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The head of the crusade to preserve the L.A. River is stepping aside as group's president

Lewis MacAdams, the poet and flag bearer of the crusade to transform the Los Angeles River into a more natural state, gripped the handles of his walker and shuffled along a weedy stretch of the flood control channel hemmed by freeways, power lines and railroad yards.

Clad in black pants, a vintage shirt and pork pie hat, the 73-year-old co-founder of the hardened army known as Friends of the Los Angeles River steadied himself and gazed out, listening intently.

“The L.A. River speaks to me,” MacAdams said with a wry smile. “And she’s been a vigorous muse for more than 30 years.”

Now, he said, the river is telling him something new: “It’s time for a new generation of idealists to guide her future for the next 30 years.”

So, he is moving on.

As the group’s first president, MacAdams was influential in making river restoration an issue for environmentalists and policy makers, and in transforming the nonprofit from a handful of believers into one of the leading conservationist organizations in California with a list of 40,000 supporters, annual river cleanup crusades and educational programs.

MacAdams and Friends also did much of the work to win approval of a $1.6-billion federal project to restore habitat, widen the channel, create wetlands and provide access points and bike trails along an 11-mile section of unpaved riverbed north of downtown.

In recognition of his contributions, plans are underway to install a statue somewhere along the river’s edge featuring artistic renderings of MacAdams and wildlife from cottonwood trees to red-legged frogs.

“Lewis helped change the way we look at the river and the city,” said Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Climate Resolve. “He made us see beauty where others saw…  a flood control channel.”

On Dec. 1, MacAdams will publicly introduce the organization’s new leaders,  including board Chairman Michael-Kevin O’Connell , 42, who is the managing director of a private equity company, and Executive Director Marissa Christiansen, 35, who had been Friends’ senior policy director. “My role,” Christiansen said, “isn’t to fill Lewis’ shoes, which is impossible, but to stay on his path.”

Her priorities also include mending the organization’s rift with architect Frank Gehry and River LA, a pro-development group formerly known as the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp., which was founded by Los Angeles in 2009 to pursue economic opportunities along the river.

In 2015, MacAdams was dismayed to learn that Gehry for several months had been working behind the scenes on a new master plan for the river with the approval of powerhouse business leaders, River LA and City Hall officials led by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Worried that the project would undermine his group’s efforts to secure funding for the $1.6-billion proposal to restore habitat, MacAdams refused to endorse the Gehry effort, which is moving forward.

“Lewis is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve . . . ” said Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor of environment and sustainability at UCLA, speaking just after the conflict surfaced.  “I wouldn’t trade Lewis’ passion for anything in the world.”

Friends of the River’s new leaders say they are trying to pivot and be more cooperative with River LA.

And the rapprochement efforts seem to be mutual. 

Harry Chandler, LA River’s chairman, lauded MacAdams as “a rare combination of pioneer, poet and visionary.”

“He introduced me and thousands more to the L.A. River’s potential,” Chandler said. “His leadership will be sorely missed.”

MacAdams grew up in Dallas, the son of political activists. As a teenager, he rode his bicycle around that city singing “We Shall Overcome,” and was arrested for trying to integrate a Dallas restaurant. 

Before moving to Los Angeles in 1980, MacAdams worked as a barker for strip clubs in San Francisco, ran the poetry center at San Francisco State University, and sorted out environmental issues as a utility district commissioner in Marin County.

He found his calling one day in 1986, when he and a few friends, fortified by coffee and brandy, used wire cutters to snip a hole in the fence that separated the concrete flood control channel from the city. Walking along a stretch of the L.A. River just north of downtown, they asked it for permission to speak on its behalf, McAdams recalls, adding: “We didn’t hear no.”

Friends of the River launched as a piece of performance art, staged in a skid row basement.

MacAdams donned a white suit and painted himself green to hearken the ghost of William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Props included a massive totem pole made of junk found along the river.

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The organization has been feeding visions of an urban oasis along the river ever since.

Two former railroad yards along the river are now state parks, and another 44-acre rail yard is in escrow with the city. Other nonprofits have created riverfront pocket parks, and a bike path that continues to grow.

In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency deemed the 51-mile-long river navigable and subject to the protections of the Clean Water Act for its entirety, from Chatsworth to Long Beach. A year later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitted kayaking along a soft-bottom stretch about 17 miles north of downtown.

MacAdams, who is recovering from a recent stroke, will remain on the organization’s board, and is 60 pages into his memoir: “Poetry and Politics.”  

It will, he says, be “full of surprises. I’d have had an interesting life even if I had not been summoned by the river.”

Meanwhile, he’s confident that others will step onto the path he helped to pioneer. 

“When people ask me, ‘What can I do to help?’” MacAdams said, “I tell them, ‘Go down by the river. It will tell you.’”

Louis.Sahagun@latimes.com

@LouisSahagun

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