A recent move by a friend from New York to Los Angeles inspired me to look at the hidden waterways of this West Coast City. The climate here is hot and arid for most of the year, not a city where I would feel comfortable outdoors. But it has seasonal streams that carry water from the city’s mountains and streets, most of which have been confined to concrete channels and culverts. The longest and most famous example is the Los Angeles River, which has its conservancy groups and is undergoing restoration efforts.
The Dominguez Channel on the city’s south side isn’t as famous, and only a small portion of it flows through Los Angeles, which has a narrow panhandle extending south to its harbor. Most of this stream is within the smaller cities of Inglewood, Hawthorne, Gardena, Torrance, and Carson, before emptying into Los Angeles Harbor.
Where It Flows
The sizable watershed of Dominguez Channel exceeds the humble appearance of this stream and along the way it collects water from tributaries that have been channelized into culverts and sewers. The channel descends to sea level at Vermont Avenue, where it is subject to the tides for the final ten miles of its course.
The furthest inland appearance of Dominguez Channel on the surface is in Inglewood on W. 116th Street, between Kornblum and Doty avenues. Like a highway or a railway, it runs through the street grid and interrupts roads along its course. Recorded history of Dominguez Channel begins in 1769, when California was part of New Spain and the king received title to its entirety. He then awarded portions of the land to landowners whose names appear on the map. The Dominguez family received their ranch at San Pedro in 1784, near the mouth of this channel.
The vast ranch extended from the Los Angeles River on the east, to the Pacific Ocean on the west, covering present-day Torrance, Carson, Redondo Beach, and the shore of LA Harbor. When the railroad was built between Los Angeles and the harbor in 1869, Manuel Dominguez donated land from the rancho for the new venture. Where cattle and steer used to run, cars are parked on vast lots representing dealerships and retailers. After curving around Hawthorne Municipal Airport, the stream turns south at 120th Street, as seen above. The stream parallels Crenshaw Boulevard for a mile and a half before making its next curve at Rosecrans Avenue. The left bank contains a bikeway, the Laguna Dominguez Trail.
At Rosecrans and Crenshaw, there is an ornate metal gate marking the bikeway. It is an easy way to separate bikes from automobiles and create a linear park in a city that is lacking in parkland in proportion to its population and size. Continuing downstream, the bikeway and channel run behind backyards and border on Bodger Park, but there is no connection between this park and the bikeway. A wall separates them. The more unusual design curiosity appears atop the stream between Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach boulevards, within a college campus.
At El Camino College, the shortage of parking spots was addressed with a garage built atop the stream, bordering on Alondra Park. The linear garage fits 2,000 cars, stretching for a half mile across the stream. The Laguna Dominguez Trail ends at Alondra Park, but there is another shoreline trail further downstream that is not connected to it.
At Vermont Avenue the stream descends to sea level and fluctuates with the tides. At this location it received an unnamed tributary that originates at Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve which offers the natural scenery of the Dominguez watershed as it appeared before urbanization. It was in the 1920s when most of Dominguez Slough was channelized.
The preserve is a 15-acre remnant of a much larger wetland habitat that covered thousands of acres prior to urbanization. When the temperatures are at their hottest, the shade of trees and moisture of the stream provides a cooling effect to counteract the “urban heat island.” The preserve’s seasonal stream descends beneath Artesia Boulevard and Vermont Avenue before flowing into Dominguez Channel.
Between South Main Street and East Del Amoretto Boulevard, the stream flows past a Goodyear airship base and a golf course that is slated for redevelopment as a recreation and sports complex with a park. The plan preserves a tributary of Dominguez Channel as a naturalistic ravine. This tributary originates at Carson Harbor Village, a community of settled mobile homes that has a private park that collects water for this stream. That park resembles the Gardena Willows preserve in its appearance as a forested ravine.
The San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405) is the dividing line between residential areas and industries. Looking downstream from the highway, the banks are lined with oil refineries, car dealerships, and parking lots. The scenery is reminiscent of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal before it was gentrified, plus a few palm trees. Service roads follow the channel along this stretch and it is possible to transform them into public bike routes.
At Henry Ford Avenue, the channel widens into Consolidated Slip, one of the inlets associated with Los Angeles Harbor. In turn, this slip widens into East Basin and then Main Channel before it enters the ocean at the city’s harbor. Marinas with boats and yachts line the slip. In the background, the hills of Palos Verdes overlook the harbor and the ocean beyond. To the east, near the mouth of Dominguez Channel, the Los Angeles River widens into the harbor at Long Beach.
Tributaries of Dominguez Channel
At El Segundo Boulevard is a tributary that flows out of the Chester Washington Golf Course. This unnamed tributary flows past Rowley Park, but the park has no relation to it. There are no trails along its bank, or signage indicating its presence. A fence separates it from the park.
The tributary that flows seasonally through Chester Washington Golf Course and past Rowley Park has its “source” at Avalon Boulevard north of Walnut Street, where it curves behind backyards. The 1.5-acre Walnut Mini-Park borders on this tributary, but has no connection to it, visually or in regards to its landscaping.
At Walnut Mini-Park, visitors can see the tributary channel and the scenery appear very green for this arid region. I can imagine benches overlooking the channel, and rocks inside it to slow the water and slow for vegetation to grow in a constructed wetland. The service path along the bank can connect this Mini-Park to other streets in the area.
At Wilton Place, the unnamed tributary merges with a channel that follows 135th Street for nearly a mile. The appearance of both streams resemble empty highways in a city famous for its dependence on automobiles. On a few occasions, the concrete banks fill up entirely with water. But considering that they are empty for much of the year, perhaps it would make sense for them to serve as paths for pedestrians and bikes during dry spells.
The tributary that follows 135th Street emerges on the surface at Western Avenue, where there is an attempt at a public space with paving stones and three trees. I can imagine a sculptural fountain or constructed waterfall here to evoke a theme of a stream’s source. Recall my essay on the Dongcheon stream in Busan, Korea, where a constructed waterfall conceals the portal of a sewer. With a sidewalk on its left bank and a service road on its right bank, both sides of this channel can serve as linear parks.
Looking west at the 135th Street tributary at Van Ness Avenue, one can see its potential as a linear park that connects neighborhoods along its course. Los Angeles has many such hidden waterways that appear as concrete channels. Outside of the Dominguez Channel watershed, there’s Compton Creek, Rio Hondo, and Arroyo Seco that drain into the Los Angeles River. Ballona Creek has a sizable watershed between Hollywood and Marina Del Rey.
I’ve written earlier that I couldn’t imagine living in Los Angeles, but given the opportunity to reimagine its channelized waterways as linear parks, I would follow my friend to the West Coast. The city center is hot, but there are mountains within driving distance, and beaches that have cold water flowing south from Alaska and Canada.
There is a blog for the hidden waterways of this city, LA Creek Freak. It hasn’t been active since December 2019, but its essays offer great detail about the city with photos and maps.
Ballona Creek Renaissance documents improvement projects along this urban stream.
For contrasting images of LA River before it became a flood control channel in the 1930s, Curbed LA offers a detailed photo essay.
The appearance of an urban river inside a concrete channel is reminiscent of the Ayalon River in Tel Aviv, and the Verdanson in Montpelier, cities that share a hot Mediterranean climate similar to Southern California.