1. Where I like to bike | 2020 – Marcos Lutyens, LA River X Collection, Western Water Archives

Pre-teen Jasper Lutyens is already an agent of change for environmentalism and advocacy at the Los Angeles River. A Northeast Los Angeles resident who sees the river from his family home, Jasper has designed bird havens and water monitoring stations for the river, enlisting the support of some of the City’s influential leaders, engineers, and scientists. This photo of Jasper cycling at the Bowtie Parcel, with the smoke of the Bobcat Fire billowing behind him, is a sobering reminder of the future that Jasper and his peers are set to inherit.
“I’m eleven years old and the river monitor beacon is my project. It is to signify if the water in the LA River is either okay to kayak or fish, or just do recreational activity in general or not. [In 2018 I pitched] my river pollution monitor to Mas Dojiri, Assistant General Manager of the LA Sanitation department and also Stephen Mejia of FOLAR. ⁠Mas seemed to like the project and he got the LA Mayor to approve it. Pollution sucks so let’s clean things up together!” – Jasper Lutyens

2. River Thunder | circa 2021 – Henry Cherry, LA River X Collection, Western Water Archives

With the onset of Winter storms, the usually placid Los Angeles River transforms quickly into a hydrological giant, reminding Angelenos of its flooding history and the rationale for its extensive channelization by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who directed a decades-long project that employed tens of thousands of people, and required 2,000,000 cubic yards of concrete and close to 150,000,000 pounds of reinforced steel.
“There is something like a cold metropolitan roar in LA if you don’t get out into the sun enough. ⁠But we have this river and it is an outdoor marvel equal to Griffith Park or the Ballona Wetlands. That so much of it is ensconced in cement and concrete is only part of its allure. When the winter storms come, the water level rises and trees on islands can get uprooted. But it always recedes, and the quiet river life returns.” – Henry Cherry

3. Kitty and the Lean Mean | 2020 – Miguel Rodriguez, LA River X Collection, Western Water Archives

The Los Angeles River has long been a mecca for unfettered vehicular pursuits, an informal route for cars, motorbikes, buses, taxis, light aircraft, and even hovercraft prototypes. In the 1980s, a State Assemblymember sought to formalize this role by remodeling the river into a dry-weather expressway, a decidedly un-riverly plan that was never realized. In this photograph from Miguel Rodriguez, we see a defiantly-parked motorbike alongside a storm drain tension lid painted by Chicano artist Leo Limón.
“In this section the canal is at its widest. Standing in the riverbed, the austere, harsh, unnatural landscape feels like a buffer zone in the middle of the city. A world within a world, where other rules apply.⁠ As if by entering, you are released from the societal grasp.⁠ Time slows down and rules are lax.⁠ The city keeps on going, leaving you behind.”⁠ – Miguel Rodriguez

4. The Fish is Probably Labeled Wrong | 2008 – Fred Kaplan, LA River X Collection, Western Water Archives

During one of photographer Fred Kaplan’s many trips to the Los Angeles River, he found the riverbed and banks peppered with what he recalls as “a seemingly endless amount of classic beach balls”. The river has floated other unlikely inflatables too, including a nine-foot-tall flamingo whose maiden Los Angeles voyage has been watched by some 4.6 million people online.
“The combination of pure joy in seeing beach balls in the middle of an urban environment and my concern about the impact of massive amount of plastic entering a habitat seems to symbolize two of the infinite contradictory aspects of the Los Angeles River.⁠” – Fred Kaplan

5. When there’s nowhere to run, float away | 2022 – Daniel Gonzalez and Tim DeRoche, LA River X Collection, Western Water Archives

This photograph of the work desk of Mexican-American printmaker Daniel Gonzalez shows printmaking tools and an image from the book ‘‘The Ballad of Huck and Miguel’ which he illustrated, alongside writer Tim DeRoche. The book retells Huck Finn in a uniquely Angeleno version, with the Los Angeles River as a central location and character. Gonzalez has been a prolific visual artist since he was twelve, weaving his story-drenched cultural heritage into murals, graphic design, printmaking, and letterpress while honing his craft at the California College of Arts and Crafts, the San Francisco Center for the Book, Self Help Graphics & Art, and UCLA’s School of Art and Architecture.
“I am aware of the reality that an ethnic and racial border exists between people and that it is destroying the bond that we have as a human race. Culture does not honor borders. Culture is about change and growth. I feel that it is my responsibility as a printmaker to be a vehicle not only for culture but to also inspire a sensibility of the creative as a formidable weapon for social justice.” – Daniel Gonzalez

