwater on-site, before it becomes a problem downstream. Monitoring the outflow at a centralized site can be effective, and is perhaps a little more controllable, but it fosters that out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude that has gotten us in trouble on many environmental fronts. It’s sort of like saying “pollute all you want and we’ll clean up after you.” The city’s new rainwater program involves residents collaboratively; it connects them with natural cycles. It has multiple benefits. It reduces run-off, which prevents polluted waters from impacting human and eco-system health. That reduced run-off incrementally reduces risks of flooding (that flood risk is what lead to the paving of much of local waterways.) Capturing rainwater also reduces local reliance on imported water… hence lessening the huge negative environmental impacts of pumping all that water; those impacts include global warming and ecosystem degradation to the point of species extinction.

So… what does this program actually do? The city will install free rain barrels, and will redirect downspouts so that they direct water into landscaping, instead of into a stormdrain. (Maybe the city will actually make these activities legal in the city’s building codes, someday, too? A guy can dream, no? Sorry, we now return to what I am trying to make a gushingly positive post.) It’s all made available free to the property owner, though she’ll need to sign-off on maintenance and liability agreements.

Map of Eligible Neighborhoods for LA Rainwater Program - from city brochure

Map of Eligible Neighborhoods for LA Rainwater Program - from city brochure

Right now the program is only a pilot in parts of the Ballona Creek / Santa Monica Bay Watersheds. Here are maps of neighborhoods which are eligible to participate in the initial program. They include the Jefferson Area (bounded by Jefferson, La Brea, Adams, and La Cienega/Fairfax) and the Sawtelle / Mar Vista Area (bounded by Sawtelle Pico, Bundy/Centinela and Venice.) If you own property in the pilot area, contact the city right away to sign-up!

Hopefully this program will be a tremendous success and will expand to other parts of the city and of Southern California. L.A. Creek Freak looks forward to blogging more about the success stories that will come out of the program.

Daylighting gets a national perspective

July 16, 2009 § 2 Comments

How fun it is, to find your blog included as a link to the likes of the New York Times in this Dot Earth blog A River Runs Under It!

Ego-boost aside, this is a great story covering the issues and locales of stream and river daylighting.  Angelenos  who may be accustomed to singling our city out for its environmentally destructive water practices will be surprised or perhaps perversely relieved to learn that in fact, stream culverting (piping) is an age-old practice.  Case in point (not mentioned in the story), Alfred Foord’s 1911 Springs, Streams and Spas of London noted that its rivers and streams were covered there starting in the Middle Ages.

And if it has taken Londoners a few centuries to move from culverting to daylighting, then I guess a little patience with LA is warranted.  Although the Dot Earth piece shows that other cities are actually daylighting and restoring their rivers.  And for the price of policing the Michael Jackson memorial service we could have restored a stream. So get on with it already.  We’ve got plenty of waterways to work on.

Hmmm, did I just pledge a little patience?

Whisky’s for drinkin’…desal’s for fightin’

April 1, 2009 § 6 Comments

….Compton Creek used to run a good stream the year around and the wells would flow the year around, and he remembers one well that was so strong it would throw water about forty feet high.  Water does not flow now only in the winter time or when they stop pumping in the beg(sic) wells…  – James P. Reagan, describing an interview with George Haylock of Compton, CA, 1914.

Well, James & George, you’d never know it by how we manage water today.  Your generation oversaw the the depletion of our

Taking stock:  the Centinela Springs before 1900.  Today you'd have to dig down a few hundred (?) feet to find water.

Taking stock: the Centinela Springs in Inglewood before 1900. Today you'd have to dig down a few hundred (?) feet to find water.

local aquifers, and the one after you saw Owens Lake go dry.  Mine has watched our resource-consumptive lifestyles drain rivers even further afield; in our name (if not strictly our need) the salmon fisheries collapsed.  And yet we stand at a crossroads, seeing in the ocean opportunity, and barely draw breath.  Now would be a good time to pause, take stock of our actions, and contemplate what “need” really constitutes for us humans.

For once again, the voices of reason have insisted that we “need” desal.  Enviros who object are resisting technology and refusing to reckon with the “reality” that we need more water.  

