L.A. River

The city of Los Angeles plans to restore the Los Angeles River channel - formerly an industrial wasteland - with up to $1 billion in state, local, and federal money, improving the ecology of the river and making it an attractive environment for residents and visitors. These changes are expected to lead to billions more in commercial and residential development. As noted in a May 24, 2014 article in the Los Angeles Times, the inevitable gentrification that results may have a detrimental impact on working class communities who have lived by the river for generations. I spent a few days photographing the river channel between between the Sepulveda basin and downtown Los Angeles, talking with residents, activists, and artists about the situation. This is the first installment of images from the shoot.

  • Carolyn Drake - LA River

    Carolyn Drake

    #FutureofCities - L.A. River

    Sony α7R, FE 55mm F1.8 ZA (F-Stop: 2.0, Shutter: 1/2500, ISO: 100)

    The Army Corp of Engineers carried out an ambitious plan to encase the Los Angeles River in concrete after catastrophic floods in the 1930s led to calls for flood control. Except for a few places where the muddy bottom was impossible to replace, the river was turned into a concrete drainage channel. The ecology of the river disappeared, making room for development and a flood-free city.

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  • Carolyn Drake - LA River

    Carolyn Drake

    #FutureofCities - L.A. River

    Sony α7R, FE 55mm F1.8 ZA (F-Stop: 9.0, Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 100)

    A discarded California map found along train tracks next to the Los Angeles river in downtown LA. The river parallels and passes under numerous highways en route to Long Beach, where it spills into the Pacific Ocean.

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  • Carolyn Drake - LA River

    Carolyn Drake

    #FutureofCities - L.A. River

    Sony α7R, FE 55mm F2.8 ZA (F-Stop: 6.3, Shutter: 1/200, ISO: 125)

    A woman crosses a bridge over the Los Angeles River downstream of its confluence with the Arroyo Seco.

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  • Carolyn Drake - LA River

    Carolyn Drake

    #FutureofCities - L.A. River

    Sony α7R, FE 55mm F1.8 ZA (F-Stop: 9.0, Shutter: 1/200, ISO: 100)

    View of the city from the railroad tracks beside the Los Angeles River in downtown Los Angeles. To the left is the First Street Bridge.

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  • Carolyn Drake - LA River

    Carolyn Drake

    #FutureofCities - L.A. River

    Sony α7R, FE 35mm F2.8 ZA (F-Stop: 2.8, Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 400)

    As developers catch wind of the city's plans to revitalize the river be creating parks and bike paths along the river, removing much of the concrete encasement, and restoring some of its ecology, neighborhoods like Elysian Valley have begun to see real estate speculation. Working class families that have been rooted in the neighborhood for generations have received offers to sell their homes for well over their market value. As the drought in California carries on, attention on the river has grown.

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  • Carolyn Drake - LA River

    Carolyn Drake

    #FutureofCities - L.A. River

    Sony α7R, FE 35mm F2.8 ZA (F-Stop: 11.0, Shutter: 1/500, ISO: 500)

    One Sunday morning, a small group of activists brought kayaks and trash bags into one of several soft bottom stretches along the river above the Sepulveda dam and collected trash caught in the trees and rocks.

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  • Carolyn Drake - LA River

    Carolyn Drake

    #FutureofCities - L.A. River

    Sony α7R, FE 35mm F2.8 ZA (F-Stop: 10.0, Shutter: 1/100, ISO: 125)

    A bridge over the river below its confluence with the Arroyo Seco leads into Chinatown.

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  • Carolyn Drake - LA River

    Carolyn Drake

    #FutureofCities - L.A. River

    Sony α7R, FE 55mm F1.8 ZA (F-Stop: 10.0, Shutter: 1/100, ISO: 100)

    A film shoot beside the river encasement in downtown LA.

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  • Carolyn Drake - LA River

    Carolyn Drake

    #FutureofCities - L.A. River

    Sony α7R, FE 35mm F2.8 ZA (F-Stop: 2.8, Shutter: 1/400, ISO: 200)

    The Los Angeles River trail, a new bike path running between the residential neighborhood of Elysian Valley and the river near Griffith Park. The vast majority of Los Angeles' rainwater drains into the concrete encasement. Lacking sufficient groundwater for its population, Los Angeles imports its drinking water from the Colorado River through the California Aqueduct. Plans are underway to restore the limited local water source that is the LA River.

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About Carolyn

Carolyn Drake is a photographer working globally on personal projects and assigned commissions. Between 2007 and 2013, she created two books of photography rooted in Central Asia. The first – Two Rivers – explores the shifting borders, histories, and life systems in the geographic spaces between Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and China. The second book – Wild Pigeon – is an amalgem of photographs, drawings, embroidery, and texts made in collaboration with Uyghurs in western China. 

Carolyn is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright fellowship, the Lange Taylor Documentary Prize, among other awards. In 2013, she relocated from Istanbul, Turkey to the United States to begin a new body of work.



Interview

Why choose to focus on the LA river channel?
It seems to me that the river has been a symbol of the psychic condition of Los Angeles for a long time and there is a palpable movement going on to change it. The change is just beginning, so there are are lot of competing ideas out there about how the change should happen and who should benefit. And a lot of hope and idealism. Also frustration.

Attention is growing at an incredibly rapid pace on the surrounding neighborhoods. From your vantage point, what was the most striking aspect of this revitalization? 
The riverside bike path was the most visible sign of revitalization that I saw, but from what I gather there is a lot more going on idea-wise. Plans to replace gritty industrial zones with green parks and tear up the concrete embankments, kayak tours in the river rapids, exclusive dinner parties planned to bring wealthy patrons down to the riverbed, 10k races planned along the bike path. Residents of Elysian Valley told me about receiving hand-written letters from developers offering to buy their homes at inflated prices. Property values have already exploded downtown, but even so, it is hard to see the area as revitalized quite yet. The streets in downtown were eerily empty on the weekend. I think a lot of the change has yet to come.

What do you find is the single most important aspect of this change that the wider public should be aware of?
I'm not trying to make the public aware of any particular fact or issue. Rather, I'm trying to see things for what they are, to investigate what this society looks like right now, and how it's changing. The channelized river is an icon of urban Los Angeles. People are now, again, trying to reinvent it. I see that as a reflection of how our values and our perceptions of what's important are changing. This photo assignment was a chance to step back and take a look at that.

Can you tell us a bit more about how you decided to approach the piece photographically? 
I had a very short span of time to connect with the people and place and it was my first time shooting with the camera so I developed the approach as I went along. The light in LA is unique. There's a lot of concrete, reflective surfaces, and a perpetual haze of smog. I worked with that. It made for a striking contrast to the idea of a river, I think.

This is the first of two instalments; what can we expect to see in part two?
I'd love to tell you but I think its best to leave it as a surprise. 

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