There once was a mestiza who was treated cruelly by her fair-skinned husband. He abandoned her and his two children for another woman who was not so dark. Mad with grief, she drowned her children in a flooded arroyo and then herself. She became a ghost. Now she haunts dry creek beds and open ditches.
The ghost of the woman lures careless children who are playing there in the rain, and she drowns them in the suddenly rising water. You'll see her in the muddy wave rushing at you, her white rebozo flung over the weeping sockets in her calavera face.
This is one version of the story of La Llorona, the Crying Woman of Southwestern folklore. There are others. This version was told to me as a warning. In my childhood in a suburb on the southeast edge of Los Angeles County, packs of boys played in flood control channels, caught frogs and dragonflies in the reeds, built forts and sometimes died when the open channels filled with rain faster than a boy can run.
Frightened parents demanded that the county Flood Control District clear the channels and fence them. Now, they are concrete gullies that fill almost full in every heavy rain. The boys, frogs, dragonflies and bulrushes are gone.
A river once ran through Los Angeles County. It was called the Rio de Porciuncula. Fray Juan Crespi, who was the diarist of the Spanish expedition that first crossed Southern California, named it on Aug. 2, 1769--a holy day in the calendar of his Franciscan order, a day when all the punishments for a man's sins might be remitted. It was, Crespi said, "a good-sized, full-flowing river." It watered "a most beautiful garden" that was "a very lush and pleasing spot in every respect." Crespi was looking southwest from the mouth of the Arroyo Seco, about where the Pasadena Freeway and Interstate 5 meet, toward the present location of City Hall. "This spot," he reported to the viceroy in Mexico City, "can be given preference in everything, in soil, water and trees, for the purpose of becoming, in time, a very large plenteous mission."
In a single line, an already mythic Eden was measured for its fitness to be consumed.
In August 1999, a straight line of metal-blue water runs in the 28-foot-wide "low-flow channel" in the exact center of the white glare of the flat, concrete bed of the Los Angeles River. The water, about 90 million gallons a day of it, comes from two waste water reclamation plants upstream. The ribbon of water is barely noticeable where the river widens just below downtown to more than the width of a football field. On a few days of heavy rain each year, the flood-control channel carries almost 100,000 times its summertime flow from the watershed of the San Fernando Valley through working-class neighborhoods like mine.
Commuters follow the river's 51-mile course along the Ventura Freeway in the San Fernando Valley to I-5 as it passes downtown until disappearing in the industrial wastes of Vernon and again along the 710 as the freeway and the river descend together to Long Beach. Perhaps, when the traffic crawls, drivers wonder if something which looks so much like a freeway might not actually become one.
Crespi's lyrical description of the Rio de Porciuncula and the thoughts of frustrated drivers are separated by 230 years of serial flooding and a history of greed, fear and hope that is L.A.'s own story. The many transformations of the river are Blake Gumprecht's extended metaphor for what we've made of this place and a reminder of the reckoning it asks of us.
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.
In Gumprecht's history, the flood control system we have in place of a river, so often ridiculed by those who do not know Los Angeles, is an extreme case of a socially constructed landscape. So is Central Park in New York. The difference is that the park's builders privileged public places over private ones. They domesticated nature for public use. The engineers of 20th century Los Angeles could not do the same, given the contingencies of our topography and climate. They erased a nature they did not understand to make one of the most private of American big cities. The fenced, trespass-forbidden blankness of the flood control system is L.A.'s monument to the cost of privileging private space over public.