High Country News:  Environmentalists must learn to compromise: Desalination plants are necessary to quench the West’s thirst

The author of this piece believes we must face the difficult choices.  I too believe in difficult choices, just not the ones promoted by him. Indeed I don’t think it’s a “difficult choice” to perpetuate our current water-wasting lifestyle through the enablement of desalinated water – no, that’s politics and catering to our sense of entitlement. How about bringing our water consumption to a comparable level as that found in Barcelona, Spain, or Queensland, Australia (+/-40 gals/person/day)? Considering our current consumption is 100+ gals/person/day (as high as 400-600 is some Southern California communities) we would see a significant benefit. I would rather we exhaust simple solutions first before moving up to these more expensive and impactful technologies.

To say we’ll only lose a few fish with desal is dismissive. Even minor increases in salinity will dramatically decrease the hatching of grunion eggs, for example. Have we adequately studied what else might be impacted by subtle changes in the ocean’s chemistry? History shows that we usually act first, regret later.

Contrary to the author’s statement, historical ecology buffs know that coastal Southern California was not a desert. Hundreds of miles of waterways plumped LA’s aquifers every year.  The region’s water tables were once high, but profligate water consumption & urban development, without regard for the ecosystem, altered our landscape – desertified it, if you will. As evidenced above, in one man’s lifetime.  

As a native of Southern California, I challenge all of us to face the reality of our impacts to our ecosystem and make the difficult choice to learn to live within its means.  True, that may be harder than disparaging environmentalists who think it is achievable. But we are talking about the difficult choices here, right?

Have we ever regretted a course of action that preserved our natural resources, our landscapes –  our ocean?  

But regret we have, the consequences of so many of these water resource battles that have been won so that you and I can have a lawn.

Pass the whisky.

A project worthy of a new era’s PWA

January 20, 2009 § 6 Comments

First we let Seoul beat us to it when they removed a highway and daylighted the buried Cheongyecheong River.  And now London has gotten into the game.  Their efforts serve as inspiration, and hopefully will stoke energetic competition.

Vision for stream daylighing at Lafayette Park includes a range of uses and activities.

Vision for stream daylighing at Lafayette Park includes a range of uses and activities.

LA, we need the water quality filtering and groundwater recharge services of natural streams, and now is the time to develop a stream restoration program.  Not a pilot project, not fake creeklike diversion landscape feature(they’re great but we can do so much more), but a full-scale, methodical, visionary restoration program, of our native waters, for the enjoyment of all, humans and beasts alike.

We have parks all over the city with buried streams:  at Lafayette Park, Sycamore Grove, Lincoln Park, and Ladera County Park, to name a few.  Parks next to channels provide restorable floodplain space, making for example, the Arroyo Seco something of a slam dunk in terms of restorability. We also have areas in the midst of densification – that will need new parkland as the population increases.  Government visionaries: this is the moment to set aside land that truly serves multiple goals:  flood management, water quality, habitat, and open space.  Riparian zones provide all of that.

London doesn’t have the urgent need we have to conserve and reuse our water.  And yet they are inspired and moving forward.  We can too.

From the Guardian’s editorial page, January 8, 2009:

“Drowned puppies, stinking sprats all drenched in mud, dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood” – Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower leaves no room to doubt that the 18th-century Fleet river was a horrid place. No wonder that it was soon buried, tidied away into a drain that gurgles its way from Hampstead to the Thames, passing close by the Guardian’s old offices in Farringdon, where on quiet evenings it could just be heard through a grating in the street outside. For centuries, all over Britain, urban improvement has demanded that watercourses be hidden. The toll of lost London rivers is famous, but every city has its hidden streams, such as the Cornbrook, the Irk and the Tib in Manchester. Now the tide is being reversed. Penned in by pipes and concrete, rivers, even hidden ones, are prone to flood; given space, they can be beautiful. In London, encouraged by the mayor and the Environment Agency, small sections of secret streams are being restored, among them the river Quaggy, which runs for 10 miles through south-east London. The Beam, the Cray, the Hogsmill and the Inglebourne are all being sought. Sadly there are no plans to reopen the city’s two big rivers, the Westbourne – which runs through the Serpentine and in a conduit across the platforms at Sloane Square tube station – and the Fleet. Cleaner now than in Swift’s day, it would make a magnificent sight, its banks restored, its flow carrying passengers on small barges quietly through the city.

Read all about it in this article:

Project launched to restore waterways buried under London | Environment | The Guardian .

Searching for Tom-or Joshua-down in Dominguez

December 20, 2008 § 24 Comments

OK.  I need to begin by telling you that there is an offensive and insensitive word in this post, one that I regret being here, but that is also the genesis of my search.  I apologize for its presence.

