The Los Angeles River proper is fifty-one miles long. Twenty-seven bridges connect its banks from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. Its height from highest elevation to outpouring into the Pacific Ocean is 795 feet. The river is part of a watershed that covers 834 square miles, extending from Santa Clarita in the north to Long Beach and Seal Beach in the south, from Camarillo in the west to Claremont in the east. The watershed is as vast as the average Angeleno’s concept of the city, as far-reaching as the major metropolitan area freeways. There are twenty-two lakes within its bailiwick.[i]
When I moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t even know the river existed.
The river and I both lived in the city, traversed it, dug into it. We both spent years of our lives trammelled by Los Angeles power brokers. We both emerged bearing scars from the journey. This is our story.
To Live & Die in L.A.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, I went to stay with someone with whom I had taken one class in college. We had never even spoken face to face. My new and only friend in the city took me on a tour of what he considered important: the view of the brown cloud of smog visible from Griffith Observatory, the Hustler-store/smoothie-shop on Sunset Boulevard, Frank Gehry’s house in Santa Monica, the canals and boardwalk in Venice. My guide never told me there was a river. I don’t think he knew. We had both seen Chinatown (in which the Los Angeles River plays a vital part, leading private investigator Jake Gittes to uncover a scheme to steal water from the Owens Valley in order to feed Los Angeles’s huge thirst), but it somehow never occurred to us that the river in the film was only a short distance away in real life.
The river appears not only in Chinatown but in Transformers, Terminator 2, and Grease. The wealthy, popular West Side — the Los Angeles portrayed in Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, and other television shows — is completely cut off from it. The river is instead the territory of Starsky & Hutch, Life, and other gritty police dramas. In my favorite example, from the Season One finale of Southland, a crazy, alcoholic cop takes his partner on a deathride down the channel. It is a river of concrete and blood, the site of homeless encampments, drug deals, and a quintuple murder. The river is a character whose traits are as varied as the city itself.
The American Heritage Dictionary informs us that a river is “a natural stream of water of fairly large size flowing in a definite course or channel or series of diverging and converging channels.” There is almost nothing natural about the L.A. River. Its flow — in most places, at most times — can be leapt across, even by a small person such as myself. The concrete channel is smooth, even, empty, and usually dry, a better location for drag races than for boating. Even before it was subdued by the Army Corps of Engineers, the river was the Rodney Dangerfield of rivers. It flowed so low that no one respected its potentially awesome power and capacity. The river rarely raged. People forgot that when it did, it decimated houses, farms, and roads. In the 100 years after the pueblo of Los Angeles was founded, the water leapt over the banks at least ten times, dynamic and unstoppable.[ii]
Before I’d ever set foot in the city, before the river and I had met, I was already writing about it. In the months before I moved to Los Angeles, I had begun a script about a California border town with a river running through it, a river filled with chemicals, a river that caught fire like Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, a river whose waters had once nourished the town’s pecan trees, a river that caused visions in the Mexican-Japanese-American teen heroine with a little sister who barely talked. That script was like a checklist of things you should not write about if you ever want to get paid, a checklist that came to mind repeatedly during my many attempts to sell my work.
INT. MANAGER’S OFFICE – DAY
An overweight, graying man, the MANAGER, leans back in his chair, balancing it precariously on the two rear legs. He talks on the phone while stuffing his face with bruschetta.
I liked your spec script. I think I could do something for you.
INT. JADE’S APARTMENT – SAME
JADE, an Asian twenty-something, sits on her couch also talking on the phone.
That’s great! Thanks.
Are you pretty?
Jade takes a moment to respond.
I guess that’s a matter of opinion.
The Manager brings the front legs of his chair back down to the floor with a CLUNK.
How much do you weigh?
Believe it or not, I didn’t hang up. I scheduled a meeting with this guy. On my way up the front walk of the office in Beverly Hills, I recalled that I had actually met with the same manager two years previously while trying to find an internship. During the interview, he implied that I had slept with the person who recommended me for the internship. Our second meeting was not much better.
INT. MANAGER’S OFFICE – DAY
The Manager sits in an armchair. Jade sits kitty-corner from him on a couch.
