Los Angeles River Side Trip


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See the scenic Los Angeles River! Marvel at its beauty, its power, its unmatched splendor! But wait – there’s more! See the world’s largest jail! See the building with the world’s largest helipad! And as a bonus, you’ll be treated to a glimpse of  the MTA’s splendid bus maintenance facility!

If you’re from Los Angeles it’s likely you’ve already seen the river but maybe you just didn’t know it or you just didn’t care.

And no wonder. Contained by cement for most of its 51 miles, the Los Angeles River – the very river that gave the city life – is largely ignored by Angelinos. That is, until winter storms whip through and the raging waters become the darling of the media. Otherwise, we don’t much see it , hear about it or care about it.

Now’s your chance to pay your respects. This Side Trip takes only 20 minutes roundtrip, tops!

–> From the MTA Building’s “Paseo Cesar Chavez” continue to the corner of N. Vignes Street and Cesar E. Chevez Avenue.

–> Cross N. Vignes and follow Cesar E. Chavez Avenue to the east.

A) C. Erwin Piper Technical Center. During your two-block walk to the River you’ll pass by the C. Erwin Piper Technical Center (555 Ramirez Street) to the right.  The center’s rooftop helipad – “Hooper Heliport” – is said to be the world’s largest. If you remember the forgettable movie “Blue Thunder” (1983) you might also remember the helipad. Today the LAPD uses it for their helicopter aviation unit. Inside the very dull-looking building are the city’s archives and it’s here where the LAPD and private dicks sometimes come to work on “cold cases.” LAPD also stores motorcycles, SWAT armored cars, police cars, and unmarked cars here. 

Yet another highlight of your Side Trip is sure to be a distant view of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility (a jail).  As you walk along the avenue towards the bridge you can spot it off to the left behind all the buses (that’s the MTA Division 13 Bus Maintenance Facility) .The correctional facility measures  1.5 million square feet,  the world’s largest.


–> Continue along Cesar E. Chavez Avenue to the bridge.

Another distant view is of the Los Angeles County- USC Medical Center (1933) in Boyle Heights. As you walk up the bridge it’s off the left at about 11:00 am – about a mile away. Even at this distance it may look familiar to you; its exterior starred in the TV shows “Dr. Kildare” and the soap “General Hospital.” It closed in 2008 and all the patients were moved to a new facility across the street – not visible on this walk. Trivia Alert: Norma Jean Mortenson, later Norma Jean Baker, later Maryilyn Monroe was born at the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center – but not in this building. She was born in 1926, seven years before the building was born.

B) Cesar E. Chavez Avenue Viaduct. The Cesar E. Chavez Avenue Viaduct (formerly the Macy Street Bridge) crosses the Los Angeles River but you only have to cross it part way to take its majesty. Tongue-in-cheek aside, the river deserves far more respect than we give it. Usually it”s little more than a trickle but when the rains come its outflow at San Pedro can equal the average flow of the mighty Mississippi.

C) Los Angeles River. Geologists believe that back in the 1820s the river followed its present course until a few miles south of the village. It then made a sharp turn to the west  running to the Pacific approximating the route of today’s Ballona Creek. In that decade an especially strong winter storm changed the river’s flow to its current route. We don’t know about this for sure because back then there weren’t many people here to A) notice the change, or B) to care.

As Los Angeles grew in population people started to notice their river and care about its continual, often disastrous flooding. Finally, in the late 1930s the Army Corps of Engineers was brought in and spent 20 years building concrete channels to tame and contain its unpredictability. The job was completed in 1959. Today the city is looking at ways to safely return portions of the river to its natural state.

Originating in Canoga Park, at times the river looks almost “normal,” with an earthen bottom and willows and cottonwoods growing along its banks. But as additional streams and washes join it, the river becomes increasingly cemented in; sometimes it disappears altogether as it travels beneath the streets in concrete culverts. From a point near Griffith Park, about eight miles upriver from where you stand, it’s essentially a concrete flood control channel all the way to the ocean.

You may see trains traveling the tracks below. Passenger trains arriving Union Station from the south and southeast pass beneath this bridge before looping around to enter the station platforms. With both below you – the river and the rails – you are seeing the city’s two most fundamental assets. That river fixed Los Angeles on the map; those rails made it grow into one of the world’s great metropolises.

The Los Angeles River has starred in dozens of movies, but not always as a river. In the 1978 musical film “Grease” it served as a drag strip. In the image above, that’s the Cesar E. Chavez Avenue Viaduct in the distance.

Want to kayak the river? Check with the folks at “Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR).

–> Retrace your steps along Cesar E. Chavez Avenue to N. Vignes Street.

–> Turn left and walk one block to Ramirez Street.

The entrance to the Patsaouras Transit Plaza is to your right. To the left, within eyesight, is a Denny’s restaurant.

D) Denny’s. No ordinary Denny’s, this one was built in about 1960 at the height of what we now call the “Googie” era. The architects are Armet & Davis – a team often called the “Frank Lloyd Wright of 1950s coffee shop design.” The term “Googie,” like the style, originated here in Southern California when the celebrated architect John Lautner designed a coffee shop called “Googies” in 1949. Giant, bold expanses of glass, steel and concrete characterize the style. Think of futuristic, upswept roofs; rocket, flying saucer or boomerang shapes; gravity-defying cantilevers – and you’ve got the idea.

–> Enter the Patsaouras Transit Plaza and walk to the MTA Building entrance to resume the tour.

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