Locations: Arroyo Seco

During the summer of 2019, I became familiar with a theater ensemble specializing in immersive experiences. They were in search of a dramaturg for their upcoming summer productions and workshops. Given my knowledge in site-specific performances and my deep interest in psychogeography, I was asked to compose some observations about a specific spot in Los Angeles where the group intended to stage their events.

Devil’s Gate flooded

The Devil’s Gate Dam can be found in the southern section of the Arroyo Seco, an extensive watershed stretching approximately 40 kilometers across Los Angeles from north to south.

The term “Arroyo Seco” was bestowed by the Spanish missionary Gaspar de Portola during his exploration of Southern California in the late 18th century. He named it so due to its seemingly dry nature at the time, unaware that it was a seasonal river prone to severe flooding during the winter months.

There exists a tradition, common among mountainous regions in Eurasia and some shamanic tribes in North America, where a newborn child is given two names. The first is the real name, kept secret, while the second is a fantastical, somewhat derogatory name. This practice serves to protect the child from malevolent spirits. In a similar vein, the Arroyo Seco river acquired its modern name, which means “dry stream” in Spanish, despite its powerful seasonal flows originating in the San Gabriel Mountains to the north. Symbolically, the Tongva people, who inhabited the canyon for centuries, believed that humanity’s origins lay to the north, where the Supreme Being resided, and that the Supreme Being led the ancestors of the Tongva to Southern California.

Comparatively, the Arroyo watershed resembles the Nile River basin, with lush vegetation along its banks and various natural habitats. It continues to serve as a significant transportation route, a role it has played since the days of the original Tongva inhabitants. Today, it connects Downtown Los Angeles with Pasadena, West San Gabriel Valley, and the San Gabriel Mountains.

The Arroyo Seco encompasses five diverse habitats, with the most abundant part being the Hahamongna Valley, situated in the upper Arroyo Seco region just north of Devil’s Gate and south of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Hahamongna” translates to “Flowing Waters” or “Fruitful Valley,” a stark contrast to the Spanish name. The Tongva people had a strong connection to the flora in this area, using various plants for initiations, rituals, and medicinal purposes.

This valley, powered by the incredible force of rushing mountain waters, possesses a life force of its own. Standing anywhere within the valley, one can sense the raw power of nature at its most elemental. Naturally, humanity eventually harnessed this energy for various purposes.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a NASA research facility that is managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Its primary mission is to construct and oversee the maintenance of robotic spacecraft for NASA. You can find more information about JPL on their official website at https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/.

The origins of JPL can be traced back to 1936, when the initial series of rocket experiments took place in the Arroyo Seco Valley. A group of graduate students at the California Institute of Technology, known as the “Rocket Boys,” comprised an unconventional team. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website (jpl.nasa.gov), this group included Frank Malina, who specialized in aerodynamics, Jack Parsons, a self-taught chemist, and Ed Foreman, a highly skilled mechanic. They managed to assemble affordable engine components and made their way to the Arroyo Seco on October 31, 1936. On that day, they made four attempts to conduct test launches of their small rocket engine. These experiments marked the inaugural rocket trials in the history of JPL.

The Rocket Boys

In 1943, the group known as the Rocket Boys established the Aerojet Corporation with the purpose of manufacturing JATO rockets. Subsequently, in November 1943, the project was officially designated as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It underwent a formal transformation into a military facility, operating under a contractual arrangement with the university.

Jack Parsons, widely regarded as a brilliant self-taught rocket scientist, had a complex career marked by unconventional interests. Unfortunately, his scientific pursuits were curtailed due to his preoccupation with the occult, affiliations with Hubbard’s Scientologists, and participation in rituals involving elements such as sex, blood, and classical music. Parsons was also an adherent of the controversial British occultist Aleister Crowley. Concurrent with his missile construction work, he engaged in occult practices within the Arroyo Seco region.

Jack Parsons played a significant role in turning Devil’s Gate into a prominent urban legend. In 1944, he was expelled from the laboratory due to his “unconventional and unsafe practices,” following one of several FBI investigations.

Above the Devil’s Gate gorge, the rapids of the Arroyo Seco River are positioned in a way that the waterfalls produce a sound reminiscent of laughter. The traditional stories of the Tongva-Gabrielino people involve a conflict between a swift mountain river and the spirit of a coyote. Coyote typically assumes the role of a trickster in Tongva mythology. Much like numerous Native American traditions in the southwestern United States, Coyote narratives encompass a spectrum, ranging from lighthearted tales of mischief and buffoonery to more profound stories in which Coyote aids humanity.

The Devil’s Gate gorge, named for its rock formation resembling a devil’s visage, represents the narrowest point along the course of the Arroyo Seco’s river. It is where the sound of falling water, evoking laughter, is most pronounced. It is believed that the rituals conducted by Parsons in this gorge opened a gateway to the netherworld, rendering the site an attraction for those interested in dark magic and 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 times, environmentalists have expressed growing concerns about the transformation of what was once a flourishing seasonal river valley into a desolate ravine. It is particularly disheartening to learn that, as a result of the dam and sewage in the river, thousands of steelhead and rainbow trout can no longer follow their customary route from mountain creeks to the Pacific Ocean and back. Only during periods of heavy floods can the most robust fish manage the arduous journey. Thankfully, there are now multiple initiatives aimed at restoring the natural habitats of the canyon and the Arroyo Seco valley. I hold hope that these efforts will yield positive changes during my lifetime.

The Arroyo Seco region boasts numerous picturesque locations, and when combined with the abundant Californian sunshine, it creates an ideal setting for plein air activities.

Arroyo Seco (Alston Clark, 1920)

During the latter part of the 19th century, the regions surrounding the valley experienced a significant influx of residents, including painters, writers, and architects. Now that everything has fully reopened following the pandemic, you have the opportunity to visit several fantastic museums in the area. One such museum is the Heritage Square Museum, a small plot of land where activists transported eight Victorian buildings in the 1960s to preserve them amidst the city’s redevelopment efforts.

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 defining characteristic of Arroyo Seco is its capacity to fill and dry up seasonally, creating a distinct natural rhythm. When we consider the broader Los Angeles River Basin, it becomes evident that Arroyo Seco, although relatively small, plays a vital role as the pulsating heart of the entire county.

To fully engage with the beauty of this place, I recorded two audio files during my visit to Arroyo Seco last summer. I also had the opportunity to listen to Tongva language recordings. I discovered this Soundcloud channel, which I found fascinating, while studying Tongva history at the Central Library of Los Angeles.