How old are you?
You look younger. We’ll say you’re twenty-two. I’m going to pitch you as a family drama writer. You got any favorite writers? Who do you like?
Kaufman? What the hell does that guy know? He’s full of shit.
(Kaufman’s shitty resume includes Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich.)
I had a growing feeling that maybe my sensibility was not going to be a good match with Hollywood, even though most of the living writers I admired worked in film or television. Whenever I sat down to write, I felt like a refrigerator was hanging by a thread above my head, ready to fall on me if I failed.
The Kid Stays in the Picture
A couple of weeks after arriving in the city, I found a job working as a production assistant on an independent film. As I went in search of the Glendale office on my first day, I worried that the “low-budget film” would turn out to be a porn flick. The nearby San Fernando Valley was, after all, the capital of such films. The office building didn’t look like Universal Studios. Nothing was labelled. Random people wandered in and out with cop costumes. It was a relief to discover that they were all clothed — and remained so.
Life as a production assistant is thankless. I worked all-night shoots. I woke for day shoots at 3:30 a.m. I worked fifteen-hour days, and drove 200 miles during the course of some of them, all on my own dollar. I dealt with the fallout when the other production assistant went joyriding in the picture vehicle (a police car). Some parts of the job were more fun. When one scene needed reshoots, I was dispatched to find a dildo to match the one that had been in the original scene. It was a very large, peach-colored thing a character had used to bash her boyfriend over the head. Someone had likely taken it home after the shoot.
My first stop was the Hustler store on Sunset. I stood for several minutes, surveying all of the dildos, unable to find what I wanted. I considered asking for help, picturing salespeople streaming out of a back room, offering dildos for my inspection, but I was embarrassed. Finally, determined to do my job, I approached one of the salesgirls.
“Hi, could you help me?” I asked. “I’m looking for something like this, but bigger.” I held up a smaller model of the dildo we’d used in the film.
“Oh,” the girl said. “We have this one.” She pointed to a larger dildo.
“It has to be this color,” I emphasized.
She shook her head. “We don’t have anything like that, but I bet you could find it at the Silver Unicorn.”
The Silver Unicorn was a smaller shop with a male clerk at the counter. I bypassed him and went to the dildo wall.
And there it was!
“You had exactly what I needed!” I exclaimed to the guy when I reached the register.
“Great,” he said, without blinking an eye, as if small Asians bought 12-inch, flesh-colored, John Holmes replica dildos every day of his life.
While working at various jobs in the industry, I was also pitching scripts. Pitching involves sitting down with an executive, who has probably never written anything in his or her life, and trying to tell them about your story so that they want to buy it. I was a complete failure at this undertaking. Before each meeting, I memorized everything I had to say, then took a bunch of valium so I wouldn’t throw up and so my hands wouldn’t shake. The meetings went down like this:
INT. PITCHFEST – DAY
Jade sits across from a frumpy, older, male AGENT at a chintzy folding table, whose true nature is hidden by a white tablecloth.
The table is in a large room filled with tables at which the same scene plays out between other writers and agents. The place is loud and bustling.
It’s about this cop investigating a serial murder. All the victims are trans. During the course of the investigation, the cop falls for one of the witnesses.
Have you thought about modelling?
I don’t want to model. I’m a writer.
I bet I can get you some commercials. How old are you?
It’s hard to tell with you Asians.
The Asian thing came up a lot. There are almost no Asians in the entertainment industry, except in animation. This is changing, but my race came up on many occasions.
EXT. SANDWICH SHOP – DAY
Jade sits at a small table with a young, male KOREAN EXECUTIVE. They eat steamed vegetables and sandwiches.
I liked your script, but you have to change this character
to another race. Asians don’t sell.
She’s not even the main character.
It doesn’t matter.
But the story takes place in L.A., and there are a lot of Asians here.
It doesn’t matter. Change it.
Jade pushes her steamed vegetables around with her fork.
