Dispatch from the Los Angeles River

On May 20th, I organized a performance by a group of Los Angeles-based artists under the Hyperion Bridge in the LA River.  No one got hepatitis.  Some beautiful images were created. This performance was created with support from Hydra Poesis, as part of our project PROMPTER.   For more Prompter Dispatches click here.


LA River Dispatch

A collaborative text by Allison Wyper 
 with contributions from Samuel White, Sara Schnadt, Rafa Esparza, Mariel Carranza, and D/NO D/NCO


rafa esparza and sara schnadt
photo by paul outlaw (click to enlarge)

A droplet or a deluge, the river always finds its way.

Dam it? Be damned.


I felt I was holding the river in my arms.

In some cities the so-called “margins” run through the very center, or the heart, of the city.  El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles sobre el Rio Porciuncula. The River of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of the River Porciuncula. The Los Angeles River is the vena amoris of Los Angeles, la zanja madre (“mother ditch”) upon which the infant Pueblo de Los Angeles nourished itself.  La zanja was dug in 1781 by the Spanish colonists to feed El Pueblo, envisioned as a military and agricultural hub of Alta California, centuries after the Tongva or Gabrieleño tribe made their homes here.  El Rio was the sole source of agua por el Pueblo, y el Pueblo was to be the region’s nerve center, gut and loins.  But in Los Angeles this heart center has been forgotten, polluted, only occasionally remembered in Hollywood films or when a body is discovered... When rolling down the side of the cement bank I imagined a dead body rolling down the wall and landing along the riverbanks...  We’ve turned our backs on our heart.  Our body is disjointed and dismembered, split down the core.  

We might point to the year 1938 as the Year of Dismemberment, when the United States Army Corps of Engineers cemented the riverbed, turning a river into a 51-mile storm drain. The river that used to move and change, grow and shrink with the seasons, was threatening the infrastructure of the city, and drowning her citizens.  The Army Corps decided to cement the river, control the water, put up dams, reroute the water around southern California, decide who would have access…. I couldn't help but reference the river as a body, a body of life that has been trampled on and forgotten. It’s been contaminated with the history of our forgotten people. From the long dead natives to the modern day gay cruisers, there’s a lot that’s been forgotten… Ours is a history of paving over communities, low-income communities, communities of color.  For years the river was off limits.  Only gangsters and homeless went to the river.  Maybe cholos or hot rod racers. Folks are still convinced that if you swim in it you’ll catch Hepatitis.  Each summer she runs nearly dry, in some places maybe a centimeter deep. Rio Luna… I’m crossing you in style someday… Still la Madre flows.  El corazón de la ciudad.

Pastoral and industrial. Source for the city. Metaphor for depositing of sorrows. Liminal space for public acts, private moments, forgotten people, happy rituals, objects that don't belong but somehow become part of the landscape. Renewal. Ordinary beauties, extraordinary throwaways.

There has been an effort, very recently, to clean up the river, rehabilitate the landscape, refocus our attention, and as the young upwardly mobile professionals begin to (over)populate the neighborhoods around the river, the bike paths have followed.  A group of environmental activists set out in 2008 to prove that the river was “traditionally navigable”—a designation that is extremely important in US environmental law, because a water channel’s legal definition as a river is contingent upon its being deemed navigable.

Slowly and then suddenly it did not feel good anymore, I knew I was out of my chosen path when the water almost reached my knees. I stopped and removed my shirt off my eyes, and when I saw the river again it felt dirty .... did not want to be there anymore ...

Under U.S. law, only the “navigable” river is officially worthy of environmental protection.  These activists kayaked down the entire 51-mile length of el Rio, from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach.  It took them 3 days and was a minor media spectacle.  After they accomplished this feat (which was, of course, illegal) the river was granted protected watershed status.  This summer, for the first time, a 2 ½ mile stretch of the river (just south of our performance site) was officially opened to watercraft…  I thought of what the river meant to me, how it acted, what it was and is: a divider, a taming of nature, an index of native “Los Angeles”, municipal power, colonization.

Habitat is being restored, the work of environmental activists and urban developers interested in promoting green spaces in the heart of Los Angeles.  Artists of course have been coming here for a long time, as have Los Angeles’ unhoused population. In its downtown center, the river rubs up against neighborhoods that have been deemed, for most of the past century, undesirable.  Miles from the green-green tennis courts of Beverly Hills, the lawns of Pasadena, and the palms of Santa Monica, our river kisses the brown-brown sections of town, touching South Central and Compton on its way to the ocean… The L.A. River is a familiar place to me. One of my first performances years ago was on the 6th street bridge that goes over the river connecting Boyle Heights to Downtown L.A. Admittedly, I couldn’t help but imagine and plan what I’d do in the river beforehand…

We were called to revisit el corazón de Los Angeles, to consider the histories, consider the origins of the city, consider el Rio Porciuncula, consider life on the margins, consider being visible and being present in a site that is normally invisible, in plain sight.

I tried to make a sort of spiritual love to the river body. I felt its life. It was breathing, like a sleeping giant waiting to come out of slumber. And I felt that's what we were doing, awakening the river’s soul. Telling it to come back to us - to grow back into its forgotten and beaten up body…

That night, I felt the river stream on the palms of my hands.


samuel white and allison wyper