“Rio de Los Angeles” | By Gabriel Tellez
Even though “El Rio De Nuestra Señora La Reina De Los Angeles De Porciuncula” it’s one of Los Angeles’ most under-appreciated resources, the L.A. River has been a handy location for the Hollywood film industry. With its urban wasteland appearance and flat concrete riverbed, it’s been an ideal location for shooting; think about those car chases through the river in Grease, Terminator 2, Gone in 60 Seconds, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Italian Job (remake). In addition, the views of the L.A. downtown skyline and the urban, industrial feel have given films the cool minimalist look they need.
Twelve historic bridges designed in the art deco style over the river have been registered on the National Register of Historic Places. Their construction speeded the development of the residential area east of the river by providing streetcar transportation and an elevated automobile roadway over the river & the tracks of the Southern Pacific railroad.
The Los Angeles River runs for approximately 51 miles, of which about 70% has a concrete bed, and passes through 17 cities. The river -primarily fed by rainwater, snowmelt, and treated water- was channelized by the Army Corps of Engineers in the early 20th century after a series of devastating floods.
Along the river, there are only 3 locations (the Sepulveda Basin, the Glendale Narrows, and the Long Beach Estuary) with no concrete at the bottom, where nature grows freely and provides food and habitat for approximately 1,200 species of animals.
But like everything, there’s a downside; the L.A. River faces significant challenges, like pollution (mainly plastic waste and industrial discharge), the lack of wetlands since it was channelized, and an increasing homeless population along its banks & its islets, to mention a few. Luckily, there’s always hope, and residents, non-profit organizations, and local governments have been working together to alleviate some of these problems.
For the past 31 years, FoLAR (“Friends of the L.A. River”) has been conducting summer cleanups of the L.A. River, and this year only, approximately 2,000 volunteers picked up a total of 18 tons of trash at 11 sites. Of course, cleanups alone may not solve the plastic or waste problem. Still, they can increase awareness, change people’s behavior, and help future generations – participation in those cleanups is an eye-opening experience.
Another promising initiative -where participation among the community is critical- is the 2020 revision of the original 1996’s L.A. River Master Plan. Its purpose is to optimize & enhance the river to make it more accessible to the social, cultural, and ecological communities while enriching the quality of life for residents and recognizing the river’s primary purpose for flood control.
Who better than someone growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River like Robert Crais to describe in The Last Detective, the river: “The Los Angeles River is small, but mean. People who don’t know the truth of it make fun of our river; all they see is a tortured trickle that snakes along a concrete gutter like some junkie’s vein. They don’t know that we put the river in concrete to save ourselves; they don’t know that the river is small because it’s sleeping and that every year and sometimes more it wakes.”
Gabriel Tellez is a software engineer and an amateur photographer drawn to architecture and engineering. Lately, he has been documenting the diversity of the Los Angeles River, including nature, architecture, engineering, and its current challenges. Gabriel, his wife, and one boy reside in Playa del Rey, CA.
Photo Essay edited by Alejandra Martínez Moreno
Initially published in Burn Magazine in September 2021