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L.A.’s (forgotten) River

The first time I crossed over the Los Angeles River in downtown eight years ago, it seemed lifeless. Green, algae-filled water flowed through a wide concrete ravine with neon-bright graffiti on either side.

When I would cross the Broadway bridge coming home from church every Sunday after that, I ignored the river. It seemed to serve no purpose. It didn’t provide recreational spots for the people living near it, and it didn’t look like it could provide safe drinking water. To me, it was a shameful side of Los Angeles—something to hide or get rid of.

It wasn’t until four years later in 2006 that I began to take interest in the river. Because the river flowed right next to my church in Lincoln Heights, the congregation decided to join the annual L.A. River CleanUp sponsored by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to spend my morning next to industrial runoff smelling of chemicals and sewage. However, thanks to my mom’s nagging (she emphasized that we needed to respect God’s creations), I gave in. Still, I expected the worst.

Trees, wildlife and clear water

We cleaned a section of the river in Atwater Village, which is upstream from my church. When I got to this area where I’d never been before, I unexpectedly found myself surrounded by lush green trees and plants (near where some of the photos for this story were taken). Before this, I knew only about the downtown segment of the river—the concrete riverbed section. It was so strange to see it look like a normal river, with birds flying overhead and floating on the river, frogs croaking and trees on either side. The water was clear too. Clear enough to see fish swimming around. Wait, there are fish in the L.A. River?

Photo by Ha Young Kwen, 15, Wilson HS (Hacienda Heights)

It turns out we were at one of the few places where the river has mud at its bottom, allowing plants to grow. Because of the rain that had fallen in the weeks prior to the cleanup, storm drains from nearby neighborhoods had carried trash into the river. It was piled up around the trees and plants. Our job was to collect all this trash (plastic grocery bags, two shopping carts, bottles). Seeing the river up close for the first time, I got curious, inspired even, to learn more about the L.A. River’s history. I wondered if the L.A. River could become something that we could take pride in one day.

The most surprising thing I learned about the river was that it wasn’t man-made. What I had thought was a massive sewer turned out to be the reason why Los Angeles was established here in 1781. From the western end of the San Fernando Valley to its terminus in Long Beach, the L.A. River flows through the heart of the city. It passes communities that once depended on the river for water such as Glendale, downtown L.A. and Compton. In fact, it had been the only major source of fresh water for the city until the Los Angeles Aqueduct began to draw water from elsewhere in 1913.

The river was infamous for its floods and the constant changes in its course. After a huge flood in 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers finally took action by digging a deeper riverbed to contain rising levels of water. Eventually the river was encased with concrete to stop erosion and to prevent further changes in the river’s course. After the flooding ended, people stopped caring about it. It’s a shame that people back then didn’t bother to think about the ultimate consequences that we live with now.

I’ve seen how a river can be improved

But it doesn’t have to be this way forever. In 1958, the South Korean government covered the Cheonggyecheon River that runs through the city of Seoul by putting roads and buildings over it because it couldn’t afford to clean the polluted water. By 2003, when the mayor decided to restore the river, the stream had become almost dry and it was still polluted. Once considered a dead river, Cheonggyecheon is now praised as one of the greatest urban renewal projects in the world. The reconstruction included building parks in downtown, holding outdoor concerts and creating a place for people to swim. I love that I can get in the water when I visit my cousins. Instead of the cluttered roadways and dirty flea markets that I remember from my childhood, downtown Seoul looks beautiful now. Why couldn’t we do this with the L.A. River, too?

Participating in the L.A. River cleanup and getting to see the river’s nicer parts showed me how much potential our river has. If we were able to demolish the concrete riverbed and replace it with mud and rocks, Los Angeles could have miles of trees and plants running through it. Concrete is not the only option for flood control. As long as the walls remain strong during floods by using, for example, granite or erosion-resistant grass, the river will stay under control. Some restoration projects are already underway around Sepulveda Dam in the Valley and the Arroyo Creek Confluence area near Elysian Park. As someone who wants to become an architect, I hope to possibly work on projects like these someday.

I wish people knew more about the range of possibilities the L.A. River gives us. We are still at the very early stages of river restoration. There are so many things we could do, such as opening new open-air music venues, creating new parks, adding more bike trails and setting up water parks and wading pools along the river. I hope to see the river realize its potential to become the green backbone of our city, maybe even to become the new image of Los Angeles one day.


Other stories by this writer …

Unhealthy competition. Elliot, 16, had to learn that winning isn’t the most important thing when entering competitions. (Summer 2009)

It’s about marriage, not hatred. Elliot, 16, feels he was unfairly attacked for his views opposing marriage for same-sex couples. (January – February 2009)

Stuck between two worlds. After years of trying to pick one, Elliot, 16, has learned to embrace both his Korean and American sides. (November – December 2008)