From The Los Angeles Times Book Review Rivers surpass our simple notions of beauty. They do not simply purl and chirp while pouring between obstacles. They roar. They disobey us at every turn, especially if we try to outmuscle them with concrete or with a wooden oar. Rivers carry everything: dead cows, shopping carts, toxic waste and the exiled mud of entire mountain ranges. They hold no judgements or biases. They will take you dead or alive, and it doesn't matter which. They bend to every change in the land. They alter everything that they touch. It is not that they are merely metaphors for life, with their starts and endings, their places and difficult navigation, their placidity and the language of riffles, eddies and waves Rivers keep their own pace and their own attitudes, no matter how you look at them- nowhere more than in Los Angeles, a seemingly riverless city, as Pat Morrison reminds us in "Rio L.A," to "fresh generations of Angelinos [who] discover they have a river only when they hear that someone has drowned in it." People and the Los Angeles River are both headstrong and quite satisfied to live without each other, but they are stuck together in their stubbornness, leaving only one option: to imagine their common fates. That is what Morrison has done so nicely, giving us not the city of L.A and not the Los Angeles River but Rio L.A, a distinct and mercurial beast dressed in graffiti and content to keep flood managers constantly on their toes. Like any good river, "Rio L.A" does not have only one origin. A columnist for The Times, Morrison provides the words, and Mark Lamonica is the source of the brilliantly soiled and architected photography. Amy Inouye makes the entire thing bold with her riveting page-by-page graphic design. "Rio L.A" allows us to see into the heart of a river famous for its indifference, its sincerity and its peculiarities. Even though natural history (sans people) shows up here and there, Morrison writes mostly about the reckless, strange and heroic deeds of river-haunted Angelenos, capturing both the sublime and the ridiculous. During the disastrous flood of 1938 - a deluge that took with it nearly 100 lives and convinced the city fathers to contain this beast in a concrete den - a prop whale, of all things, was released from the Warner Bros. movie studios and, as Morrison writes, " [f]or a brief and glorious moment, it was free, swimming majestically downriver, a trompe l'oeil Moby-Dick bound for the freedom of a real sea, not a cinematic one." And the Academy Awards were postponed for a week, in deference to the stranded movie stars in Malibu and the Valley.
Morrison also captures the more humble poetry of the river, writing in one chapter about the improbable but magnificent bridges engineered from 1910 to the Great Depression, many by one man, Merril Butler, who studied the bridge trade through a correspondence school and broke away from the dull blocky tradition of spanning banks with railroad trestles. He instead engineered curves and sheltering vestibules, and in less than 20 years the city had a dozen of these remarkable edifices (nine of which were authored by Butler himself, who incidentally also designed the tunnels of the Pasadena Freeway), all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "The river is nothing," wrote architectural historian Robert Winter, "but the bridges are sensational." The turning of the riverbed into concrete began in the 1930s, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers. The numbers alone were daunting: 470 miles of open channels, 2,400 miles of covered storm drains, 98,000 curbside openings, 123 debris basins, hundreds of crib dams and catchment inlets, three reservoirs, several large dams and scores of pumping stations. It cost millions then and continues to cost us now, and still we remain ambivalent about it. There was a politician who once suggested that it be painted blue so that it may look like a rive, and there are always those people who wish it simply had more of a purpose. During World War II, they thought about constructing an enclosed munitions factory in the riverbed and topping it with a motorway, always a favorite idea for traffic-jammed commuters. In the 1950s, in fact, when commuters drove it as a bypass off the Ventura and Golden State freeways, it earned the moniker, "the poor man's freeway." And in 1985, a hovercraft ran along its surface. The river - as this book shows - is filled with its own incongruities, not the least of which is the fact that at its terminus "the Queen Mary, one of the grandest liners of the great age of ocean travel, is moored in concrete at the mouth of one the world's least navigable rivers." And Morrison is an excellent guide to all the eccentric and poetic proposals: Her flirtatious language is neatly contained within essay-like chapters, giving the acrobatic writing a solid structure. Lamonica's enjoyably peculiar photographs add another dimension to the story. A mangy street cat sitting in waterside bliss, an abandoned concrete channel on which a forlorn pigeon stands as if waiting to die: Many of the photos have an enigmatic quality, images whose narratives have long been lost, like so many in Los Angeles: a hubcap among rocks, galleries of graffiti, a set of thoughtfully abandoned shoes at the concrete edge of the river, the sleek lines of bridges and a dog peering up from a garden of water-driven trash. The result is a book that both in the construction of the story and in the visual layout conveys the narrative of a river the way few books can. If I wanted a more scientifically sturdy read, I would go to Blake Gumprecht's "The Los Angeles River," a mainstay resource on the topic, but, as excellent a writer as he is, Gumprecht is a human writing about a river, whereas Morrison, Lamonica and Inouye are all together more like a river recreating a river, with its myriad eddies, rapids and dry spells woven seamlessly together. This book is an event of nature, something that goes beyond the common restrictions of literature. In the end, though, after the jolt of photographs and arrangements has worn off, "Rio L.A" stands on Morrison's words alone. If you want to know about the river, there are plenty of other sources. But if you want a feel that gets under your skin, that in the end leaves you soaked with this rich, quixotic river water, this is the book. Craig Childs for The Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 9, 2001.
