Posted January 21st 2010 at 11:48 am by
in Art and Culture Mapping on the LA River, Los Angeles

Culture on the LA River

“The Los Angeles River. Yes, Los Angeles, yes America, there is a Los Angeles River. And it is grand. It is long. It is powerful.”

~ Patt Morrison, Author, Rio L.A., Tales from the Los Angeles River

When I was a kid, I once overheard someone at a bus stop say “The LA River is a joke – there’s nothing there.”  Having been born and raised in East LA, where the River was always a part of my life and the urban landscape, I didn’t know what to make of this comment.  Eighteen years later, I am prepared to respond.

LA’s Eastside has always been stepped with a vibrant culture, in part due to its strong ties to the Los Angeles River, or the Paime Pahite, as the area’s native Tongva (Gabrielno) Nation called it hundreds of years ago. Once a lush, alluvial, and sacred space, the LA River connects many of LA’s most multi-ethnic communities.  The culture of LA River, like the city of Los Angeles itself, is poorly misconceived.  It is most commonly interpreted as a piece of Hollywood’s popular imagination through “that scene from Greece,” a car chase a la The Italian Job, or the opening credits to The X Files.

Author John Arroyo surveys his thesis site.

The LA River spans 52 miles from the San Fernando Valley to the Port of Los Angeles.  Its watershed hosts a diversity of land uses, including suburban to highly urbanized, commercial, industrial, and residential.  In 1938, in an effort to control devastating floods, the Army Corps of Engineers began a thirty-year endeavor to encase the River in concrete. Nearly 70 years later, the River continues to pose a tremendous infrastructure problem.  Although many still consider the River an urban wasteland, a growing number of formal and informal actors have emerged to engage, plan, advocate for, and design the River’s future – through culture.

In 2008 I left my native Los Angeles to pursue graduate studies in urban planning and design at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.  In considering an engaging and relevant topic to research for my thesis, I decided to blend my interests in cultural development and physical and social design issues to explore the role of the River in LA’s creative and cultural landscape.

Follow me over the next five months as I take you on a tour of the River and consider the role of Culture in Concrete: Cultural Production and Re-imagination Along the Los Angeles River’s Eastside Waterfront. I will use this blog to explore ideas, reflect on my research, and profile several of the amazing and visionary cultural producers that have been inspired to engage with the River, raise consciousness for its re-imagination, and re-frame our concept of a shared urban cultural landscape. Their work includes formal and informal creative projects through film, poetry, dance, performance art, visual art, mapping, and forms vernacular culture and recreation. Upon concluding my thesis in June, I hope to answer and address the following questions: What types of cultural activity are occurring along the River and to what extent? How can the lessons learned from the River’s cultural activity patterns play a role in the River’s transformation and inform public policy and urban design to create and sustain spaces for cultural expression?

Despite being encased by 52 miles of concrete, the LA River is a resilient force with a unique urbanism, ecology, history, and culture.

4 responses to “Culture on the LA River”

  1. Christina says:

    Wow! 52 miles of concrete! That is unbelievable. I’m a native of the Rouge River watershed ( in metroDetroit where 1.5 miles were channelized and we thought that was bad. Can’t wait to hear more about the LA River.

  2. John Arroyo says:

    Hi Christina,

    Unfortunately, it’s true. 52 miles of concrete (6.5 million gallons of it!). But amidst it all, many of the people I talk to still have found beauty in the River’s ability to challenge the concrete in all sorts of ways. I had never heard of the Rouge River, but I’ll look it up. People have mentioned that the Seine is a concrete River (true), but somehow Paris seems to make it work. Thanks for your comment!



  3. Mario Davila says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this beautiful and vital part of our city – I’m in awe of incredible work people have done over the past 20 years to help restore this life force – parts of the river are actually starting to look whole again – gracias.

  4. Stef says:

    Yeah!! Freakin’ awesome. I can’t wait to hear more about what you discover.