The Los Angeles River is on the verge of a new era. In the few years since the “flood control channel” was reclassified as a “navigable waterway,” the region has re-embraced its oddball amalgam of concrete and nature, which winds 51 miles from the San Fernando Valley out to the ocean in Long Beach. A $1-billion-plus plan to restore 11 miles north of Downtown LA has been working its way through federal approvals, starchitect Frank Gehry has taken on a revitalization project for the full length of the river that could involve both branding and water reclamation, LA will host an art biennial centered on the river, the river is a main selling point in the city’s bid for the 2024 Olympics, and developers are now clamoring to build along the river’s banks.
The last time the LA River was reborn it was the late 1930s and it had been drowning the young city periodically since its birth. At some points, the river was just a trickle; in other parts, it was uncontrollably wild, and flooded frequently and devastatingly. After a terrible flood in March 1938, the US Army Corps of Engineers began work to lower the riverbed, widen the channel, and choke the whole thing in “a continuous trapezoidal concrete channel to carry the river from Elysian Park to Long Beach,” as described in The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Gehry thinks the LA River can be great again with its concrete still intact; the Army Corps hopes to remove at least some of it.