The Los Angeles River is Your Brain

The Los Angeles River is my brain. Maybe it’s your brain too. Maybe it’s the whole damn modern Western world and every brain in it.

This is the story of the deadly taming of a river, the deadly taming of the human imagination, and what can be done about it.

***

Today, many residents of Los Angeles believe that they live in a desert.

It’s an easy enough mistake to make, what with the vegetation parched and brown and ready to combust ten months of the year. What with the water-conservation measures and Chinatown and the long years without rain.

But it wasn’t always this way. The imagined desertification of Los Angeles is a tragic case of shifting baseline syndrome: the process by which, over time, the truth of a place, an ecosystem, is forgotten, each generation accepting the impoverished version it inherits while all that came before disappears from the collective memory. Until someday, you end up with a city full of freeways and concrete and imported palm trees, endless dreaming and scheming, endless struggling to survive, and no sense, anymore, of what wants to burst out beneath all those feet and wheels.

The Los Angeles Basin wants to live. These 4,000 square miles were once one of the most biologically rich regions in all of California, home to California Condor, willows, native grapes. Prickly pear. Bears and antelope. Gray foxes. Salmon and steelhead trout. Blackberries, oaks, milkweed. And on, and on.

This party of flora and fauna was supported by mineral-rich soil washed down from the Santa Monica, Santa Susana, and San Gabriel Mountains by the LA River. The river, in turn, kept the whole basin lush and green by flooding regularly and even, periodically, changing course, quenching a region where summer temperatures have always soared.

If a river floods and flips, it’s best not to build your home on its banks. The first humans in the region saw this clearly, and built their homes at a distance. Yaanga, the largest Tongva village in the basin, was built in the forest in what’s now Downtown Los Angeles.

But then: new arrivals, Europeans. Forty-four settlers “founded” the city in 1781. The years that followed were shameful, traumatic years in the history of Los Angeles. Years of forced labor, enslavement, land theft.

Years, too, of forgetting — or rather, stamping out, along with the culture of those who remembered — what the river means, and the way it sustains the region. All the reasons to respect it, give it its space.

***

A full third of the planet’s land stands to become desert. Not “desert” as desert lovers know it: not majestic, teeming sweeps of land, alive with cacti, lizards, bobcats, creosote — hardy and ingenious species evolved to survive in aridity.

No: sudden deserts. Once-fertile land that dries out and dies when its vegetation is lost. Rivers are rerouted to make way for human habitat; land is razed or overgrazed to support one lucrative species over all others; business and industry breed drought and send global temperatures soaring above plant life’s livable limits.

In every case, there’s a common cause: the creation of a monoculture, a system that ultimately privileges the wellbeing of one species alone — the human.

This process is playing out right now in more than 100 countries around the world.

Los Angeles isn’t a desert — not technically, not yet. And yet many of its residents have believed it into one. The baseline has shifted; the region’s lush history is lost. Angelenos have desertified the city in their minds.

Does all desertification begin in the mind? In minds that have become monocultures, that have arranged themselves around the wellbeing of the human alone?

If so, the desertification of Los Angeles began centuries ago, with the arrival of the first European minds. Minds made hostile through centuries of bloody invasions, inquest, witch burnings, and torture on their own continent. Minds trained around a male god, a human god, who had created all the Earth for them and made them in his image, preeminent among creatures.

To the Tongva they encountered, there was no such hierarchy of worthiness, no such hostility. The river itself was alive. It’s “a living entity,” said Tongva spokesperson Jessa Calderon during a recent river training. “It’s our relative. The water has a spirit.”

***

After settlers stole Los Angeles from the Tongva, the city swelled. And why wouldn’t it, with so much natural abundance there for the taking, and with societies increasingly built on just such taking.

The prime land of Yaanga was taken, its residents forcibly relocated to a series of flood-prone sites closer to the river’s banks. Next there was the taking of California itself, from Mexico, by the United States. Soon, LA’s growth was helped along by that prodigious season of taking, the gold rush. Though the city itself had little gold, the new bellies to feed in the golden state soon translated to gold for the ranchers and farmers of Los Angeles.

Then came railroads, oil fields, and property developers — developers who sold land on the riverbanks to newcomers who didn’t know better, and certainly didn’t know about the flood risk.

Meanwhile, more developers were hard at work in the sleepy farm neighborhood of Cahuenga Valley, building street cars, hotels, banks, and, soon, movie studios. The valley was renamed; Hollywood was born. And with it, an engine that would send the monomyth of human glory and exceptionalism around the country and the world…

… even as Los Angeles itself began to suffer from its belief in human supremacy — from the desertification of its collective imagination.

The city was now so large — and so filled with thirsty, imported plants and lawns — that the river couldn’t supply enough water. The rest is history: through a series of shady dealings, the city famously appropriated the water of the Owens River, drying out another region to stave off its own desertification. To keep the story of human supremacy flourishing a while longer.

***

The problem with the story of human supremacy is that it will always, ultimately, be proven wrong. Sometimes spectacularly so.

In spring 1938, the worst in a series of floods hit the city. For five days, the rain pounded down. The river roared and burst its banks; 144 people died. Roads, railways, and thousands of homes were destroyed, some buried in up to six feet of mud. In today’s dollars, the toll of the damage would have been around $1.3 billion.

