Caught by the River

Caught by the Los Angeles River

19th January 2018

Jamie Collinson paints a picture of the LA River in all its greenery, grot and glory

In 1939 the LA river became inconvenient. Railyards, warehouses and other industrial buildings were springing up around it fast, and it would have been far easier to build them without the meanders. This was the time of the New Deal, and the vast expansion of American infrastructure. The project fit the bill, and so the Army Corps of Engineers came out and straightened the river into a concrete drainage channel.

It had always acted as one. Los Angeles is surrounded by mountains; the San Gabriels, the Santa Monicas, and further north the High Sierras. This vast latter range is where the winter snowpack forms, and provides most of Southern California’s natural water supply. (This supply being insufficient for a city the size of Los Angeles, the bulk is taken from Colorado, which can be a sore point.) When a good year’s snow melts, there’s a lot of water to run off, and that’s what formed the river.

Once, its course featured wetlands, deep ponds, rapids and riverbanks. Some of these things have even reappeared, cracking through the concrete, reassuringly indestructible.

If you look at the river today, perhaps blocking out the dirty-white banks with your hands, the scene is genuinely bucolic. A wide stripe of rampant, sprouting green vegetation runs along the river’s middle, for as far as the eye can see. Smooth plains of blue-green water slip either side of it, bringing to mind lazy notions of messing about on a river – or an English one, at least.

In the five years I’ve lived in LA, the water at the bottom of the pale concrete trough has usually been quite shallow – sometimes down to a sluggish, slimy brown trickle. Whenever there’s rain, the runoff from the mountains is joined by that of the streets. Rain in LA is often thunderous and tropical, and when it pours from the roads, through the giant outlets and into the river, it carries with it all the pollutants and filth you find on the streets, and the water quality worsens instantly. Usually, it’s surprisingly clean – around 80% potable – as can be quickly deduced from the vast number of fish-eating birds that hunt on the river.

From 2012 to 2017 there was very little rain in Los Angeles, and until early January there hadn’t been much this autumn or winter either. The outlets are most often dry, and primarily used to camp or sit in by the homeless. Below them, what urban effluvia there is runs down the bank in damp, bony fingers, pointing to the riverbed below.

Sometimes, there’s rain and snowmelt at once, and the river turns furious. In February last year, a 14-year-old drowned in its 70 mile-an-hour flow. His body was carried for twelve miles from San Fernando to the section of river in Atwater Village that I walk on. For a few weeks after his death, a wreath was pinned to the grey steel railings at the side of the bike path, candles burning beneath it.

The river has replaced the Regent’s Canal in terms of its place in my life – that of somewhere interesting to walk. It’s the only form of exercise I like, and the river is the best place to do it, unless it’s a weekend and I can drive out to the mountains.

Most of us know the sad, beautiful feeling of raw nature materialising in the midst of urban ugliness. On the Regent’s Canal, this might be exemplified by a terrapin or an eel, resting in a sunny spot of cloudy water, the stone-pocked windows of an abandoned warehouse beyond it. A moment of wildness in a place that’s, in one way at least, the opposite of wild.

Nowhere have I found that feeling to be more potent than on the LA river. It’s like a London canal on steroids – more beauty, more exotic wildlife, more homeless, troubled people and more generalised ambient weirdness.

The walk I take is a three-mile circuit from my house. Despite the river’s magnetism for the homeless, which I think is due to its seclusion, the opportunity it offers for washing, and the occasional, apparent activity relating to hard drugs, I’ve never felt myself to be in any danger on it. If I know I’ll be on it after dark though, I sometimes take off my watch and leave most of my cash at home.

This stretch of the river runs beside the I5 – the wide, north-south freeway that runs all the way from Mexico to Canada. The traffic seethes beyond a tall green hedge, which cuts off the worst of its sound and stink.

Every time I take my walk, I see subtle variations on the same incredible things. Firstly, there are the birds. If I’m lucky, I can see an osprey once a week. Birders will know how exciting that is, and how far you’d need to go, and how long you might need to wait to see one in the UK. It’s frustrating to see the blank looks on the faces of non-birders I tell of them. A fish-eagle, I want to say to them. A big fish-eating predator, right there in the middle of this mad city, beside eight lanes of freeway.