To compensate for the lack of diversity in the industry, one had only to go to the river, which was as heterogeneous as the city. At its mouth in Long Beach, the river is almost what one imagines as a river, full and flowing, with a sandy bottom, opening out expansively to the ocean. Downtown, shallow water and algae sit stagnant on the concrete, and graffiti mars the supports of the historic Olympic Boulevard Bridge, a 1,422-foot T-Beam/Arch built in 1925.[iii] The Hansen Dam is magnificently industrial, a monument to the power of humans to manipulate and control their environment. The stretch of Tujunga Wash in Studio City is tranquil. Its vertical concrete walls are home to a half-mile mural depicting the city’s history. The mural begins at Burbank Boulevard and Coldwater Canyon with mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, and ends at Oxnard Boulevard with the 1984 Olympics. Along most of the river, the sloped concrete banks are rife with graffiti and tagging. One drainage tunnel in Boyle Heights forms the “o” in the word phoom, and two plastic lawn chairs sit within the shade of the tunnel, as if it is someone’s home.
Over ninety percent of the river is lined in concrete. The few miles of unpaved river occur in three sections: the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area, the Glendale Narrows, and the mouth of the river in Long Beach. Even these “wild” stretches have concrete banks, but they are pockets of nature in a city whose parkland is primarily in the mountain ranges, inaccessible to many residents. My second apartment in Los Angeles was not far from the Glendale Narrows, where an Asian cane species called arundo gave the place a tropical feel, and the water flowed year-round. Because groundwater came up through the river bottom, the Army Corps of Engineers could only pave the banks. Slabs of cracked and broken concrete — bits of failed channel uplifted by the river — protruded from the water. A graffiti artist had spray-painted several of the slabs with the words: trying to break free.
Who could blame the river for its small rebellions? For years, it was subject to the whims of men. In the early days of settlement, the land along the river was filled with orchards and irrigation ditches. As demand for water increased, the river’s supply dried up. Railroads replaced farms, and the river became a dumping ground for sewage, tar, dead animals, and garbage. People mined the bed of the river for sand and gravel.[iv] The river was the reason for the city’s existence, but it was buried, disguised, forgotten, and used for whatever it could provide until it was unrecognizable as the waterway that had wended its way toward the sea in the 1700s.
I arrived in L.A. an optimist. I imagined myself running my own television show, pounding away at the keyboard. I spent all of my free time writing at coffee shops, trying not to think about agents, managers, and execs, but the industry made its way into my life even when I didn’t want it to.
EXT. STARBUCKS – DAY
Jade sits writing. Her pug, JIGSAW, lies at her feet. An older man, UNCREDITED WEST WING CAST MEMBER, 55, pulls up a chair and sits at her table. Other PATRONS sit nearby smoking.
(lighting a cigarette)
I’m allergic to cigarettes, but I can’t stop smoking them.
Jade glances up for a moment, then returns to her work.
I have one of our scripts in the car. You want it? You could write a spec.
UWWCM gets up to retrieve the script. Jade keeps writing. UWWCM returns. Hands Jade the script.
That’s my car over there. The BMW. You know the tires cost $200 apiece?
I’m going to Mexico this weekend. Want to come to Mexico and have lobster?
I’m a vegetarian.
We don’t have to eat lobster.
Leave her alone.
They pay me a lot to be on the show.
Jade shuts her notebook and unloops her dog’s leash from the table. UWWCM bends to pet the dog.
Jigsaw! You love me, Jigsaw!
The dog veers away, taking the rolled up script and carrying it in his mouth as he and Jade depart the coffee shop without a backward glance.
(A quick check at imdb.com reveals that this guy grossly overstated his role on West Wing, a fact that surprises me not at all.)
My dating life was about as successful as my professional life. Because I was part of the industry, the people I met worked fifteen-hour days or made a living ordering everyone around. They were used to women who would do anything to get ahead.
INT. RESTAURANT – EVENING
A somewhat nice, but not fancy, Italian restaurant. Jade sits at a booth across from PRINCE CHARMING, 45, nerdily handsome.
Now, put your fork down and say, “This is the nicest date I’ve ever been on.”
This is the nicest date I’ve ever been on.
You know, you’re the oldest woman I’ve ever dated.
It’s not some kind of predilection. It’s just who I meet.
You don’t meet anyone over twenty-nine?
Prince Charming shrugs.
