Locations: Arroyo Seco

In the summer of 2019, I got acquainted with a theater group that created immersive experiences, they were looking for a dramaturg for their upcoming summer shows and laboratories. 

Because of my expertise in site-specific performances and my passion for psychogeography, I was proposed to write a few notes about a nook in Los Angeles where the group planned to host their events. 

Devil’s Gate flooded

The Devil’s Gate Dam is located in the lower part of the Arroyo Seco, a giant 40-kilometer long watershed that crosses Los Angeles from north to south. 

The name Arroyo Seco was given by the Spanish missioner Gaspar de Portola, who explored Southern California in the late 18th century. This canyon had the least amount of water Portola had ever seen. He could not have known that it was a seasonal river that caused severe floods every winter. 

There is a tradition common to the mountainous regions of Eurasia and some shamanic tribes of North America to give to a newborn child two names. First is the real one, which was kept in a secret;  the other one was fantastic in a demeaning sense. The purpose of this was to shield and defend a child from the evil spirits. That’s very similar to how the fierce seasonal river got its modern name. Arroyo Seco means the dry stream in Spanish. The river head of the Arroyo Seco watershed lays high up North, in the San Gabriel mountains, where the stream gains its power. It is symbolic that Tongva people, who lived in the canyon for hundreds of years, believed that humans originated in the North where the Supreme Being lived and that the Supreme Being himself led Tongva ancestors to Southern California. 

The Arroyo watershed can be compared to the basin of the Nile river, which banks are covered with luscious vegetation and have several zones of natural habitat, and the valley still serves as the major transportation vein. Dating back to the original Tongva residents of the area, Arroyo Seco canyon has always served as a major transportation corridor. Today it connects Downtown Los Angeles with Pasadena, West San Gabriel Valley, and the San Gabriel Mountains.

Arroyo Seco has five diverse habitats. The most abundant part of the canyon is the Hahamongna valley, which is located in the upper Arroyo Seco area just above the Devil’s Gate, and south to Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The name Hahamongna means Flowing Waters or Fruitful Valley, significantly different from the designation that was given by the Spanish explorers. Tongva were closely connected to the flora, growing in the area. Shamans not only used hallucinogenic herbs for initiations and other ritual practices but different complex pastes and infusions were commonly used for health treatment. 

The valley, possessing the incredible power of charged water, descending from the mountains at a frantic speed, resembles a living creature. At any point in the valley, one can feel the most powerful, elemental force of nature. Of course, sooner or later a person had to use such energy. 

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Jet Propulsion Laboratory The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a NASA research center operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) that builds and maintains robotic spacecraft for NASA. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/ 

JPL traces its history back to 1936 when the first series of rocket experiments were conducted in the Arroyo Seco Valley. Graduate Students at the California Institute of Technology In 1936, the “Rocket Boys” were an unusual group, says the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website (jpl.nasa.gov). “Frank Malina studied aerodynamics, Jack Parsons was a self-taught chemist and Ed Foreman was an excellent mechanic. They scraped together cheap engine parts and drove the Arroyo Seco on October 31, 1936. On that day, they tried four times to test launch their small rocket engine. These were the first rocket experiments in JPL history. ” 

The Rocket Boys

In 1943, the Rocket Boys founded the Aerojet Corporation to manufacture JATO rockets. In November 1943, the project was named the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), formally becoming a military facility operated under a contract with the university. 

By all accounts, Parsons was a brilliant self-taught rocket scientist, although much of his scientific career was canceled due to his obsession with the occult, his connection with Hubbard’s Scientologists, and rituals related to sex, blood, and classical music. Parsons was also an adherent of the controversial British occultist Aleister Crowley, and in parallel with the construction of missiles, he performed occult practices in Arroyo Seco. 

It was Jack Parsons who turned Devil’s Gate into an urban legend. In 1944, Parsons was expelled from the laboratory due to “unorthodox and unsafe practices” following one of several FBI investigations. 

Above the Devil’s Gate gorge the rapids of the Arroyo Seco River are located in a way that the waterfalls emit a roar very similar to laughter. Tongva-Gabrielino’s traditional stories involve a dispute between a fast mountain river and the spirit of a coyote.  Coyote usually plays a role of a trickster in Tongva mythology. As with many Native American traditions in the US Southwest, Coyote tales range from light-hearted plots of mischief and buffoonery to more serious stories in which Coyote helps all of humanity. 

The Devil’s Gate gorge, named after a rock formation that resembles a devil’s face, is the narrowest point on Arroyo Seco’s river path. It was the spot where the roar of falling water reminiscent of laughter was heard the loudest. It is believed that the rituals that Parsons performed in the gorge opened a portal to hell and made this place such a magnet for dark magic and people interested in paranormal research. 

The dam itself was erected in 1920 after the particularly devastating floods of 1914 and 1916. And after that, the river was completely chained into a concrete channel.

Los Angeles flood 1914

In recent years, environmentalists have been concerned that the once-blooming valley of a seasonal river is quickly turning into a dry ravine. It is especially sad to hear that due to the dam and sewage of the river, thousands of steelhead and rainbow trout cannot make their usual way from mountain creeks to the Pacific Ocean and back. Only during the floods, the strongest fish is able to travel this long and difficult path. Now there are several programs for the restoration of the natural zones of the canyon and the valley of Arroyo Seco, I hope positive changes will occur in my lifetime. 

There are many picturesque places in the area of Arroyo Seco, add to this the rich Californian sun – you get an ideal plein air

Arroyo Seco (Alston Clark, 1920)

In the late 19th century, the areas around the valley became densely populated with painters, writers and architects. Now that everything is finally open after the pandemic, you can get to several wonderful museums, including the Heritage Square Museum – a penny of land to which activists brought eight Victorian buildings in the 60s of the 20th century to save them during the city’s renovation. 

Heritage Square Museum

Find a complete list of Northeast Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Sites here

Arroyo Seco is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Los Angeles County, and I go there every time to soak up the incredible energy of the place, blend in with nature and bring myself to peace of mind. For those who live in the city, or planning to travel there soon, I highly recommend walking or cycling up the mountain trail that starts right behind the JPL Lab.  The trail goes deep in a narrow, overgrown canyon along a fast-flowing stream until you reach the waterfall from the Brown Mountain Dam. 

The main feature of Arroyo Seco is its ability to fill and dry seasonally, which creates a certain rhythm in the natural program. And if we look at the larger Los Angeles River Basin, we can see that Arroyo Seco is a small but powerful part that serves as the beating heart of the entire county. 

To immerse myself in this beautiful place, I recorded two audio files last summer at Arroyo Seco. Also listen to how Tongva language files. I really like this channel on Soundcloud, I happened to know about it in the Central Library of LA when I was studying Tongva history.