The Winding Currents of History: The Waters of Los Angeles / by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson


I still to this day remember the first time I saw Chinatown. As with many films that have stuck with me, the moment it came to an end all I wanted to do was research every aspect of the film—the origins of Robert Towne's brilliant script, the various pains taken to recreate a lost period of American history, the choice of cinematographer, and so on. In many ways, my 30+ page graduate paper on the parallels between American modernism and Los Angeles noir fiction was a continuation of my clumsy Googling after the conclusion of Roman Polanski's film noir. For once, it wasn't just the genre or the deft touch of the actors and their director that allured me—this time it was the story of a city that held my attention. If Laura Bliss' recent article at the Los Angeles Review of Books is any indication, and I believe it is, the story of the waters of Los Angeles is in many way the story of the city, even if many of these stories are rarely told.

Bliss' piece is fabulously written and very much worth your time. She explores not only the "mythical tale of Genesis" that is the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (and the Owens Valley catastrophe, the city's "original sin"), but also the waters that existed long before the city's alleged origins—the original aqueduct, the Zanja Madre, for example, as well as the once concrete-free and vibrant Los Angeles River. Despite the hours of research I've done on the strange, winding origins of Los Angeles—and if you have any interest in this, I cannot recommend highly enough David Fine's Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction, which follows the city's history as closely as its literature, and Kevin Starr's numerous works on California's history—Bliss' article, "Seeing Water in Los Angeles: On Lethe's Banks," feels wonderfully fresh, her engaging and intelligent narrative exploring its historical terrain with eyes that catch what others have overlooked.