Prince Charming (a producer) was full of memorable one-liners, such as the time he was driving me to a restaurant, and he turned to me and said, “What would happen if I shoved you out of the car right now, and left you here?” Or the time he asked what would happen if he broke my arm. Perhaps he needed more “story” to make life exciting. Like in his head he was thinking,
EXT. MULHOLLAND DRIVE – NIGHT
Prince Charming shoves Jade out of the car, stuffs a rag in her mouth, and ties her up with ropes he has stored in the trunk of the Lexus. As she struggles, we
EXT. MOUNTAINSIDE – DAY
A world-weary DETECTIVE in a wrinkled shirt crouches near Jade’s dead and beaten body, the morning sun shining down on both of them. The detective snaps on his latex gloves as we
Sunset Boulevard at night. In a writing class, I met a stripper whose dream was to write Charlie’s Angels III. I drove her home one night, and we got stuck in a late traffic jam caused by all the clubbers leaning out of their car windows to exchange phone numbers or to make last-minute plans. As we finally reached her house in the hills, she turned to me and said, “You want to come in? There’s a hot tub, and we could smoke some weed. It’s good for cramps.”
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’d better get home.”
“Okay,” she said, getting out of the car and waving to me.
I never saw her again.
L.A. is so storied that even people who’ve never been there know a lot about it. Long before I moved to the city, I knew street names, building names, and neighborhoods. They were in books by Robert Crais and Michael Connelly, people who had built the city without ever picking up a hammer. But, like me, the city had two lives. The life that most people think of — the movie biz, clogged freeways, crime, pollution, racism, and Beverly Hills — and the possible life that Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. envisioned when he made a master plan for the city — a plan for a network of neighborhoods connected by parks, a livable city with sensible infrastructure and water management, a city built on nature and interconnected lives.
Back in the days of the orange groves, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. had a vision of the city’s future. Olmsted (the son of the famous landscape planner) was known for designing parts of Acadia National Park, Yosemite, and the Everglades.[v] It is fitting that, in 1930, his company submitted a plan for a Los Angeles park system.[vi] Even then, the city covered a large area, though it was nothing like the behemoth Sprawl King that now blankets Southern California.
A 1920s building boom had neglected to include any significant park acreage due to the greed of developers and the unwillingness of homeowners to pay taxes for such a thing. Back then, Los Angeles was only 0.6% parkland.[vii] The Trust for Public Land says that, as of 2010, Los Angeles was 7.9% parkland; New York was 19.6% parkland (highest in the nation); and Boston was 16.3%. Instead of setting the steep canyon and foothill land aside for preservation, the City of Los Angeles provided infrastructure so houses could be built in those areas, which is why George Harrison was able to construct a mansion that later collapsed into Stone Canyon Reservoir, and why my first street had a 45-degree incline that intimidated all visitors and taught me suave moves with my emergency brake and my clutch.
Olmsted was not the first to recommend using the natural river system to create parkland, and he would not be the last, but the city ignored his recommendations. The Olmsted plan called for greater public ownership of beaches so that mountains and ocean would belong to the people, along with that life-giving vein, the L.A. River. The plan provided flood protection (by limiting development in the floodplain and preserving the natural river channel) and recreation for people who lived in the inner city. The 440-mile greenbelt would have made Boston’s emerald necklace look puny in comparison.[viii] But everything out west is bigger, including the mistakes.
The Olmsted plan faced trenchant opposition from the Los Angeles Times, and died in the water. When FDR sent WPA money Los Angeles’s way, the city paved the river. While cities like San Antonio used their WPA money to build the River Walk, which is still a tourist destination, Los Angeles made a pariah out of its river. River channel modification had been occurring on a small scale since the late 1930s, but the Flood Control Act of 1941 was the nail in the river’s coffin.[ix] The Army Corps of Engineers stormed into Los Angeles and proceeded to mire the city in a war that would last for the next seventy years.[x]
While all of this was going on, one man saw the river’s beauty and its potential. Between 1923 and 1933, Merrill Butler, an engineer for the city, supervised the construction of nine bridges that today are historical landmarks in Neoclassical, Spanish Colonial, Streamline Moderne, and Gothic Revival styles.[xi] The bridges span the river with decorum and flair, but since most people drive on top of the bridges instead of passing beneath them, they don’t see the bridges as they were meant to be seen — from below.
