The Los Angeles River: A Recent View of the Past, Present and Future

Map of the Los Angeles River in 1897

A map places us in a specific place and time. It lets the viewer understand a location in both wide and a more focused context - from the perspective of a globe to the intimacy of a street map on a smart phone. Maps also have the power to tell remarkable stories that take us places intended and unintended. Recently I experienced this very thing when I viewed a historic map of the Los Angeles River at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

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The map, hand drawn on linen in 1896-97, displays the natural winding path of the River, from the Tujunga Wash to its south east bend towards the city at the Buena Vista Street Bridge. It is drawn on four sheets with vivid colors and intricate details depicting the crops grown along its banks and the natural and man-made structures along its flood plain. No other map offers such a rich picture of what the River looked like during that time.

The Tujunga Wash surrounded by agricultural fields

The map, commissioned by the City Engineers office, first under C.S. Compton and then completed by J.H. Dockweiler, documents the state of the River in 1897 and its unpredictable nature. The Rivers' unmerciful grasp on the young city dictated to some extent how Los Angeles would grow. During the late 1800s when a land boom was at its height in Los Angeles, the city was anxious to expand and speculators were looking to make money. From its nurturing water supply to its dramatic floods, the River was not something to leave to the unknown.

The LA River just northeast of the newly designated Griffith Park.

This snapshot of Los Angeles history was re-discovered around 1995 at the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP). Scott Fajack, an employee at the agency, found a microfiche of a remarkable map and was interested to find if the original was still available. He was able to locate all four panels of the map in the DWP archive and ultimately given the original by his supervisors. How such a unique map, documenting one of the most important resources of the region, could be forgotten is a wonder, but unfortunately not unusual. Once a map is photographed/digitized, the original has no real purpose and is often tossed aside or thrown away. History takes up space, both physical and psychic.

Once in Fajack's possession he sought to find a home for the map where it would be maintained and appreciated. In 1996 during a panel discussion at CSUN, he met with Jenny Watts from the Huntington Library and showed her the map. She instantly recognized the significance of the map and began working with Fajack on acquiring the map from the DWP.

After the map was purchased by the Huntington Library, one of the four panels was displayed during the 1997 exhibit, "Envisioning Eden: Water and the Selling of Los Angeles 1880-1930." It was later exhibited in its entirety at the Hammer Museum during "The World from Here: Treasures from the Great Libraries of Los Angeles." Since then, it has been out of the public's eye.

Departures was invited to view this map by Lewis McAdams, President of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAr) and hosted by Bill Frank, Curator at the Huntington Library. Three Occidental College students were also present as part of a class on Los Angeles history taught by McAdams.

A panel from the LA River Map viewed by Occidental students, Lewis McAdams and Bill Frank.

As the map was unfurled, McAdams commented on it as a view of the River as it once was - and how it will be again. With that thought, I entered that magical place to which maps hold the key: that quixotic middle ground, where the past, present and future meet. I saw orchards, alfalfa and blueberry fields growing adjacent to the River. Few streets or roads, but those that were labeled provided crucial markers: Verdugo St. near the Tujunga Wash (spelled Tejunga on the map,) and Pasadena Ave. (now N. Figueroa St.) to the northeast of Elysian Park. I began to imagine the River and the residents that lived around it: Watching for changes in the River's path as the rainy season takes hold. Watching the land boom spread as properties are subdivided and houses built.

The LA River flowing around Elysian Park towards Downtown

I was struck by just how much the past summons the future. Current work to revitalize the River mirrors the natural state depicted on the map, as does the re-envisioning of communities along the River's banks; no longer agricultural but a place for recreation and connection to nature. It is as McAdams voiced, a moment in the River's history and, if all goes as planned, a glimpse into it's future as well.

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