6. Pelicans at Willow Street | 2019 – Sarah G. Grant, LA River X Collection, Western Water Archives

Far from the concretized Los Angeles River being devoid of life, it is a living compendium of urban birdlife, much to the delight of photographers, bird watchers, and passersby. The wide expanses of concrete, topped with shallow water and swaths of algae, provide a surprisingly ideal ecology for migratory shorebirds. In the Summer of 2000 Ornithologist and Biologist Dan Cooper assembled a team of volunteer surveyors who observed more than 22 different shorebird species and counted over 15,000 birds during most days of their eight-day process, in the stretch of river from Paramount to Willow Street.
“American white pelicans often gather near the Willow Street Bridge after the winter rains. These magnificent birds never bore me – I can watch them for ages. They fish while swimming rather than diving down from above like the Brown pelicans closer to the mouth of the river, where it meets the ocean.” – Sarah G. Grant

7. Arriving Home from Griffith Park | circa 2021 – Jody Rath, LA River X Collection, Western Water Archives

Many people are surprised to discover the extent of equestrian culture at the River. Against considerable odds of development, competing land uses, and other socioeconomic shifts, the equestrian community persists. This photograph by Jody Rath shows horses and their riders returning to Atwater Village from Griffith Park.
“There are over 60 miles of trails in Griffith Park. ⁠While all are open to hiking, equestrians share access with most of the larger trails. ⁠The fact that this 4400-acre paradise sits just across the river from us is quite incredible, and a benefit for all Angelenos that choose to utilize the amenities of the park.⁠” – Jody Rath

8. Home | 2020 – Seth Holmes, LA River X Collection, Western Water Archives

The Los Angeles River provides shelter to many unhoused Angelenos, who face dire threats when Winter rains rapidly turn the river from trickle to torrent. This image by photographer Seth Holmes, shows an encampment nestled into a stormwater drain, as high-risk a placement as the gravel islands in Glendale Narrows where encampments, vegetable gardens, and art studios are routinely built, and unbuilt, at the whim of the weather.
“Anyone walking or biking along the river must ask themselves honest questions and face challenging decisions concerning the nature of the sights they come across. What are the benefits and drawbacks of allowing items to be discarded along the river? How does it affect the ecosystem, the animals, one’s self, and one’s neighbors? What becomes of those who call the river home during heavy rains that make the river a dangerous and potentially fatal place to be? These are uncomfortable questions to ask but frequently the more difficult a question is to face, the more important the answer is.⁠” – Seth Holmes

9. Canoes that Changed History | 2021 – John Kosta, LA River X Collection, Western Water Archives

Fine Artist John Kosta is photographed here in his Claremont studio with his painting “Canoes that Changed History”. It is one of many works in his Los Angeles River series, in which he documents his artistic fascination with the river’s unlikely beauty along its 51-mile course, and makes a compelling argument for its aesthetic value.
“During the summer of 2008, the Los Angeles River entered a brief but very critical period in its life as an urban waterway. Unbeknownst to most Angelinos, the Los Angeles River was about to lose vital legal protections over much of its 51-mile course due to a critical ruling by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Fearful of the consequences of such a decision, a group of pioneering clean-water advocates including Heather Wylie and George Wolfe devised a strategy to counter these events by organizing and filming a group canoe trip all the way from the river’s source in the San Fernando Valley to its mouth in the Long Beach Harbor to prove that the river was indeed navigable and deserving of protection.” – John Kosta

10. Los Angeles River and agriculture | 1900 – Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

This early photo shows the Los Angeles River and surrounding farmlands near Elysian Park, looking toward Cypress Park and Glassell Park. The river afforded abundance to newly-arrived farmers in Los Angeles, as it always has for Gabrieleño Tongva, Fernandeño Tataviam, and Ventureño Chumash peoples. All enjoyed the ready water supply and richer alluvial soils. In the mid-nineteenth century, grape vines would flourish near Vernon, eventually becoming wine that would be shipped to French royalty. Other crops included alfalfa, oranges, apples, peaches, pears, strawberries, walnuts, blackberries, grains, and vegetables. Farming by newcomers to the growing city jeopardized the river with over-extraction of water, the digging of canals for irrigation, and land clearing that destabilized the riverbanks causing erosion.

11. Engineers time the flow of water in the river | 1938 – Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In this photo taken in 1938, United States Army engineers are timing the flow of the Los Angeles River. Their measurements and calculations contributed to the building of what is thought to be the most extensive flood control system for any river of comparable size, anywhere in the world. Flood control efforts intensified when, in that same year, Los Angeles experienced the worst flood in colonial recorded history. Novelist Rupert Hughes described the flood scene as being “as if the Pacific Ocean had moved in to take back its ancient bed.” With just a few days of rain, that flood killed almost 90 people and resulted in more than $78 million in property damage, over 1.6 billion dollars by today’s standards.

