The contrast between nostalgia for the Los Angeles River and the reality of it today could not be sharper than at its confluence with the Arroyo Seco, a big, desolate flood-control channel strewn with trash and hemmed by freeways, power lines and railroad yards.
Nagged by a sense that a real river lay entombed in all that concrete, L.A. poet Lewis MacAdams and two friends, fortified by coffee and brandy, in 1985 used wire cutters to snip a hole in the fence that separated the river from the city. They declared the channel open.
Their action struck a note. Ever since, conservationists led by the nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River, which MacAdams co-founded, have been slowly undoing decades of environmental damage. Late last month, they passed a milestone.
The organization rolled out a $500,000 mobile classroom, christened the River Rover, that will be used to teach students to appreciate the river as a drain for urban runoff that also feeds wetlands and wildlife habitat. The once-embarrassing concrete channel, created in response to devastating floods in 1938, will come to life.
"The L.A. River will never be the same," MacAdams, 69, said on a recent Sunday as he and a handful of conservationists ogled the 38-foot-long vehicle sitting not far from where he had attacked the fence with wire cutters.
Starting in May, the Rover, festooned with splashy exterior renderings of riverscapes past, present and future — and amphibian mascot "Froggy" — will become a familiar sight at the 120 schools within a mile of the river, which flows in an unnaturally straight line 51 miles from its headwaters in Canoga Park to Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean.
"Imagine students piling out of the Rover in a place like this with water testing kits and binoculars, and recording their discoveries in citizen science databases," said Shelly Backlar, the river organization's education director. "They'll take home a personal connection with a river some people don't even know exists."
As she spoke, white pelicans preened on a weedy island in the river and swallows careened over murky water that smelled of old socks. Wading birds pecked at insects between discarded Styrofoam cups and a fisherman angled for carp.
Jay Gonzalez, an advisor with the Los Angeles Unified School District's career technical education unit, has high hopes for what he describes as "a flagship cruising from one neighborhood school to the next with this message: The L.A. River is alive and brimming with lessons to learn."
"I believe that some students will continue to work on Rover-inspired projects as they get older," Gonzalez said. "They will come back later as young adults, and admire the results of their labor. Eventually, their efforts will be taken up by their own sons and daughters."
The "Rover experience" begins with an introduction to the history of the river chronicled in colorful exterior renderings by artist Christian Kasperkovitz.
The river once meandered along a winding and often dry path across a landscape inhabited by Tongva Indians and prowled by wolves and grizzly bears.
Los Angeles' pioneers in 1781 settled along the river because of the ample water supply there. Frequent catastrophic floods prompted civic leaders in the 1930s to transform the river into a flood-control channel to protect the burgeoning flatlands.
Nearly the entire river bottom was covered by concrete, except a few spots where the water table was too high. Among them were the Glendale Narrows, which run through downtown, past blue-collar neighborhoods, industrial zones and levees rimmed with chain-link fences and barbed wire.
Awareness of the river as a natural resource began to grow in the late 1980s. Since it was founded in 1986, Friends of the Los Angeles River has helped create the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, a principal forum for discussion of the rivers' future, and develop a community park at a 30-acre parcel of land between Chinatown and the Los Angeles River known as the Cornfields. It prevailed in a battle to establish a state park at Taylor Yard — a 220-acre former railroad yard along the Los Angeles River in Elysian Valley — and plans to complete a single 31-mile bike route along the channel from Griffith Park to Long Beach.
In 2010, the river was designated a navigable waterway, subject in its entirety to the protections of the federal Clean Water Act.
A year later, Friends of the Los Angeles River received a $1-million donation from the Miss Me clothing company to build and operate the Rover, essentially a Freightliner chassis with a Winnebago shell comparable to vehicles used by SWAT teams and mammography labs.
Its appearance will fulfill a portion of MacAdams' dream.
"Getting from cutting a hole in that fence to welcoming the Rover has been a long journey of discovery," he said. "Our goal hasn't changed: Restore the river, and let it teach us about nature."