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Christian MilNeil's Posts

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Sewer discretion is advised: Explorers find hidden wonders in urban waterways

Andrew Emond

Most urban streams and creeks are hidden from sight -- in huge sewer tunnels under streets and expressways, in concrete ditches behind razor-wire fences, and sometimes even in pipes under the manicured lawns and gardens of city parks.

These are hardly the kinds of places you'd see on the cover of an L.L. Bean catalog -- although you might find a few L.L. Bean catalogs in these concrete creeks.

But a growing network of urban explorers, who sometimes call themselves “drainers,” are sneaking into the storm sewers and aqueducts to rediscover these long-hidden waterways. They’re finding lush forest groves among the concrete ditches and waterfalls and grand vaulted grottoes in underground sewers. Their photography and field notes remind residents that the rivers and streams that nursed their cities’ early growth still survive below the pavement, and are still worthy of appreciation -- maybe even restoration.

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Along the L.A. River, new signs of life in an industrial wasteland

This is the last in a four-part series about the Los Angeles River. Read the other parts here, here, and here.

Photo by ryanoshea.

One of the strangest things about the Los Angeles River might be how, after a century of neglect and outright abuse, it somehow still offers scraps of wildness amidst a sprawling metropolitan region of 13 million people.

Now that more and more people are interested in saving the river, these survivor wildernesses are no longer the sad remnants of what’s been lost; they’re pioneering examples of what might be possible in a wilder, more sustainable city.

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The first challenge to restoring the L.A. River: Reminding Angelenos that it exists

This is the third in a four-part series about the Los Angeles River. Read parts one and two.

The confluence of the L.A. River and Arroyo Seco. (Photo by Anarchosyn.)

During our visit to Los Angeles, my wife and I stayed with our friend Liz, a masters of urban planning student and local blogger, in Glassell Park, a hilly neighborhood of Latino and Filipino families on the eastern bank of the Los Angeles River.

Liz's apartment is within sight of L.A.’s two biggest city parks: Elysian Park, which abuts the north side of downtown and is home to Dodger Stadium, and the mountainous Griffith Park. Ironically, though, Liz and her neighbors on the east side can't easily reach those public spaces, due to two huge barriers: the 10 lanes of speeding traffic on Interstate 5, and immediately adjacent, the concrete expanse of the Los Angeles River.

That doesn't mean it's impossible to enjoy the parks and the river. It just takes some initiative.

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Can sprawling Los Angeles learn to let a river run through it?

This is the second in a four-part series about the L.A. River. Read part 1 here.

The L.A. River descends from the mountains into a sea of sprawl. (Photo by La Citta Vita.)

The Los Angeles River begins in the mountains that hem in the sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. Even up in these wild canyons, the city's weird influences still resonate: One tributary creek carries runoff from the highly contaminated Santa Susana Field Lab, the site of the world’s first core meltdown in a commercial nuclear reactor, as well as extensive liquid rocket fuel spills. (Santa Susana might be what your dorm kitchen would look like if your roommates included hundreds of Space Age chemists with free access to plutonium and dioxins.) Not far north of there, another tributary runs through Spahn Ranch, the infamous hideout of the Manson Family.

Once these mountain creeks flow down into the valley's landscape of strip malls and cul-de-sacs, they enter the familiar paved channels characteristic of waterways throughout the city. But there are still a few exceptions to that rule.

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Los Angeles River checks into rehab

Photo by meltwater.

The Los Angeles River is a character actor, familiar to movie audiences worldwide, even if they don’t know its name. It specializes in the role of apocalyptic battleground, or drag strip, or general stand-in for the paved bleakness of greater Los Angeles. You’ve seen it in Grease, Terminator 2, and T.I.’s “Live Your Life” music video. It’s that wide, paved channel spanned by arched art-deco bridges and power lines.

When it was first paved over in the 1930s, in response to flooding that was threatening the booming city, the Los Angeles River ceased to look like a river, and instead became a simple drainage ditch to speedily convey spring rainfall out of the city’s neighborhoods and into the ocean -- a freeway for flash-floodwaters.

For most of the past century, most Angelinos have experienced the river (if at all) as a thin trickle of water running down the middle of a vast concrete channel, a potent example of the city’s defiance and control of nature, and an emblem of everything that environmentalists love to hate about the City of Angels.

Read more: Cities