Believe It or Not, a River Runs Through L.A.

bret-gutierrez
el-vaquero-staff-writer/" class="creditline">BRET GUTIERREZ
El Vaquero Staff Writer

“I thought I was writing a nonfiction book. It turned out I was writing a murder mystery,” joked author and Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison during her lecture at Kreider Hall on Tuesday.

“Without the L.A. River, there would be no Los Angeles, the question is, is it really dead?”

“When I tell people I live east of the river, they say, `What river?’ I wonder how it is that we got rid of something as massive as a river. It took a great act of will to get rid of the river.”

Morrison, 40, a native of Ohio and a graduate of Occidental College, told the audience, “This is a city of magic. If we could make a city in the middle of a desert, then we could get rid of a river.”

The river is 51 miles long and most of it is paved, except for some short sections that are so soaked with water that they cannot be paved over.

Morrison is a five-time Emmy and Golden Mike winner. She is also a commentator for PBS and a National Public Radio contributor.She is a member of two L.A.Times reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of the 1992 L.A.riots and for coverage of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Morrison was at the college to promote her book “Rio L.A.,Tales From the Los Angeles River”

Other cities take pride in their rivers, she said. For example, she said, “There is the Sienne and the Thames, but there is no `Los Angeles.’ She said the reason for this is that all cities have themes but that the theme of Los Angeles is its landscape.

“The landscape is the central theme of Los Angeles,” she said. “The land is everything. We invest our personality in the landscape. We have altered the landscape. People say we have no seasons, but we know we do: They are fires, floods and earthquakes. This is not an hospitable place, yet we have altered the landscape to suit ourselves. The river is an example of that.”

She said the river was once a vital part of the city: It powered the presses of the Los Angeles Times. Until 1913, it was the only source of water in the city. The gravel that turned to sand when it reached Manhattan Beach allowed that city to sell sand to the rest of the world.
California Grizzly bears used to live on the river. In 1769, the Spaniards discovered Echo Park Lake was a natural reservoir created by runoff from the river and for a time wineries were abundant.

Morrison also told stories of ostritch and alligator farms along the L.A. River

But there were also the floods.

“The floods are what shut down the river,” she said. “But before that there was one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century – the Los Angeles Aqueduct. All gravity driven, it was controllable and provided the growing city the water it needed to further expand. The L.A. river became the ex-wife of the aqueduct.”

The river was still not paved until the flood of 1934 sealed its fate. On Dec. 31, 1934, the city of Glendale was devastated by the flood. “Glendale was ground zero,” Morrison said. “There were bodies in the street.”

In 1938, there was one more flood, which postponed “The Oscars” for a week and isolated parts of the city for three days. The federal government, as part of a Depression-era Public Works Project paved the Los Angeles River.

Since then, the river has never been the same. “The river has been killed,” Morrison said. “But this is the 21st century, and nothing is permanent. If nothing else, we can return the river back to something like it once was.”

She said if you want to contribute to the revival of the river you can call Friends of the L.A.River, an organization dedicated to reviving the river.

In a brief interview after her 50-minute lecture, Morrison elaborated on how she thinks the politics of the river have affected such areas as Glendale.

“The politics are tricky because each city through which the river runs has a different stake in it.”

“Some cities want parklands. Some want more than anything else to be protected from floods, and so everyone brings a different agenda to what they need from the river.”

By virtue of the 1934 flood, Glendale knows how devastating floods can be, Morrison said. “Because here we are, up in the hills. So Glendale would certainly welcome parks but not at the expense of houses or, in a worst-case scenario, lives.”

Morrison, who has kept a close eye on L.A. for several years now as a writer, said that Los Angeles is a never-ending well-spring of nonfiction literature.

“I don’t think you can ever write enough about the city of Los Angeles, because Los Angeles is kaleidoscopic,” she said. “There are multiple Californias. People talk about the great American novel, but there is a reason why nobody talks about the great California novel. Because one book won’t do the job.”

Speaking of jobs, Morrison explained why she chose journalism as a career path.

“When I was 8 years old,” she said, “I read the juvenile biography of a woman named Nelly Block, who was a journalist in the 19th century, when women’s names were only supposed to appear in the paper when they were born, when they married and when they died. She was amazing. She got herself committed to insane asylums to expose the treatment of the insane.

She pretended to be an immigrant to expose the mistreatment of immigrants. She was just a remarkable woman. And I thought, `That’s what I want to do!’ That early, I had a sense of what I wanted. And here I am.”