The Los Angeles River has long been a punchline, proof of its city’s stereotypes. It is a post-apocalyptic aquatic freeway, a greenish tributary slicing through the city’s sprawl, a nature area hopelessly juxtaposed with the urban. It is most famous not for its waters, but for its role as the site of a pivotal drag race in Grease. Its banks, once rocky and wild, were surgically encased in concrete in 1938, embodying L.A.’s reputation for false vanity; its flow never wanders far from an automobile on its 51-mile path, which crawls under the congestion of nine different major freeways.
Yet today, the river is enjoying a golden moment. It is open to the public for recreation. Iconic architect Frank Gehry is helming a revitalization that could cost billions of dollars. L.A.’s 2024 Olympic bid even includes renderings of a sparkling blue flow serpentining through the city.
But the journey to its present, near-idyllic state wasn’t easy. To get here, the river followed a narrative arc worthy of Hollywood, with all the key players: an out-of-touch governmental agency, a whistleblower’s bold move and an unlikely hero’s ad hoc, bootleg journey.