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Are We Doing All We Can for the Zanja Madre?

Things have progressed quickly at the Zanja Madre excavation. Too quickly, feels historian and photographer William Preston Bowling.

Last Saturday, a little more than two weeks after the discovery of the historic "Mother Ditch" by construction workers, City Council District 1, in partnership with Metabolic Studios and Forest City, removed an approximately 40-foot section of the Zanja Madre at the Blossom Plaza development site. It will be stored at Metabolic Studios until it can be incorporated in three spots: Blossom Plaza's Cultural Plaza, which is being developed by Forest City; the Los Angeles Historic State Park; and as part of Metabolic Studios' Los Angeles River Water Wheel project.

"Each time I visit [the site], another section is damaged and such Los Angeles River history should not be treated in this way," said Bowling a few days before the planned removal of the Zanja. He is a regular by the river due to his consulting work for Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). "It's my worry that Council District 1 just wants the development to go through and they're throwing this piece of the Zanja Madre at Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studio saying, 'Hey take this!' and everyone's going to be happy."

The discovery sits on Forest City's Blossom Plaza development, a $100 million effort that will create 237 apartments in the area. Bowling feels the city and the developer should just leave the Zanja where it is, sacrifice the ten parking spots that would have been slated to go over it, and give people the opportunity to see it in its original location. Alex Ward, architect and board member of FoLAR, agrees.

Photo by: Peter Bennett/Citizen of the Planet

Photo by: Peter Bennett/Citizen of the Planet

In Bowling's eyes, the site was far from the traditional image of painstaking archaeological digs often depicted in mainstream media. Instead of tarps covering sensitive portions of the site, brushes to be used for gentle sweeping of artifacts, and clipboards meticulously scribbled with notes on every little thing, Bowling witnessed an almost cavalier treatment of the 100-foot section of the Mother Ditch.

Some issues that concern him is the apparent lack of oversight by trained archaeologists, the use of machinery on the site, and the offhand attitude of construction workers of artifacts uncovered. His worries were further fed upon seeing the photos published by the Los Angeles Times, which showed workers (not archeologists) walking on top of the Zanja and old smoked glass bottles littering the ground "like discarded beer cans."

In response to these concerns, Fredy Ceja from Councilman Gil Cedillo's office said, "We want to preserve [the Zanja] as best we can, which is why we're working with Forest City and Metabolic Studios. If we weren't concerned with the Zanja, we wouldn't be going through all this trouble."

Archaeologist Lynn Furnis is the on-site monitor with the Orange-based Cogstone Resource Management Inc. Her company was retained by Forest City because initial reports showed that remains of the Zanja Madre might be found on site. As part of her job, she frequents the site and makes sure nothing of historical relevance gets lost during construction. She says she was on site most days in the middle of December, sometimes with another colleague. "We were just watching all the different equipment excavate the dirt. If they hit something historic like part of a building or a cluster of artifacts, we have them stop while we go in and check it out, collect things and take photos. Then, we get back out and let them continue working," said Furnis.

Though the discovery of the Zanja Madre is arguably important to the community because of water's importance to the region, it's not enough to add to the National Register of Historic Places, Furnis says. She knows through experience. Her company previously found different portions of the Zanja Madre along the Gold Line and went through the process of nominating the system to the National Register, only to be rejected.

Photo by: Peter Bennett/Citizen of the Planet

The reason cited for the application's denial was that, "there wasn't enough of it to represent the whole system. It didn't include any of the smaller branches or anything." Using the same logic, Forest City and Cogstone reasoned, "this won't get on the Register either because it's really similar to what we found before."

Thus, the project only merited on-site monitoring. "It's a monitoring project, which means for our purposes, it's a salvage job," said Furnis, "It's not a regular archaeological dig. You don't get the slow, careful, systematic excavation that you would on a dig. You just have to work fast and try to record as much as you can." Furnis does admit that because it is the Zanja Madre, it did receive more care than a pure salvage operation.

Dr. Julia Costello, the archaeologist who discovered a portion of the Zanja Madre in the 1970s, confirms that discovering a substantial part of a site is important to the strength of its application. "If, for example, we know it was 10 miles long and you find 100-foot section of it, that may not be enough to list the whole route. You've only got a piece of it," said Costello. "You can sometimes find small remnants of something and there isn't enough integrity for it to be have retained historical importance. For example, if you find just a little ash from a building, that's not enough to preserve it because you can't learn anything from it."

Costello goes on to emphasize the role of the archaeologist on-site in the process even if a site does not rise to the level of preservation. "The archaeologist on-site would have to determine if the remnants they are finding have enough information to give. How big is it? What's it made out of? What route is it on? Then you need to retrieve that information before you destroy it. That's why reports are written. Because you want that data out there."

Having to answer so many variables makes it difficult for anyone to judge how well an archaeological process is going based on just pure observation. "I couldn't pass judgment on them," said Costello, "I'd really have to sit down at the table and ask them all sorts of questions."

Photo by: Peter Bennett/Citizen of the Planet

Photo by: Peter Bennett/Citizen of the Planet

According to Furnis, Sherri Gust, an archaeologist and her boss at Cogstone, feels that to successfully landmark the Zanja Madre the city and other entities involved would need to have a concerted effort in place with regards to the whole Zanja Madre system. "They should have a plan for dealing with all of it so they can gather information about the whole system, but no one's really doing that. It's just piecemeal instead of having a bigger plan and a bigger view," said Furnis. Because the Zanja is in such an urban area, it makes finding a significant piece of it even more difficult. Buildings go up and developments are planned every day. Significant historical sites could have been destroyed even before anyone knew what they were doing.

Though a committee decides what merits addition to the National Register, Costello says the public still has a voice. "It isn't just scientific reasons that we preserve or study things. We also do it because the public demands it." Residents can do their research, find out the regulatory agencies in charge of the project -- whether it's the city planning, public works or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- and air their views. "That's part of the process."

Failing all this, there are other ways to honor history without having to go through all-out preservation. One alternative is to incorporate it back into the daily public life. "They might lay out the original bricks from the Zanja through a plaza, following the original route it took in historic times. It wouldn't just be something you stand back and look at, but build into the project to visually mark the old location," said Costello. "If you can't preserve it forever physically, then do something to make its history live."

By that standard, then the developers and Council District 1 have done right by the Zanja. But greater understanding of the preservation process has raised the question, if the Zanja Madre were such a important part of life in Los Angeles, shouldn't we have a bigger, more overarching plan for it rather than simply deal with bits of it as we find it?

Photos courtesy of Peter Bennett/Citizen of the Planet

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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