From Los Angeles magazine The L.A River wasn't always the city's largest open sewer. Back when bears the size of small SUVs roamed its banks and the town's real power was the water commissioner, not the mayor, the mighty waterway evoked feelings of awe and wonder. In "Rio L.A: Tales from the Los Angeles River" (Angel City Press, 128 pages, $30), Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison describes how the former fount of life for generations of Gabrielenos became a concrete-lined "flood control channel" and the punchline for generations of local comedians. While it may not be much of a river now, Morrison argues, it's still a hell of a cultural symbol. Ambition, artifice, greed, the subjugation of nature - all are wrapped up in a snaky expanse stretching from the Santa Susanna Mountains to Long Beach Harbor, and all are timeless themes mirrored by the by the city's own history. In the foreword, state librarian Kevin Starr writes that "the river has the city it deserves, and the city has the river it deserves." Morrison considers this a compliment and ends her book with an upbeat look at efforts to return the waterway to its former glory. A photo-essay on this subject would be a tough sell to any publishing company, and Morrison, photographer Mark Lamonica, and Santa Monica-based Angel City Press should be commended for this love letter to one of Los Angeles's most ill-used natural treasures. From Los Angeles magazine, Swift Currents, August, 2001.
From The New Times Los Angeles came into being through reimagination and invention at the expense of history and texture, Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison asserts, and the L.A River is one of its greatest casualties. In the early days of the city, real estate was like dollar bills laid out on the ground, Morrison explains; when the river flooded, it washed away those bills, so the speculators subjugated it. The Oscars were postponed in 1938 because a flood marooned the stars living in the Valley and hills, and we couldn't have that, Morrison jokes. Morrison wrote her new book, "Rio L.A: Tales from the Los Angeles River," with photographs by Mark Lamonica, to tell the historical, cultural and metaphorical story of the river. She champions the waterway as "the artery that could unify the city and pump fresh life into urban L.A." It is a cipher, a nullity in the L.A landscape, she laments, "yet, there would be no city of L.A without it. Until 1913, every drop of water came out of the river. The Owens River Valley aqueduct is the Stepford river; the L.A River became an ex-wife. "The river could supply water for a million families each year and provide open land for the park-poorest major city in the country. The Friends of the Los Angeles River are lobbying to use the $84 million committed to its development judiciously. "The more optimistic people live for the day when trout will be found there again. I'd just like to see it a participatory river again," says Morrison. "Oh, what I would've given to have seen it 150 years ago, when Kit Carson described it as a paradise on earth!" Elena Roston for the New Times, September 13-19, 2001.
Rio L.A.: Tales from the Los Angeles River By Patt Morrison and Mark Lamonica (published by Angel City Press) has been awarded the Southern California Booksellers Book Award.
Los Angeles Times Book Review Bestseller list "Rio L.A: Tales from the Los Angeles River" appeared on the bestseller list, and was a "Best Books" Choice of 2001.
Publishers Weekly "Rio L.A: Tales from the Los Angeles River" is recommended gift book for this fall.
Quotes From Authors Paula Poundstone, Comedienne "I was edified by these pages...I've never thought about the L.A River. Didn't it star in Chinatown? If Patt likes it, it's in like Flynn with me."
Carolyn See, Author of Hard Luck and Good Times in America and The Handyman "One of L.A's most important civic and literary voices comes to the defense of one of the city's most ignored and discounted landmarks. This is an important and thoughtful book."
Luis Alfaro, Artist-in-Residence, Mark Taper Forum "Leave it to Patt Morrison to look at the sad concrete siding of the Los Angeles River and find a poem. In her hyper-Twain style, Morrison travels deep through the tributaries of Los Angeles history, lore and riverfront gossip and contributes a new chapter in the making of a myth."
Book Description In "Rio L.A: Tales from the Los Angeles River," the Los Angeles River is presented in its diverse context, a waterway as unique as the city through which it meanders. The subject of tremendous controversy, the L.A River is quickly becoming a revered geographical icon that for too long was left neglected and unappreciated. Today it exposes an urban psychology unimaginable in the 21st Century; a river where nature, commerce, concrete and the trails of humanity fight for space, and even for existence. In a city whose history has been explored time and again, little is known of this majestic river. In "Rio L.A." Morrison and Lamonica present the culture that evolves around this virtual oasis in a land of super highways and celluloid dreams, while tracing its history and giving the River its voice. Rio L.A magnificently captures both the reality and the spirit of the Los Angeles River, a concrete masterpiece of clandestine beauty that stretches from the mountains of the Santa Susannas to the mouth of Long Beach Harbor. Accompanying the full-color photographs is a powerful commentary on the history, evolution, mythology and culture of the L.A River: the very source of life to the City of Los Angeles.
About the Authors
Journalist Patt Morrison is a columnist in the Los Angeles Times, a founding host of Life and Times Tonight on L.A's PBS affiliate KCET, and a featured essayist on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." She has been honored with the prestigious Joseph M. Quinn Memorial Journalism award, four Emmys, four Golden Mike awards and the ACLU's Freedom of Information Award, as well as the Skeptic Society's Edward R. Murrow Award. She sits on the Board of Trustees of her alma mater, Occidental College, and has served as an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. She hosts The BookShow with Patt Morrison, a weekly program on books and their authors, on KCET.
Photographer Mark Lamonica has been taking pictures of the Los Angeles River for more than six years. An accomplished artist, he has been a painter and sculptor for more than thirty years. His artwork has been exhibited throughout Los Angeles and several of his pieces are owned by prominent private collectors. He is the author of one previous book, Junkyard Dogs and William Shakespeare.
Graphic designer Amy Inouye has designed more than a dozen books and is the "mom" of Chicken Boy, a 22-foot fiberglass statue of a man/boy with the head of a chicken. Formerly signage for a restaurant, the statue now functions as the official spokesperson for anything Amy is interested in. She is a graduate of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design.Charlotte Gusay