Uncovering L.A.'s Lost Streams
By: Nathan Masters
As any hike through the mountains will confirm, different geographies govern wild and urban areas. In the wild, peaks, ridges, and watercourses help us navigate, and as we move through the landscape it's difficult to miss how geologic uplift and erosion have shaped the land. But in the city, a different set of features makes a landscape navigable. The freeways, light rail lines, and the boundaries between neighborhoods tell us where we are. Natural processes are at work in the city as they are in the wild, but the built environment renders them invisible. We see mountains on the horizon, but we risk forgetting entire hills that once rose in the center of the city.
In recent years, Los Angeles has worked to rediscover elements of its lost, wild geography. Activists have transformed the long-neglected Los Angeles River -- once dismissed as a storm channel -- into a 50-mile-long symbol of the promises and frustrations of Southern California environmentalism. In western Los Angeles, scientists, geographers, and other researchers have mapped in precise detail the locations of vernal pools, marshes, meadows, and other wetlands that once dotted the Ballona Creek watershed.
Archives have played a key role in rediscovering another forgotten feature of L.A.'s wild geography: the extensive system of creeks, arroyos, and other watercourses that once flowed through present-day Los Angeles. Fed by springs issuing from vast underground aquifers, storm runoff, or some combination of the two, these streams once crisscrossed the entire city. Today, many of them have suffered a similar fate as the Los Angeles River: paved over, buried and converted into storm drains, or eliminated altogether. Most Angelenos walk or drive over them every day without realizing it.
Not Jessica Hall. Since 2008, the landscape architect has traced the former routes of L.A.'s waterways on the L.A. Creek Freak blog, which she founded with artist and L.A. River activist Joe Linton. By studying the maps, photographs, and other documents preserved in the region's archives, Hall has reconstructed a surprisingly wet L.A. landscape, braided with dozens of streams that now lie buried beneath streets and parking lots.
East of the Los Angeles River, the Arroyo de las Pasas once originated in the hills of Montecito Heights and flowed southwesterly toward its confluence with the Los Angeles River. Today, much of the arroyo is a series of culverts underneath Lincoln Park and the USC Health Sciences Campus.
West of downtown Los Angeles, the Arroyo de Sacatela flowed south through present-day Los Feliz and Koreatown on its way to the inland cienega of the Ballona Creek watershed. In 2008, the Militant Angeleno discovered remnants of the arroyo while retracing the watercourse's path.
Even the concrete-and-glass landscape of downtown L.A. was once home to a willow-lined creek; the Arroyo de los Reyes originated north of present-day Echo Park, flowed through a ravine, and emerged just south of Bunker Hill near what is today Pershing Square. Upstream, a private water company dammed the arroyo's canyon in 1868 to create a reservoir, which we know today as Echo Park Lake.
Maps have proven to be some of Hall's best historical evidence. Old irrigation maps and USGS topographical surveys often show intermittent streams flowing through what are today parking lots and real estate developments. In Sacramento, Hall perused Henry Hancock's landmark 1858 survey of Los Angeles in the California State Archives and rediscovered the names of three lost streams.
Even where streams are unmarked on topographical maps, soil maps -- produced initially for agricultural purposes -- provide clues in their records of soil composition as to where watercourses may have flowed.
Hall has also used photographs to locate streams. Riparian ecosystems often stand out in aerial photographs at such institutions as the Pasadena Public Library, UCLA Department of Geography, and Whittier College. Even photos taken at ground level may hint at a stream's existence; images of flooded streets after a heavy rain may indicate that a road follows the former path of an arroyo.
In some cases, the built environment itself preserves evidence of the city's lost streams. In 1906, the city built a bridge to carry Macy Street (now Cesar Chavez Avenue) over Arroyo de las Pasas. Today, the bridge remains, but the arroyo has been filled in, replaced with train tracks and the concrete lanes of the San Bernardino (I-10) Freeway.
Los Feliz's Shakespeare Bridge, likewise, carries Franklin Avenue over the now-defunct Arroyo de la Sacatela, as the Militant Angeleno documented. Downstream, another bridge transports Sunset Boulevard over the former path of the arroyo, now occupied by Myra Avenue.
Published 8 months, 3 weeks ago under Rivers to Oceans