In Los Angeles, the land along the river is not an obvious asset as it is in other cities. The only spectators to the river’s cycles are railroad yards, warehouses, and people who can’t afford to live elsewhere. But in a supreme instance of irony, the river is the only place left in the city to develop parks. Among the miles and miles of concrete and freeways and boulevards, there is almost no open land. The river, once dumped upon, is on its way to becoming part of an Olmstedian plan to green the city.
The plan began incrementally. When I lived in the city, the parks along the river were nothing more than an artistic bench or a gateway of decorative wrought iron. At the time, environmental advocates were fighting to acquire Taylor Yard, a 247-acre railyard near the Glendale Narrows, to convert it to a park. On April 21, 2007, fifty-seven acres of the parcel, with restored wetlands, opened as Rio de Los Angeles Park.[xii] Today, stretches of the river are seasonally open for recreational use, and a plethora of river organizations collaborate on actualizing a 51-mile system of trails and parks unified by the river.
The history of Los Angeles is the history of people trying to make beauty out of ugliness. The two Davids, Hockney and Lynch, dragging the city from grime to exultant light and image; Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, constructing the Watts Towers in what is known as one of the most dangerous areas of Los Angeles. Rodia worked at a tilery, where he assiduously collected bits of tile and other garbage. The railroad tracks a block away were a happy hunting ground full of broken glass. It took Rodia thirty-three years to build the metal spires, which he covered in cement impressed with bits of glass and ceramic collected piecemeal over the years.[xiii] At the towers, soda bottle history blend seamlessly with shells from creatures whose DNA existed long before humans did.
In order to survive in the city, I had to create a map of these beautiful things: at its eastern edge, in Sierra Madre, lay a two-acre wisteria plant. The map included the spot in Beverly Glen where the deciduous magnolias bloomed in February, a house whose grove of gingko trees littered the green lawn with golden leaves in October, the coyotes who paced in the grasses near Bolsa Chica, bobbing in time with the oil derricks. It encompassed the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley. I marked down the San Fernando Mission, which I discovered one day when I needed to see something old. I bought a book of Los Angeles architecture, which led me to Rudolph Schindler’s house, the Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. house with its Mayan-influenced concrete panel walls, the circular Chemosphere house (immortalized forever by a nearly identical set in Charlie’s Angels), the sweeping curves of the roof of the Beverly Hills 76 gas station. Many of the buildings, such as John Lautner’s Sheets apartments near UCLA, were in a sad state of repair, neglected and unappreciated.
Many of my haunts were east of what people identify as Los Angeles. One of the most beautiful sights in the entire metropolitan area is the view from beneath the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena. It arches over the Arroyo Seco like a cathedral. There, you will also find remnants of the Scofield Dam, built for the irrigation of orange groves in the late 1800s.[xiv] Today, the only trace of the once extensive agriculture in the area is the name of one of the thoroughfares: Orange Grove Boulevard. You can get a feel for what Los Angeles and Pasadena may have been like if you drive farther east to Yucaipa and walk through one of the apple orchards, rustling through dry grasses and looking out on the foothills covered in oaks and scrub.
And then there is the river, which is neither scenic nor glorious. You could say it isn’t even utilitarian. But it travels the city unassumingly, prone to bouts of raging creativity. It is maligned, mistreated, cluttered with waste and debris. Men have tried to control it, to change it, to kill it, and to bury it. Yet it keeps on flowing.
You can tell me that the water in the river is primarily treated sewage. You can tell me that I will contract a staph infection if I fall in. You can tell me the water is full of hydrocarbons and heavy metals from the Rocketdyne plant in Canoga Park. You can tell me the main wildlife on the river is rats. But the truth is that I’ve seen the river rise after rain. And the river is the way I came to know the city, its successes and its failures, its architecture and its art, its history and its politics. More than anything, it’s a river of possibility.
It is a river that fired up one of the greatest planning minds of the 20th century. A river largely ignored, though it runs like an artery through one of the largest cities in America. A river equally at home in the mountains or in the suburbs, in the dense heart of downtown, or the sweet release of Long Beach. An egalitarian river. An optimistic one.
