Chapter 2 of the The Infrastructural City, Flood Control Freakology (David Fletcher)
Varnelis was right on the money when he noted that Ed Soja noted (take note) that “Los Angeles is both an exception and the rule, a singular instance that reveals generic conditions.” So, I thought it best to take a quick trip around a few of the other American Megacities to give (at least for myself) some perspective.
LA is an American megacity, like Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires. And each of these places has their own disgusting river. In Buenos Aires, we have the Riachuelo, a waterway on the industrial side of town which the Blacksmith Institute described as “mounds of plastic trash, bubbling methane gas, toxic chemical residue, and the wafting smell of sewage.” They promptly added it to their “Dirty Thirty” list of the most degraded places in the world. I have been there and it makes the Gowanus Canal seem like the banks of the Seine.
Next we have the Zacapa Canal de la Compania in Mexico City, the largest American Megacity. It is responsible for shunting the shit out of the south end of Mexico City where it is used to irrigate the fields that grow the produce that is then trucked back into the city. There is a certain beautiful symmetry there, but it is a disgusting and degraded waterway, and its banks are populated by the poor, informal housing communities living in fear of a canal flood bringing the feces of Mexico into their humble quarters.
Lastly, we have the Teite River of Sao Paolo. And this is the best one for our purposes today, because it too was once a real river serving multiple functions that has been channelized in the name of freakish flood control. In fact, the images, though tinged with a certain Sao Paulista taint, look eerily similar to those of the LA River.
This similarity speaks to the power of infrastructure- there is no way anything having to do with water in these two cities should look the same. Their environmental context could not be more different. LA drains the Colorado River and Owens Lake for its water because the region is so dry; Sao Paulo sits in the middle of one of the biggest rain forests in the world (the Atlantic Rainforest). Both rivers are now huge, disgusting channels intertwined with ribbons of expressways and lined with pitiful degraded open space, industrial zones, and residential neighborhoods.
Sao Paulo’s river is one thing, and though I have seen it, I don’t know much about it. It is currently the site of a multi-billion dollar engineering effort to increase capacity, shore up existing structures, and clear out debris/carcasses. It used to be a part of the paulista’s lives, a recreational and cultural hub for the neighborhoods along its banks. Of course, that was before there were 20 million of them and the city rose to be the economic powerhouse of the continent with the industrialization in the 1940’s (the population was 200,000 in 1930). The river and the areas around it are now subject to periodic devastating floods despite efforts to control the waters, and much of the city’s sewage is dumped untreated into the river.
The LA river is different. It was an oasis in the arid West and up until Mulholland tapped the waters of Owens Lake it was the source of the city’s water. After that, it was only a problem to be dealt with, and so it was- just a few decades later it was channelized. As mammoth noted, the recent masterplan suggests creating “green” social amenities- essentially bucolic, generic recreational spaces or “amenities”- which the Fletcher notes are inappropriate given both the environmental context and the current state of the river.
We here at FASLANYC have a fascination with lo-fi landscapes, bukowski-scapes, decelerated/accelerated landscapes, and subnatures. We also think that any landscape should be understood in terms of myth. The mythology of a place provides the best way for understanding the complex, interconnected cultural-ecological system that is the landscape. The author ultimately weaves a lovely, twisted narrative about the river and its idiosyncratic characteristics and ends with a call for just this sort of initiative (which I will unfortunately quote at length):
“We must reassess the very definition of ‘river’, expanding our idea of ‘nature’ to include the parrot, the shopping cart, the weed, the sludge mat, and the stormdrain apartment. We must develop new narratives and vocabularies for our vital urban freakologies for these are the ecologies of the future [throughout the Americas]. If not, the river will never be truly understood or integrated into the ongoing urban project. Only by integrating the river’s complexities into planning efforts, can we move forward realistically.”
For too long, the paradigm of landscape has been the creation of beauty and leisure for the passive user. This, despite people on the margins of society literally scratching at the walls for a chance to make their own mark. And landscape design has largely been a tool of social elites who would create capital projects to catalyze social processes befitting our collective delusions, or their personal ones.
And we are powerless to do anything about it, unless we can come up with a way of effecting change (and making a living) other than the capital project. This is evident in the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan where, despite the presence of community advocate Mia Lehrer and the awesome author of Flood Control Freakology, the outcome is a generic, antiseptic plan for a photoshopped landscape-as-commodity.