Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
An unusual trip down the city's long-dormant waterway hints at an exciting, if complicated, rebirth.
Growing up in California's San Fernando Valley, I was only hazily aware that the L.A. River had ever been, you know, real. Where was the water? Where were the fish? To me, it was the fenced-off trench that ran alongside the freeway, entombed in concrete. The water level was pitifully low, and hardly a tree was in sight. Decades had passed since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used concrete to line the bulk of the river's 51 miles, as a solution to regular, sometimes devastating flooding. Now better known as a "flood control channel," the once-living river was effectively dead.
But last May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved Alternative 20, a robust plan to revitalize a significant portion of the river. The $1 billion proposal promises to restore habitat, widen the river, create wetlands, and provide “rio vista” access points and bike trails along an 11-mile stretch between Griffith Park and downtown Los Angeles.
Last month, for the first time in my life as an Angeleno, I got to glimpse the river's coming rebirth—when I kayaked it.
The group trip, organized by the L.A. River Kayak Safari, began with a bike ride down the riverfront path that meanders along the west edge of the Elysian Valley—the heart of the river. Mounted on a team of beach cruisers, our group was easily overtaken by spandex-clad speed-bikers zooming down the path. “I always say, if someone’s going to get hurt on this trip, it’ll be from a bike collision,” joked Grove Pashley, River Safari’s co-founder and one of our guides. “Certainly not in the river.”
The water is still pretty shallow, especially in the morning, before the day’s torrent of treated waste water churns through on its way to the ocean. But the two-and-a-half miles open for public recreation, one of the few sections of the river with a natural bottom, held more thrills than I expected.
Just south of the Fletcher Drive overpass, we slipped under the bike path railing, gingerly stepped down the steep concrete slope and into the river, where kayaks awaited. As I struggled to recover my rusty paddling vocabulary—rudder, sweep, J-stroke—we suddenly came up on Rattlesnake Rapids, an actual whitewater feature with rocks galore. “Read the river,” another guide, Agnieszka, called from ahead, reminding us that a small ripple on the surface could mean a sizable object underneath. I got stuck almost immediately on a submerged rock, finally dislodging myself by jamming my feet and hands against it. (You get over the whole "treated wastewater" thing pretty fast.)
Soon after, we navigated a small waterfall that, with a sharp turn, cut between two islands of riparian growth. Right rudder, left sweep. These islands, and others, form a kind of median in this part of the river, so dense and lush that you can’t see the other side of them from the bike path. Here, over the waterfall, was something close to a “real” river. In the shade of willows, sycamores, and huge tufts of invasive Arundo grass, dragonflies skimmed the water. A great blue heron cooled its feet.
“Read the river,” our guide had said, and here I read the river’s future. With Alternative 20, this section’s concrete sides will be torn out and replaced with natural terracing—a more inviting entry than the tall metal railing we’d ducked under. Marshy tributaries will be added to the river to create habitats for birds and insects. The river itself will be widened, as will the bike lane we had cruised that morning. The one-time tomb will brim with activity. Not just this tiny, hidden pocket where our kayaks had landed us, but a huge, more fully accessible swath.
Of course, revitalization stories are never one-sided. Just south of Fletcher Drive, where we’d entered the river with our kayaks, construction workers were putting up the bones of a new mixed-use development, just the beginning of what’s to come in that area. As the L.A. Times reports, the upcoming enhancements are expected to prompt billions of dollars in residential, commercial, and office development along the river’s full 51 miles. In the last year, the median price of an Elysian Valley house increased by 21 percent, stirring displacement fears among longtime denizens. Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised that the city will do all it can to prevent the revitalized riverbank from becoming merely a playground for the rich, but many have doubts.
Still, the benefits of a reborn river—as a place to bike, play, walk, experience nature, see friends—are enormous. When I step back into the L.A. River a decade from now, it won’t be the same hidden world I saw last month. It will be exposed at new and complicated angles. But at least it will be alive.