Three centuries ago, the Los Angeles River meandered through marshes and forests of willow and sycamore. Trout spawned in its waters and grizzly bears roamed its shores. The bountiful environment the river helped create supported one of the largest concentrations of Indians in North America. Today, the river is made almost entirely of concrete. Chain-link fence and barbed wire line its course. Shopping carts and trash litter its channel. Little water flows in the river most of the year, and nearly all that does is treated sewage and oily street runoff. On much of its course, the river looks more like a deserted freeway than a river.
The river's contemporary image belies its former character and its importance to the development of Southern California. Los Angeles would not exist were it not for the river, and the river was crucial to its growth. Recognizing its past and future potential, a potent movement has developed to revitalize its course. The Los Angeles River offers the first comprehensive account of a river that helped give birth to one of the world's great cities, significantly shaped its history, and promises to play a key role in its future.
Once the very soul of the city's landscape, the Los Angeles River is now just a concrete storm sewer. But, as Blake Gumprecht argues in this landmark history, its resurrection may become the unifying civic crusade of the next decade. -- Mike Davis Exceptional history... Like Waldie's Holy Land and Robert Adams's Los Angeles Spring, Gumprecht's book made palpable a landscape I have never wanted to be too long absent from. -- Barry Lopez
Contents: Preface to the Paperback Edition Introduction Chapter: 1 The River as It Once Was Chapter: 2 Sustenance for the Young Pueblo Chapter: 3 Draining the River Dry Chapter: 4 A Stream That Could Not Be Trusted Chapter: 5 Fifty-one Miles of Concrete Chapter: 6 Exhuming the River
Blake Gumprecht is an assistant professor of geography at the University of New Hampshire.
For those even aware that it exists, the Los Angeles River conjures up an image of a barren concrete channelÄa place best suited for Hollywood car chases and gang brawls. There was a time, however, when the L.A. River, which runs from the San Fernando Valley into the Pacific, had an entirely different image, not to mention a different course. Before modern flood control programs fixed the river's path with high cement walls, it ran variously south and west, at one time emptying into the Santa Monica Bay. In this exhaustive and lively investigation, Gumprecht, a geography professor and former Los Angeles Times reporter, charts the waterway's evolution from a "beautiful stream, wandering peacefully amid willows and wild grapes" to the refuse-strewn, "ugly, concrete gutter" it is today. Gumprecht describes the crucial role that the river played in the settlement and growth of L.A.Äboth as a water source and as a symbol of the region's Arcadian promiseÄand, conversely, how the river was remade in the image of the metropolis itself, becoming depleted and degraded by the very development it made possible. Like fellow L.A. historian Mike Davis, Gumprecht scatters an archive of startling photos throughout the book, from a man holding a 25-pound trout caught in the river in 1940 to the scene of a riverbed drag race broken up by the police in 1950. Conjuring images of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Gumprecht's river "biography" breathes vitality into a subject that in the hands of a less enthusiastic author might be drier than the industrial wasteland that he describes. (June)
Gumprecht modestly claims that his interest in the Los Angeles River 'has always been more in its past than in its future.' But we require the past he presents, like water in our desert, to make the choices in our future intelligible. Another of the catastrophes of the river will be that too few Angelenos are likely to find and read this essential book... Over the past 150 years, amnesiac L.A. has looked at the space occupied by the river and misread it as dry land ready for development, a western barricade against immigrant neighborhoods, a water resource to be exploited, a perfectly engineered drain and finally a concrete void. Gumprecht gives a broad historical, geographical and human context to these misreadings, and he understands their seductions, particularly the current image of the river as a pathetic captive to be exhumed from its concrete coffin... In the contradictions of the river, Gumprecht reveals a broader conflict about the uses of space in Los Angeles, and that unresolved argument spills over into harder questions here and in every part of the country about the limits of environmental restoration. Confronting them in detail, as Gumprecht does, takes courage. -- D. J. Waldie Los Angeles Times Book Review Gumprecht has produced an astoundingly well-researched environmental history of Los Angeles, as well as a detailed accounting of the political structures that have shaped the river's, and the city's, development. -- Ben Ehrenreich LA Weekly In this fine history of the creek, which travels from the San Fernando Valley to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean off Long Beach, Gumprecht strews river anecdotes around the politics and controversies surrounding the river. It's a must-own for anyone who cares about the development of Southern California or the geography of this part of the state. -- Tim Grobaty Long Beach Press-Telegram Gumprecht describes the crucial role that the river played in the settlement and growth of L.A. both as a water source and as a symbol of the region's Arcadian promise-and, conversely, how the river was remade in the image of the metropolis itself, becoming depleted and degraded by the very development it made possible. Like fellow L.A. historian Mike Davis, Gumprecht scatters an archive of startling photos throughout the book, from a man holding a 25-pound trout caught in the river in 1940 to the scene of a riverbed drag race broken up by police in 1950. Conjuring images of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Gumprecht's river 'biography' breathes vitality into a subject that in the hands of a less enthusiastic author might be drier than the industrial wasteland that he describes.Publishers Weekly In this well-written and beautifully crafted study, Blake Gumprecht provides a close look at the evolution of one of America's most urban rivers, focusing on the impact the river has had on human activities and how, in turn, those activities have altered the stream... This is an important book. Thoroughly researched and balanced in its findings, it is illustrated by well-chosen maps, diagrams, drawings, and photographs. Environmental, urban, and economic historians will find much to ponder in this study, which cuts across academic boundaries. Policy makers will also find it refreshing; interpretative without being overly judgmental, the book poses valuable questions to anyone trying to plan future urban developments. -- Mansel G. Blackford American Historical Review The Los Angeles River seems an unlikely subject for a book. The unsightly paved passageway that runs through the modern city resembles little more than a glorified drainage ditch... Yet, the river's concrete facade obscures a fascinating history, one expertly revealed by Blake Gumprecht in this exceptional book... Not the least of the virtues of The Los Angeles River is its graceful writing. From the opening paragraphs, the reader experiences the joys of a journey conducted by an entertaining and reliable guide. Gumprecht, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is equipped with a vivid sense of language and strong narrative skills, allowing him to navigate a complex and often confusing tale and to make it readily accessible to the reader. Excellent maps and photos enhance the voyage. -- Jules Tygiel Business History Review A well-written and solidly researched book on a topic about which little is known... In the past decade, Los Angeles has become a laboratory for theoretical and occasionally polemical scholarship on urban geography. Straightforward, temperate, and chronologically narrated, Gumprecht's work in many ways poses a refreshing counterbalance to that genre. -- Jared Orsi Environmental History A masterpiece of classical geographical synthesis. [Gumprecht] has woven a compelling depiction of the physical geography of the Los Angeles Basin and its settlement history; and he has extended the tapestry to include the battles over water, the engineering of the channel for flood control, and the dreamy attempts to restore some semblance of nature to the river. The narrative is an absorbing account of how the modest river provided the leverage to spur a development explosion... The Los Angeles River is the kind of book we should all read, and encourage our students to read, because it is one reminder of what good geography is all about. I wish I could write like that! -- Douglas J. Sherman Geographical Review The well written prose on an interesting topic makes this a worthwhile read. -- Erik Prout Historical Geography I welcome books like this, that merge history, geography and public policy into a cogent, readable, and remarkably objective work. -- Bob Pavlik California History Action