'Lost Rivers' Documentary Tackles Hard Questions for River Revitalization


Angelenos might think L.A. is the only one with such a strange relationship to their waterways, but "Lost Rivers," a documentary being screened this week as part of Architecture and Design Film Festival says otherwise.

In 72 minutes, the documentary, directed by Caroline Bacle, gives viewers a glimpse of the many rivers that have been buried and forgotten. The film was shot around the world -- from Brescia, Italy to Yonkers, New York -- but many of the themes tackled in "Lost Rivers" are questions Los Angeles needs to ask itself as well.

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Could the Los Angeles River be a tourism draw? In Brescia, Italy, the members of Brescia Underground, once an outlaw group that illicitly popped the manholes that run through this northern Italy city in order to access its rivers. The documentary shows tantalizing shots of Roman-era rock and marble bridges, all buried in a sewer system. Since partnering with the city, the now-legal historical society estimates they've taken about 10,000 visitors into the city's bowels since they opened up tours.

Can the Los Angeles River revitalization efforts balance the interests of economic growth with ecologic restoration? In Seoul, the film parses the complexity of turning Cheonggyecheon Freeway, a 16-line double decker freeway, into the idyllic waterway it is now. Though it is largely hailed a success, "Lost Rivers" also reveals that its construction resulted in the relocation of many small businesses stationed along the bustling freeway.

Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, South Korea
Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, South Korea

What does it take to realize revitalization projects in the city? Why do some projects progress, while others stall? In Yonkers, a part of the Saw Mill River was uncovered from its 90-year imprisonment underground. It kickstarted its downtown revitalization by piquing investor interest in a park-like space, rather than a depressing parking lot that was originally located above it. But in Toronto, a proposal to build a park that would double as a infiltration system was overturned in favor of building a bigger sewage system, which photographer and landscape architect Michael Cook says is only a band-aid solution.

Though the Los Angeles River hasn't been buried underground like the rivers in this documentary, it also experienced a similar process of collective amnesia. Only now are residents re-discovering the river. Watching "Lost Rivers" reminds viewers that Los Angeles isn't alone in trying to build a new relationship with its river, and within the stories from other cities could be the lessons that can lead to the city's success.

Watch "Lost Rivers" at Los Angeles Theatre Center March 14 and March 15. Details here.

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