12. Los Angeles River may become a freeway | 1947 – Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

This 1947 photograph shows an official delegation inspecting the river as part of a move to convert the often-dry riverbed into a freeway for vehicles. The proposal didn’t progress, and neither did a 1989 plan by State Assemblyman Richard Katz that the river be converted into a shared-use freeway to fix the traffic gridlock in a city bursting at its transportation seams. Since wastewater treatment plants began to discharge tertiary treated sewage into the river, ensuring year-round water flow, arguments for in-river freeways have become a historic relic

13. Ocean liner travels down river | 1950 – Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Printed on April Fool’s Day, a superimposed image of an ocean liner travels down the Los Angeles River, one of many instances of people seeing the river as something of a joke. The late Lewis MacAdams wrote in 1990 that “when people first hear there is a movement afoot to save the Los Angeles River, the most common reaction is laughter.” Indeed, when esteemed poet Gary Snyder spoke to a crowd of over six hundred poetry fans at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and told them about the founding of a friends organization for the Los Angeles River, Lewis recalls that “the audience snickered [and] Gary smiled, raising one gently admonishing index finger, “Don’t laugh.”

14. Swimming along the L.A. River | 1948 – Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In 1836 the first documented river prohibitions were introduced, banning swimming and laundering clothes in the river because of water-quality concerns. As city development continued apace, the scarce water flowing in the Los Angeles River became increasingly toxic, with the mid-twentieth century seeing the river contaminated with industrial waste, animal refuse, and untreated sewage. This photograph, dated January 2, 1948 shows a group of children at play in a swimming hole near Griffith Park. In 2006, Friends of the LA River advocated for a “swimmable, fishable, boatable, bikeable Los Angeles River for our community”. It remains an elusive, yet hopeful, goal.

15. Fishing at mouth of river | 1989 – Akili-Casundria Ramsess, Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Four fishermen are fishing off the pier at the mouth of the Los Angeles River in Long Beach. They are some of the many sustenance and recreational anglers who fish the Los Angeles River, typically catching bass, sunfish, blue gill, catfish, and carp using hot dogs, tortillas, and corn kernels as bait. The surprising fishability of the Los Angeles River has attracted national media attention and promoted the Los Angeles Times to even publish a recipe for ‘Los Angeles River Backyard Carp Larb’ using river-caught fish as the star ingredient. Experts cautiously suggest that eating a moderate amount of Los Angeles River fish is safe.
Projects are underway to bring steelhead trout back to the Los Angeles River. Creating habitat and favorable conditions for the return of this indicator species, last seen in the river in 1940, is an audacious goal. In a draft essay in 2007, river activist and poet Lewis MacAdams typed “I started telling people that when the steelhead trout run returns and the yellow-billed cuckoos were singing in the sycamores that the work of Friends of the LA River would be done.” In a firm hand, in ink, he added, “I wanted them to see a living river.”

16. Graffiti on the Los Angeles River wall | 1991 – Stephen Callis, Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In a distinctively Los Angeles River juxtaposition, this photograph by Stephen Callis shows two riders on horseback, near a river wall emblazoned with graffiti. Historic equestrian neighborhoods exist in several river locations, including Burbank, Glendale, South Gate, Compton, and Long Beach. In each, residents fight to protect equestrian amenities and practices against considerable pressures of urbanization and displacement.

17. Camper keeps clean | 1954 – Bob Steele, Valley Times Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

When this photo was printed in the Valley Times on November 12, 1954 it was captioned: “Olof Norman, who is camping on the bank of the Los Angeles River, shows how he washes his clothes. Olof has a box full of clean clothes, that he has washed in water from the river, as well as a needle and thread to keep them in repair.”
Recent assessments estimate that of the 66,000 unhoused individuals living in Los Angeles County, almost 10,000 of them make their homes in and along the Los Angeles River. Many utilize aspects of the natural and built environment for shelter, safety, and sustenance.

18. Man canoeing on the Los Angeles River | Circa 1996? – Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

It was not until 2013, following the river’s traditional navigability declaration by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, that river recreation activities were officially sanctioned. Prior to that, people who kayaked the river, such as this unidentified man in a photo thought to have been taken around 1996, were defying the rules.

George Wolfe led a history-making kayak expedition in the summer of 2008 in which a small group paddled from the river’s source at Canoga Park High School, all the way to the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach. Their photos were used in the EPA’s determination documentation, making a compelling case that the Los Angeles is indeed a river.