1938 flood

And who was there to remember, now, that the river’s periodic flooding was natural — was the very thing that made the region so appealing in the first place? That the city was founded thanks to the river’s bounty.

This was a human city now, and the river had to be made to comply. The city accepted a bid from the Army Corps of Engineers to encase the river in concrete, reducing it to a rain gully that would transport water to the ocean as quickly as possible during storms. The living waterway that had once sustained a lush, thriving region had been tamed by concrete and by human minds convinced of human supremacy.

Or had it?

***

In order to pin a river in place, you have to hold certain beliefs. Beliefs like: I am smarter and more powerful than this river. Like: an uncontrolled landscape is a dangerous thing. Like: there is something more important than this river and the web of life it supports, and that thing is human prosperity.

Or rather: the prosperity of certain humans.

After it was encased in concrete, the river became a local eyesore and dumping ground. Working-class communities of colour set up home in the neighborhoods that border its banks. River-adjacent communities were redlined and filled with heavily polluting industries.

But encasing the river in concrete never really worked. The Army Corps solution was never designed to hold the worst of the floods this city can suffer. The 1938 flood was what’s sometimes called a 50-year flood: a flood with a 2 percent likelihood of happening in any given year.

The LA River during heavy rain

Today, centuries lived under the monoculture of human supremacy have delivered another environmental disaster: climate emergency, and with it, drastically increased flood risk. Geoscientists estimate that, thanks to climate disruption, what would once have been known as a “hundred-year flood” — a flood so bad there’s a 1 percent chance of it happening in a given year — could soon become a frequent, perhaps even annual event. If a flood like that hit today, the Army Corps projects that it could inundate more than a thousand acres in the most heavily populated stretches along the river. In some areas, the flooding could reach 18 feet deep.

This kind of information can be hard to absorb. For minds desertified by the core cultural belief in human supremacy over the living world, it sits on the brain like heavy rain on parched ground.

Worse, minds raised on a culture of white supremacy might actively resist or reject the information, since the lives and homes in danger are overwhelmingly those of working-class communities of colour.

Sadly, failing to absorb the risk doesn’t make it less true.

***

Which delivers us to today. A crossroads. A moment of potential paradigm shift, if we’re able to grasp it.

Paradigms shift when old ideas play out and die, creating transitional eras of chaos and confusion.

In January 2021, white supremacists stormed the US Capitol, almost a hundred thousand Americans died of Covid-19, and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study revealed that 2020 saw 22 separate billion-dollar climate-disaster events in the US, shattering the previous record of 16.

Also in January 2021, Los Angeles County published its LA River Master Plan Update, a 494-page document, five years in the making, which lays out the proposed way forward for the waterway.

The future of the river is the future of the city is the future of life in an era of climate instability.

So what does LA County propose?

To raise the channel walls and levees, incurring an eye-watering carbon footprint — thus exacerbating climate disruption and the likelihood of extreme flood events.

To add even more concrete, in the form of platforms across the river holding parks full of engineered landscaping.

In short, to double down on the single-purpose concrete infrastructure introduced almost 100 years ago, which was inadequate even then.

To build a nine-mile, 40-foot wide overflow tunnel beneath the city, shifting flood risk from downtown to downstream.

To introduce more development projects in the already at-risk floodplains, with no binding anti-displacement measures to ensure protection for the already rent-burdened communities currently living there.

And because the measures they suggest still won’t fully protect the lives or property of the people who live along the river (not to mention thousands of critical facilities, including medical centers, schools, and emergency services), they propose to simply make communities more resilient and put emergency plans in place for when the worst happens.

In other words: tough luck. In other words: there’s no space here to dream of a different way. In other words: we, the county, are prepared to quietly sacrifice poor and working-class communities of color to defend the legacy of our inadequate and unjust planning.

The plan opens with a series of curt dismissals, of questions such as “can we remove the concrete” and “can we remove the concrete if we collect more water upstream?”. No, no, says the county, before building its case on highly selective data, failing to factor in many of the lowest-impact and most effective ways to mitigate the flood risk.

And so it is that in a moment of dire overlapping crises, the county proposes to march into the future armed with not just yesterday’s data but with yesterday’s ideas, too.

What if, after all these years of deadened imagination, all these years of the desertifying monomyth of human supremacy, we did dream of a different way? There are so many better stories to tell, better futures to live into.

Here’s one:

Here’s another:

And another still:

***

Almost a century ago, the Los Angeles River was encased in concrete.

Almost a century ago, the nation remained thoroughly encased in the life-denying ideologies of human supremacy and white supremacy.

But there were always some cracks in the river’s concrete.

Where the river washes through northeast LA, from the top of Griffith Park to Downtown Los Angeles, the concrete rain gully becomes a thriving habitat for egrets and great blue herons, willows and California fan palms; phoebes, sandpipers, and introduced species like catfish and carp. In this 11-mile stretch, where the water table was too high for the Army Corps to pave the river’s bottom, there’s a hint of the riparian lushness that would once have stretched through the whole LA Basin.

The Glendale Narrows

As the known world crumbles, the cracks are appearing in our life-denying ideologies, too. The human imagination can never be fully paved. A new, old way is waiting to break through.

***

The LA River Master Plan is open for comment until May 13.

Writer at the Guardian, Washington Post, LA Times, etc. A wanderer learning to live in place. Web: ellierobins.com. Newsletter: tinyletter.com/here.