Preservation Watch: Save the “Mother Ditch”?

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Earlier this month, workers excavating the site of a $100-million Chinatown development “discovered a 100-foot section of Los Angeles’ first municipal water system, an  ancient maze of brick and wooden pipes and conduits that once fed the city,” reported The Los Angeles Times. “The 4-foot-diameter brick pipe that was found beneath what once was Little  Joe’s restaurant is part of the so-called Mother Ditch, or Zanja Madre, that  carried water from the Los Angeles River to the young city, its channels  twisting and bending along a 90-mile network.”

The find has caused great excitement among archeologists and historians of Los Angeles, but concern about what happens next to the storied pipe. The LA Times reports a 40-foot section of the Zanja Madre will be removed Saturday from the Blossom  Plaza site and preserved for future display. The plan is reportedly to exhibit sections of  the Mother Ditch at the Blossom Plaza, the Los Angeles Historic State Park and alongside a Los Angeles River Water Wheel replica project planned by artist Lauren Bon.

But not everyone is pleased with this proposed solution. Alex Ward is an architect and boardmember of Friends of the LA River, and argues the pipe should stay where it was found.

DSC_5216 Zanja Madre photo by William Preston BowlingAnother section of Los Angeles’ original water system, the Zanja Madre or “Mother Ditch”,  has been uncovered on the site of the Blossom Plaza development in Chinatown, owned by Forest City Residential West. More than 100 feet of the brick conduit, dating back over a hundred years, currently lies exposed directly next to the Chinatown Gold Line Metro station.

This pipe, and the open “ditch” which it replaced, sluiced water from the Los Angeles River into the embryonic city forming around the Pueblo starting in the 1780s . Much of it is still buried only a few feet below the surface of the modern city. A portion was uncovered during the Gold Line construction, and is now on display (behind a chain link fence) in the Los Angeles State Historic Park, aka “The Cornfields.”

But this newly-discovered section is in jeopardy. The artist Lauren Bon has generously offered to pay for the relocation of a 40 foot section down closer to the River, where it would be incorporated into her proposed massive waterwheel project. The rest would end up as bits and pieces, scattered to various displays.

But her offer, though well-meaning, side-steps the right solution, which is to preserve and protect the pipe in place, since its location is integral to its significance. This solution, of course, would require time and money in the re-design of a portion of the project.

At the moment, the plan is to move the pipe this Saturday the 26th, though no one seems clear on HOW to move a forty foot section of fragile brick conduit intact. Why the rush? Why not take the time to think through a plan more in keeping with the irreplaceable nature of this piece of early Los Angeles? Let’s give this “Mother” the respect she deserves.

Let us know your thoughts? Is the value of this discovery lost by relocation?

Photos by William Preston Bowling.

One Week Later

Was FOLAR right?

It turns out the “fragile brick conduit” collapsed in the move. Now the pipe sits in piles at Metabolic Studio, awaiting a new home. KCRW’s Saul Gonzalez took this picture:

Shards of Zanja Madre by Saul Gonzalez