Outreach: Unearthing The North Branch of the Arroyo Seco with Jane Tsong

The North Branch winds through what will become Highland Park. Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library Collections

Students from the Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts (LFCSA) and the Living Museum Sycamore Grove are collaborating with Departures Youth Voices to document their exploration of the area and develop interactive tools that will become part of the Living Museum's community resources. Follow the students here as they work with community residents and learn about the history of the neighborhood, urban planning, and placemaking.

Jane Tsong is an environmental artist and designer who is interested in how gardens and green spaces can be locations where local cultural history is archived and celebrated. She visited the students at LFCSA to discuss the North Branch, a tributary of the Arroyo Seco, that is currently hidden underground. Students learned about the natural history of the creek, its relationship to the development of Sycamore Grove, and how it was moved underground. Below you can read some of their comments, ideas, and questions, as well as some of the answers and information provided by Ms. Tsong.

"Long ago there was a stream with cat fish and trout, most of the water is now underground. This stream is the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco, it used to go through Sycamore Grove. There was a flood in the late 1930s that made people want to tunnellize it. Birds should move habitats so they can adapt to survive."--Parker Metzger, LFCSA student

At one time it was a flowing creek that ran through what is now Highland Park, contributing to much of the natural beauty of the area. Ms. Tsong works closely with the Living Museum Sycamore Grove, to explore how and if the North Branch can be "daylighted," leading to the restoration of the local riparian habitat and history of the area.

On its route to the Arroyo Seco the North Branch flowed through Sycamore Grove Park filling a concrete lined wading pool visible in the rear of the picture. Photo from the Los Angeles Public Library Collections

During a recent Living Museum event at Sycamore Grove Park, participants were asked to envision what a creek restoration could bring to the park. Reaching out and working with the community is a strategy favored by Ms. Tsong. "In this densely populated neighborhood where there simply are not enough parks, it might make sense to work with the community to define the goals of a daylighting project," she said. "In this particular case, you could focus on habitat restoration and connectivity to surrounding parks, or you could aim to give an architectural experience of water and space, or you could envision a stream that has elements of both."

Participants at the Living Museum event identify their vision for the North Branch. Photo by Jane Tsong. Original posters for event created by Joshua Link.

Map of the North Branch as it winds through Highland Park.  Participants at the  Living Museum event were asked to mark where they live along the creek's route. Photo by Jane Tsong. Original posters for event created by Joshua Link.

"It seems there was a time when almost every street had a stream running down it."--Milan Perry. LFCSA student

During her visit at LFCSA, Ms. Tsong showed the students pictures of different urban stream restorations throughout the world, and highlighted what restoration of the North Branch could include, such as seating areas, stepping stones, and cultural spaces. The students delighted in the pictures that showed a range of fun experiences a stream can bring to an urban neighborhood, and were inspired to create their own vision of what a daylighted creek could be and how it could benefit the community. One student, Lewisa, created a list of possibilities that stream restoration could include:

  • drinking fountains
  • places to sit
  • public art
  • coffee shop
  • natural streams
  • stream naturally flows into the Arroyo Seco
  • game tables
  • kiosks
  • waterfall
  • wetlands structured to clean the water before it enters the Arroyo Seco
  • stepping stones
  • greening the area

Another team of students chose to focus on the North Branch for their Living Museum art installation for Lummis Day. They created a diorama with a daylighted North Branch surrounded by vegetation, river rocks, and sandy shores, as well as colorful seating areas.

North Branch Diorama created by Parker Metzger, Isaac Pavalon, Derek Neuman, P.J. Liebeskind, and Georgia Slack

"There was once a stream that went along York Blvd. before the water was contained in an underwater pipe." Emma Calder, LFCSA student

As the Arroyo Seco and the Los Angeles River continue to gain the public's attention, few who are familiar with Sycamore Grove know about the North Branch, most likely because it has been hidden from the public's view for so long. But it is still a very real waterway as evidenced by this Ecotone Studios video, shot by Ms. Tsong and Joshua Link at the intersection of Monte Vista Street and Shanley Avenue in Highland Park. "[We] had an amazing experience when we lifted the manhole cover off one of the storm drains where the creek flows. As soon as the cover came off, we heard the music of the water, and felt the coolness of the air below," she said.

"What is the past, present and future of the North Branch? What is the water quality?"--Emma Calder, LFCSA student

According to Ms. Tsong, the preliminary results of a recent ion chromotograpy test, conducted by Cal Poly Pomona, show the water of the North Branch to be "high quality groundwater." These results offer Ms. Tsong hope for this and other urban watersheds. "This just shows us that in this amazing city, the land still tells us things, and we still have a lot to learn from our streams," she said.

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