City Beautification, LA Style

Thank heaven that Los Angeles has finally taken a firm stance against urban blight; since a place like that clearly knows it when it sees it.  You see, probably dusky-hued “taggers” evidently defaced the Los Angeles River by painting something untoward on its “”3 story” concrete banks; four blocks of offensive writing that said “MTA: Metropolitan Assassin Authority,” which spanned several blocks of this national treasure near downtown.

It’s admittedly hard not to see the irony in this; a city which converted its entire river system into a series of concrete-lined storm sewers is offended by the intrusion of writing on its “riverbanks.”  Like Parisians defending the Seine, Angelenos can only take so much.  Of course, the LA river is no Seine.  Often the (deserved ) butt of jokes, this “river” is the dryland answer to our Columbia “system” up here, a plumbing arrangement that makes whatever one might think a river ought to be a cruel joke.  But up here, we pride ourselves on the fact that our “system,” owing probably more to costs than any aesthetic concerns, at least has a bottom and banks that nobody can just go paint on.  (Is there a primer that can make paint stick to muddy nuclear waste?  If so, we’re interested….)

Long ago, Los Angeles came up with a better response to the untoward intrusion of rivers on its salable real estate.  Pave, Baby, pave.  It’s weird, walking beside or across one of these “waterways,” and perhaps that’s why Angelenos prefer to drive.  It’s faster, and you see less.  But, as concrete sewers replaced every watercourse, which were handily seasonal for construction purposes, the result wasn’t exactly favored, but as long as nobody wrote something  disturbing along the concrete walls, could be tolerated.  Plus, the general ugliness and  Fred Flintstone repetitiveness of the landscape as a whole made the abominably industrial  concrete rivers seem like a small thing.  As long as nobody wrote on them.  That’s where the LA city government drew a line, like hopscotch, on the concrete.

You see, they can’t just go painting over graffiti in the river the way they do on the city’s  countless, neighborhood destroying, and deafening overpasses.  They have to be careful not to taint the hypothetical water, laden as it is already with grocery carts and the occasional corpse, when they decide that Civic Pride dictates that offensive words must be painted over.  Suddenly, the most hideous concrete ditch in the world acquires the legitimacy of a wildlife preserve, and paint chips and such must be expensively kept out of this riparian treasure.

Sheesh.  If you keep letting the tree-huggers have their way, where could it lead?  To people not paving their rivers?  Perish the thought.  This is America


  1. rmp says:

    If you think concrete rivers are bad in LA, you should go to Japan and see how Liberal Democratic Party pay to play politics has ruined the beauty of Japan with concrete. Beautiful rivers and scenes that I saw in the ’60s and ’70s are now worse than LA sans the graffiti. Political corruption in Japan is at an entirely different level than what we have here.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Really? You mean this debacle was emulated? I’m sad, but hardly surprised. La is the only place I’ve seen so debased; I guess I need to get out more.

  2. Jim White says:

    Okay now Hag, you’re treading on sacred territory with this one. In my opinion, the greatest television show of all time is The Rockford Files. In what is probably a quarter of the episodes, if they needed a bit of filler to kill time, they threw in a gratuitous car chase that had to have at least a half of it in the river system. That was probably easier filming for them since they didn’t have to block off streets, but still it was high entertainment and was a wonderful inside joke to those of us who lived in the area.

    PS. I missed your earthquake thread yesterday and just added some memories of Loma Prieta.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Ah, but the two are tied together… One of the scariest scenes in the 1971 epic, “Earthquake,” was when the kid tries to ride his bike across a branch of the LA river during the tremor. ( That’s not counting the scary scenes with Ava Gardner, cocktailhag from hell., who tended to appear in more aesthetically appealing surroundings..) Even if laden with nuclear waste and PCB’s, call me a traditionalist, but I still like my rivers to have some mud at the bottom.

  3. I trump you all. 1954, when I was eleven years old, there was THEM. James Whitmore, James Arness, and Fess Parker (in bandages.) The giant, nuclear-mutated ants followed their queen to guess where.

    My first encounter with the LA river, more than a decade before I actually saw it in person. When I did, I had one of those epiphanies, to be matched only by my first visit to the Griffith Observatory, when I suddenly realized that I was standing exactly where James Dean had his knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause, with an impossibly young Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper looking on. (Almost exactly where a naked Terminator stood, a perfect V. and surveyed the entire LA basin which he would one day govern.)

    I’m sorry, Dearest Hag. Whatever silliness its citizens get up to next, I LOVE LA, for reasons which are both personal and mystical, but have a lot to do with the fact that the memories of things I did, and things I saw in darkened auditoriums, are so strangely fused in memory.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I didn’t write this, exactly, because I hate LA, WT…. Only because I so often feel sorry for the poor place. Way back when. the Olmsted Brothers had better ideas for the LA River, but they lost. Now, taggers write the epitaphs of a ruined place on the concrete walls of its tomb. I’ve got nothing against a fake tropical paradise created out of whole cloth in a reclaimed desert; I just wish it could have been done more delicately.

      • Oh, I know that, Hag. It’s just that sometimes, well, love isn’t as discriminating as it ought to be, even though it can’t be mistaken for anything but love. The LA that I loved is no more, except in isolated bits and pieces which only her true lovers know for what they were.

        It feels a little odd to confess this in a public forum, but it was Mike Davis — the Mike Davis of City of Quartz — who taught me to love Los Angeles. Even odder, he was only 20 years old at the time. Although I was three years his senior, he seemed like the ancient of days to me. He knew everything about the city — history, culture, what had been, and what was yet to be. His introduction to its mysteries of place were an endless series of revelations.

