Quick Mends: Listen to the people

CityDigZanjaMadre

This manuscript map from 1868 shows the path of the Zanja Madre, or Mother Ditch, as it winds along current-day North Broadway from the Los Angeles River, at right. (courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Central Library Collection)

William Deverell, a historian at USC and the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, recently penned this editorial in the Los Angeles Times. He skillfully recounts how the concrete-encased LA River came to be, but does deeper than other writers.

According to Deverell, the research for the U.S. Army Corps final work came from old-timers. Tasked with creating a profile of the river, two engineers asked these old people what it was like to grow up in the region before statehood, before the Gold Rush, even back to the Mexican and mission period.

“The people they interviewed were nonwhite: indigenous, Mexican, mixed-race mestizos. (No whites, or at least a very few, had memories that stretched back far enough to help.) These elders knew the river; it ran through their memories and lives. They grew up near it, but not too near, lest wintertime floods wash away their adobes. They drank from it, as did their livestock. They irrigated their crops from the zanjas they had carved from it. The river was lifeblood, the defining feature of the landscape.”

Yet this research from seemingly egalitarian roots was later used to create a river not for the people, but for those with money, power and clout.

As we near the approval of the renewal design plan, he advocates we not make the same mistake twice.

Thanks to Steve Kuchenski of the Pasadena Casting Club Conservation Committee for passing this along.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

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