The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth
by Blake Gumprecht
The Johns Hopkins University Press
(March 1, 2001)
Why is the historic center of Los Angeles located where it is, 15 miles from the ocean and 10 miles from the San Gabriel Mountains, on an arid plain? The answer is the Los Angeles River, which once flowed freely across that flat land. In his book, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth, Blake Gumprecht points out that before the course of the river was paved, Hollywood and Beverly Hills were marshland and that in flood years, the river carried as much water as the Mississippi.
“The destruction of the river had begun half a century before the first concrete was poured,” Gumprecht writes, “when the river … began to be viewed not as a giver of life or a thing of beauty, but as a dumping ground–for horse carcasses, petroleum waste, and the city’s garbage.” The river, he adds, was also viewed as a mere vehicle for a commodity, water, and a vehicle that could be improved with the addition of channels, culverts, and reservoirs. Such changes made the wide-scale development of the Los Angeles region possible, but they destroyed the living river. Now, years later, environmental activists are pressing to restore the river to something of its former self–and their efforts, if successful, will again alter the course of regional history.
The Los Angeles River has figured widely in many ecological studies of Southern California; in historical work it has figured largely as a backdrop. Gumprecht grants the river close attention as a thing unto itself, one that has affected many other aspects of the area’s social, economic, and environmental history. –Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly:
For those even aware that it exists, the Los Angeles River conjures up an image of a barren concrete channel. A place best suited for Hollywood car chases and gang brawls. There was a time, however, when the L.A. River, which runs from the San Fernando Valley into the Pacific, had an entirely different image, not to mention a different course. Before modern flood control programs fixed the river’s path with high cement walls, it ran variously south and west, at one time emptying into the Santa Monica Bay. In this exhaustive and lively investigation, Gumprecht, a geography professor and former Los Angeles Times reporter, charts the waterway’s evolution from a “beautiful stream, wandering peacefully amid willows and wild grapes” to the refuse-strewn, “ugly, concrete gutter” it is today. Gumprecht describes the crucial role that the river played in the settlement and growth of L.A.–both as a water source and as a symbol of the region’s Arcadian promise — and, conversely, how the river was remade in the image of the metropolis itself, becoming depleted and degraded by the very development it made possible. Like fellow L.A. historian Mike Davis, Gumprecht scatters an archive of startling photos throughout the book, from a man holding a 25-pound trout caught in the river in 1940 to the scene of a riverbed drag race broken up by the police in 1950. Conjuring images of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Gumprecht’s river “biography” breathes vitality into a subject that in the hands of a less enthusiastic author might be drier than the industrial wasteland that he describes.