        Even then, I knew that he would be famous one day, and I also knew why. He had a gift, an obvious, overwhelming gift. Now that I look back on it, I recognize it as the gift of love. At the time, I didn’t ask any questions, I just basked in it. I did think, though, in moments when nothing was happening, that a city which could inspire such intelligent devotion was indeed a city to be reckoned with.

        And so it’s proven, even though today, when I go back, i can feel the debris of its impossible success begin to bury it, just as similar debris once buried Athens and Rome.

        • cocktailhag says:

          Wow. Mike Davis? City of Quartz is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been a fan of his forever. Come to think of it, that book does reflect love of a certain sort; like a parent might feel for a child gone bad. I’m very envious that you actually knew him.

          • Yeah, we were both kids — he was running the SDS regional office in LA, and I joined him as a full-time volunteer. I didn’t realize that he was only 20 at the time, of course. I only looked it up later after City of Quartz came out. Frankly, it stunned me that he’d been so young.

            You know, I used to hear stories about Marilyn Monroe stopping conversations when she walked into a room, or people saying that the first time they met Clinton or Obama, it was obvious that they’d be president someday. I dismissed such stories as the usual after-the-fact hagiography, until I ran into Mike. Maybe he just caught me at an impressionable age, but he was the first person I’d ever run into who seemed to have that much charisma.

            Damned smart, too, as anyone who’s read his books now knows. Anyway, we lost touch a year or so later, and I actually didn’t know when the book came out that the MIke Davis who’d written it was that Mike Davis, until I read the end-paper bio. I can’t say that I was surprised.

          • cocktailhag says:

            I bought that book when I was moving to LA…. I only lasted a few months, and that book contributed to my overall bad attitude, which lasted until I hit the Grapevine on my way back to Portland.

  4. Jim Montague says:

    My mother told me a story about the great flood of 1939, when she lived above the L.A. river just below what is Dodger stadium near downtown L.A.
    The rains that year devastated L.A., as this was the pre-paving era of what was then a great flood plain. In the San Fernando Valley, you have Hansen Dam, and the Sepulveda dam, which can still flood under the right conditions. In the San Gabriel Valley, you have the Santa Fe dam, which prevents flooding of the San Gabriel river, and the Rio Hondo river, which overflowed frequently until they fixed the problem during the 60′s. In the Corona area, you have the Prado dam, which controls the entire Orange County area, along with the smaller Carbon Canyon dam. The rest of the So Cal area has numerous resevoirs, that keep the flow of water into the basin at a minimum.
    L.A. foresaw long ago, the need to control and constrain the flow of water off the San Gabriels, the range of mountains that surround the city. at a maximum elevation of 10,000 feet, they present a plethora of problems for the city below. The city is grateful however, for the unique and legendary influence they have on the weather for city below. Unfortunately, for those of us born here, the population now nears 10 million souls. Thanks to all of those Rose parades on New Years day that showed perfect warm weather in the dead of winter.
    Here is a link of what it looked like in my mothers era, and how the pre paved rivers could have ruined the city:

    • cocktailhag says:

      The Olmsted plan was for a system of parks and greenways that followed the river, and could be allowed to flood seasonally without property damage, but it never happened. I have heard that a stretch or two of the river have been restored, though. I imagine that flooding will return, as more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow.

  5. Jim Montague says:

    I might add that the last time I saw Paris, the graffiti was overtaking the beauty of the place. Perhaps we all end up in the same place after all. There is much to be said of cities that encourage art over politics, do you think there is hope for the future?

    • cocktailhag says:

      It’s been almost ten years since I was in Paris, but at that time I was struck by how clean and lovely it was; maybe I didn’t see the right (wrong?) places. I always thought that the squalor and often lawless quality of LA stemmed from its extremes of wealth and poverty and racial segregation; Paris has both, so I guess its fate could be similar.

    • Cities seem to come and go. Stand in the ruins of the Forum Romanum, or listen to a 19th Century opera while sitting on the stone steps of the 1st Century Arena di Verona, and you may be inclined to believe that except for a few unfortunate Mayan examples, all cities are pretty much eternal. Maybe so, but not always in the form that their residents would prefer.

      What made them vulnerable in ancient days was the lack of any replacement for wood as the principal fuel and building material. (Stone works fine for buildings, but not for cooking, heating, smelting, or for ships, and most of the great cities of the age were also maritime powers.) Today it’s automobiles, the mechanized agriculture which drives people off the land, and the developers who then convert it into malls and parking lots.

      If we’re to deal effectively with global warming, and a host of other ills related to fuel-based mobility, it looks to me as though we’ll have to give up suburbs, and that cities will again have to become more concentrated in favor of a lighter overall human footprint on the land.

      I suspect that’s why I’ve been looking at Paolo Soleri’s work more seriously again — that and the fact that I live less than forty miles from Arcosanti. In any event, I think I’ll probably be writing more about it, once I sort out my own thinking on the subject. The chorus of voices on the subject is still quite small, which gives me hope that there might still be room for a concerned amateur in the back row.

      • cocktailhag says:

        James Howard Kunstler takes a similar view; “The Geography of Nowhere” is a great book and witty to boot. I myself have never lived in a suburb, and to this day I never work in them. The houses are too crappy, and the commuting too hellish. What makes me sad is seeing lovely old cities fall by the wayside as the residents flee for suburbia; charming, sound, and livable neighborhoods are cast aside for cookie-cutter schlock and four-car garages.