A River Runs Through It
EXT. LOS ANGELES RIVER – NIGHT
Faint music, barely-there piccolo. The night sky paled with smog. Jade approaches the river, which is rife with shopping carts and garbage. She raises her arms like a conductor.
The sky clears, the stars becoming bright pinpricks of light against blackness. The music builds slowly as other instruments join in.
Down in the concrete channel, a thin trickle of water flows. Before our eyes, it begins to bubble and pick up speed. More water comes down the channel.
Jade moves her arms with delicate, purposeful gestures. Water explodes from one of the storm drain tunnels, and rushes into the river. In time with the music, tunnel after tunnel bursts forth.
EXT. MOUNTAINS – NIGHT
A pack of snow comes alive, leaping into the air, taking the form of a white wave, tendrils arcing toward the sky. The snow dives into the small runnels leading toward the arroyo.
EXT. ROCKETDYNE PLANT – NIGHT
The Rocketdyne plant explodes, its concrete walls collapsing to the ground. The walls of a huge treatment tank crumble, and water races into the creek.
EXT. LONG BEACH HARBOR – NIGHT
The OCEAN swirls and builds into waves. The waves leap up and head toward shore. They crash into the mass of water gushing from the last concrete stretch of the river, meeting in a glorious tangle of water of all colors. Beads of water scatter into the night sky like fireworks.
EXT. LOS ANGELES RIVER – NIGHT
Jade looks out on the water, unafraid even as it moves above her waist. She gestures with one arm, and a school of fish turns into a living wave, churning and flying with joy. The fish work their way upriver like salmon returning to spawn.
The river and I, we lived lives of myth. I drove like a stunt driver, had sex in Bel Air mansion hot tubs, dated a drug addict, worked in the industry, went to yoga, shopped at Whole Foods, and underwent acupuncture. I saw a doctor who put vials of food in my hands and muscle-tested me for allergies, which became increasingly severe the longer I lived in the city. I tried homeopathy, craniosacral therapy, filtered water, diets where I ate nothing but fresh vegetables and whole grains. One doctor told me I needed psychotherapy three times a week. Another told me I needed to live somewhere else.
After seven years, I decided to leave the city.
For a year after leaving Los Angeles, I did not write at all. It was the longest dry spell since I had first begun writing at age twelve.
In Chinese, my last name means “river.” It calls forth my ancestors. The forbears of the L.A. River are the Lethe and the Styx, which mean, respectively, oblivion and hateful. Souls about to be reborn drank from the Lethe to forget their former lives. The Styx was so toxic that if any of the gods failed to keep their word, Zeus forced them to drink its waters in order to render them mute for nine years. But in another myth, Thetis held her son Achilles by his heel and submerged him in the current of the Styx. The water filled every space in his body, coursing through his veins with its silence and its memories. He carried it into battle where it protected him from harm. The river brought forth endless words from his mouth. Even after his death, his story lived on.
All photographs are by the author.
[i] http://www.laconservancy.org/ and http://www.ladpw.org/wmd/watershed/LA/
[ii] Blake Gumprecht, “Who Killed the Los Angeles River?,” in Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles, edited by William Deverell and Greg Hise, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).
[iv] Gumprecht, pp. 125-126,
[vi] Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 62.
[vii] Davis, p. 65.
[viii] Davis, p. 67.
[ix] Jared Orsi, “Flood Control Engineering in the Urban Ecosystem,” in Land of Sunshine, edited by William Deverell and Greg Hise, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).
[x] Davis, p. 71.
[xi] James Ricci, Los Angeles Times Magazine, October 8, 2000.
[xii] Department of Parks and Recreation, “Rio de Los Angeles Preliminary General Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Report,” 2005.
[xiii] Patricia Zelver, The Wonderful Towers of Watts, illustrated by Frané Lessac, (Honesdale: Boyds Mills Press, 1994).
J.D. Ho received an MFA in Screenwriting from the Michener Center at the University of Texas in Austin, and is currently working with director Soham Mehta on a screenplay with many, many Asian characters.