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Beats and Rhymes: Ode to the L.A. River


The plight of the Los Angeles River and its concrete channel are well known. Unfortunately few know that a lush ecosystem once existed in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel River watershed. Grizzly bears once roamed the banks. Much of the Southern California basin from Glendale, Eagle Rock, Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Torrance, Compton -- all held pockets of swamps and dense, wooded vegetation.


I sing of a River dammed,
dumped, pumped & Diverted;
I sing of a River
They almost Murdered..
I sing of a River
the people forgot,
I sing of a River
that flows from the rocks...

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The Tongva, also known as Gabrielino, Indians had many villages along the rivers. Within the ecology were an ample variety of edible plants and animals. The Tongva relied on the rivers for almost every facet of their existence -- they even made their huts with poles from the willow thickets. The Tongva remained undisturbed well into the 18th Century.


I sing of a River that switched beds,
Underground moisture in the watershed.


Lakewood City official D.J. Waldie in his book "Holy Land," says that before these rivers were paved, locals called them "tramp rivers" because every year they switched beds. The San Gabriel River once emptied into the ocean where the L.A. River does now. In 1867 a great flood changed the San Gabriel's course. The L.A. River once emptied into the ocean via the Ballona Creek near Marina Del Rey. The force of the 1825 flood was so powerful that it cut a new waterway south towards Long Beach.

My first exposure to the river was riding my bike in the 1980s on the San Gabriel Riverbed from my mom's house in Cerritos to my grandfather's, 5 miles south in Long Beach. Pedaling there on the riverbed took about 20 minutes. We would then ride to Seal Beach along the concrete riverbed. I also saw the L.A. River when we drove past it on the freeway and in movies like Grease and the Terminator.

Years later at UCLA I began studying Los Angeles history. I read essays about the River, like Mike Davis' "How Eden Lost Its Garden." I read about the Friends of the Los Angeles River. By 1999 after I graduated, I befriended FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams. A few years later I worked in Frogtown right next to the River. I began taking more hikes and learning as much as I could, like the Olmsted Brothers' Original plan. I've written dozens of poems about the river. The poem recorded here is a culmination.

There are now several history books about the River. Lewis MacAdams' book of poems titled "The River: Books 1,2 & 3" published in 2007 by Blue Press is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams. Joe Linton's "Down By the L.A. River" on Wilderness Press is an excellent starting point for anyone looking to hike or explore more. The resurrection is underway.


I sing of a River resurrected
one pocket park at a time.
Blades of grass breaking concrete,
Riparian Wetlands in the Compton Creek,
Oleanders in Atwater,
Re-instate the native garden!


Lewis MacAdams founded
The Friends of the Los Angeles River
With the Power of the Word.
Like John Kinsella says,
Poems can stop bulldozers.
I sing of a River where
Wetlands & Washs once dominated
Witness the Return of the Watershed!


A short film matching the poem is in production now. Stay tuned!


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Top: Metrolink's L.A. River photo by Ensie used under a Creative Commons license

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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