Some of you have also been looking for it.  We can see search terms that lead you to the LA Creekfreak.  And ever since that map exhibit at the Public Library, we’ve been seeing those two words, one of which is really ugly.  I bet you have wanted to know how the hell a waterbody ends up with a name like that on a federal map.  In any era.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the image below contains racist language, in a shockingly banal context.

 

 

 

USGS map, circa 1900.

USGS map, circa 1900.

Clearly a loaded topic, and one which links our environmental history to our racial (and racist) history, something which has been lurking in the background in a number of our posts on historical LA and its waterbodies, and which I also feel as an angelena is often not readily acknowledged.  

I have been avoiding writing about this slough in part out of the theory that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. We have a lot of trauma in the city caused by racism, we are still living out the effects of this trauma, and unfortunately there are those creating new traumas.  All the time.  And I don’t want to re-traumatize our African-American neighbors by reviving this horrible name.  But I have also regretted that the story behind the name can’t be turned on its head, and wondered if there was a way to elevate the story to help unwind history a little.

And so this is my attempt, and an incomplete one at that.  

There has been quite a bit of speculation as to the origin of this former place name, later renamed the Dominguez Slough, and today the Dominguez Channel (the slough being all but gone).  Some have asserted that its desultory name came from the black mud that surrounded the area, but I don’t buy it.  The 1914 Reagan papers have repeated references to this Slough, one of which added the name Tom:

“The water was pouring through the bridge that caused our wreck and was running into the Nigger Tom slough…” Mr. A. C. Cook, 1914, in Reagan.

Who was this man Tom, if this name refers to an actual person?  Rudy Mattoni and Travis Longcore, in their 1997 publication, The Los Angeles Coastal Prairie, A Vanished Community, provide the following comment in a footnote: “The wetland was reportedly named after the freemen who farmed near it and the name appears on historic maps of the area (Nelson 1919).”  To further complicate matters, I went over to the CSU Dominguez Hills archives to see what information they had.  In 1977, a student researcher, Bonita Lucille Braddock Miramontes, pulled together archival resources to what she could piece together.  She had met with Bill Mason, then of the Natural History Museum (I don’t know if he’s still there), who shared the view that our  mystery man was believed to be a hog farmer who lived on the old Rancho Dominguez lands, near the slough, in the 1870s.  Bonita then tracked down Robert C. Gillingham, who wrote a history of the Rancho San Pedro.  Gillingham elaborated that he had heard this story from an old caretaker and Dominguez-Carson family members, who in turn heard it from old Mexican farmhands.  He also noted that our mystery man arrived sometime after the Civil War, but that by the 1880s there were no blacks living in the vicinity of the slough.  He also mentioned that “one conjecture is that” the hogfarmer “may have been a descendant of one of the pioneer settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1871, which included a number of negroes.” Bonita went further with her research, locating the name of a black man, Joshua William Smart, who owned property near the slough, in the Assessment Book for LA County, 1870-71.  So…Joshua or Tom?  Or someone else?or all of them?  How did they come to live there, and why did they leave?  How did the slough affect their lives and livelihoods?  How were the neighbors?

Clearly more research is needed.  Bonita listed newspapers that could be consulted, including the California Eagle, a black LA newspaper that began publishing in 1879.  There are other historical society archives to visit, and perhaps even descendants of early settlers.  I haven’t given up this thread just yet.  You see, I can’t help but think of how courageous and resilient he or they would have been, and I think his or their presence lends yet more richness to the diversity that was early Los Angeles.    

If only the County could have been as aggressive in erasing housing covenants and other forms of discrimination as it was in erasing this glaringly embarrassing and insulting name from the maps.  If only they didn’t have to erase the history of Tom/Joshua when they did this.  

I will write more about the slough and its story another time.  For now, I’d just like to point out to you that it was so large as to extend from Carson (think Victoria Golf Course) to Torrance (Madrona Marsh), Gardena, and parts of Compton, with fingerlets in Hawthorne and West Athens(fragments still remain at the Devil’s Dip/Chester Washington Golf Course).  Other bits of remaining marshland include the Gardena Willows near Vermont and Artesia, and what’s called Albertoni Farms in Carson, a bit of slough in the middle of a trailer park.  

I think it would be pretty cool if one day,  a park or greenway or remnant wetland was properly named after Tom X, or Joshua Smart, or whoever our mystery man is.  Smart Creek has a nice ring to it.

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