There’s a frantic, chattering belted kingfisher, which patrols short little stretches of water. Up and down, up and down like a shuttle runner between beeps, occasionally hovering like an oversized humming bird.

There are furtive green herons, which prefer to stay in the reeds or the trees. Once, I watched one consume a large fish on the bank, its need to eat outweighing its instinct to hide, and thus allowing a leisurely view of its iridescent green and purple feathers.

Above all this, on the bike path, the serious sort of cyclists scythe past. Some of them nod greetings, others don’t, but most of them wear hi-tech helmets and glasses, and the multi-logoed Lycra that it strikes me as odd for amateur sportsmen to favour.

And then there are the homeless and the troubled. The hedge between the freeway and the river widens out, at points, to become big enough for encampments. These are usually constructed from ancient, filthy tents and pieces of tarpaulin. They may be signalled by a shopping trolley parked up beside the path, or a pair of old, discarded shoes.

The people who live in them often seem to be doing so fairly successfully. Some of them work out on the banks, doing push ups on the concrete buttresses. Others meet visitors on push bikes – their hoodies and baggy jeans and smaller, BMX-type bikes marking them as separate from the Lycra brigade – and carry out brief, quiet transactions that I assume involve drugs.

The river’s homeless have been unfailingly polite. They nod or say hello, they keep a distance, and not once have I been asked for money. Last summer, a small group centring around a very fat, bald man bathed nightly and quite happily in the river, laughing and joking, their shopping carts parked up like cars at the bottom of the bank.

They were at one end of the spectrum. At the other was a young, very sad-looking woman who slept amongst a collection of throwaway possessions under a pylon’s base. It was as though someone had tipped several bin bags’ worth of soiled charity goods around her. When she wasn’t sleeping, she made urgent, distraught walks along the path, muttering to herself, never seeming to notice me or anyone else around her.

Another young woman, who seemed poised in the balance between troubled and homeless, haunted the bike path for a few days before she disappeared. She had good clothes on, a handbag. One day she emerged from an outlet and climbed onto the path, swaying as she walked, an opiated bliss radiating from her so strongly that I felt a twinge of envy. As she came closer, I noticed her face was daubed with bright white paint.
‘Do I know you?’ she said, slurring a little, as we passed.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘I don’t think so.’

Recently, a friend and I took a kayaking trip on the water. In the centre of the channel, surrounded by that sprouting, abundant green, we could have been floating through a jungle. A green heron flicked briefly from the trees. We ran down rapids and were encouraged to test the depths of the re-emergent ponds with our paddles.

Our trip ended south of Atwater in an area that’s come to be known as Frogtown. There’s a fashionable restaurant there, a brewery, and a café for cyclists called Spoke. There’s also a little cultural centre called the Frogspot, where artists have built a dinosaur’s skeleton out of river trash, and there’s a bar and live music: The sort of place that exists for a little while – an unwitting colonial precursor – before it’s pulverised by the very regeneration it’s helped make possible.

There, a smart man in glasses told us that the US Army Corps of Engineers is still responsible for the river. Most recently, he said, they had come out to kill off an invasive weed with industrial chemicals. They’d succeeded, but had also killed every single frog in the river. The man shook his head sadly.
‘I’m still hoping there’ll be one or two alive,’ he said.

Regeneration will apparently mean the river’s canalisation is reversed. There are plans to rebuild the wetlands, and create a green line through LA’s sprawl that will run all the way to Long Beach.

The cops come down to move the homeless on, and gradually they reappear, because where else can they go?

Regeneration looms on the horizon. It isn’t yet clear if it comes in peace.

The river is already beautiful. A woman who stopped me when she saw my binoculars, and climbed off her bike to point out the first osprey I’d seen there, said ‘it’s great that the river can sustain one. Didn’t used to be that way.’

Whenever I walk down Los Feliz Boulevard, and the green, dank smell of the water hits me before my first sight of it, the world behind me is gone, and I am only in the moment. It’s a wild place. It won’t be made more so by coffee shops and bad apartment buildings.

In ten years’ time, it’ll be a different place. But by then, I suppose, I’ll likely have regenerated somewhere else myself.

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