Katz Tries Going With L.A. River’s Flow : Freeway: He sees a stream of cars where no man has dared to drive before.

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Assemblyman Richard Katz, at the wheel of his Chevy Blazer, was searching for an entry into the Los Angeles River. He couldn’t find one. It was hot and smoggy, and traffic was a mess. But Katz is a motivated man. He yearns to turn the L.A. River into a freeway, and his mission today was to drive the river himself, to show you that it can be done.

He darted in and out like a gnat, along Pasadena Avenue, along San Fernando Road, all the while happily describing the virtues of his plan to at last get some decent use out of this ugly, nasty concrete sewage trench Angelenos call a river.

Finally, at Fletcher Drive, a gate was open.

Katz hesitated, sighed. He knew what was down there.

Rushing water. Big white boulders. Lots of trees.

“Not trees. Bushes,” Katz growled “Bushes! And they wouldn’t be here in a normal rainy season. They’d be wiped out! Washed away. Gone!”


So peaceful. So pretty.

“I know. I know. God, I hate Pretty,” groaned Katz, laughing.

Overall, Katz is filled with admiration at the fine job the Army Corps of Engineers did 50 years ago paving over the L.A. River. But here, in a two-mile stretch of artesian springs, the Army let him down. The engineers couldn’t figure out how to pave it over. This patch of the river still has its natural sandy bottom. Environmentalists call it Frogtown.

No frogs were visible, but they were surely down there someplace.

“Listen,” yelped the frustrated Katz, “this is, at the most, only two miles out of 35! And two-thirds of this river basin is going to remain the same! Those frogs are gonna be OK!”

But won’t the traffic disturb them?

Katz refused to take the bait. If necessary, he said, his freeway could depart the riverbed at this brief juncture, bypassing the infernal frogs altogether.

Across the way, a silvery-haired old man was bent over with a bucket, digging for something. Katz snatched out his binoculars. “Let me guess,” he muttered sardonically, “he’s gonna catch a big fish.” A photographer started to take Katz’s photo. “I don’t want to be photographed with any bushes,” he said, scampering back into the Blazer.

Heading west, Katz never did find another entrance, despite a number of frustrating attempts. It was not until he reached Universal City that, for the first time since Frogtown, Richard Katz was able to grin again.

“Ah,” he crooned, as the Blazer cleared a rise. “There’s my L.A. River.”

No more Pretty.

Here the Los Angeles River appeared, if anything, even more pathetic than it had downtown. Just a big, dry, sterile concrete trench with a narrow, tidy sewage channel down the center, twining in submissive utility to the genius of man as far west as the eye can see, through housing tracts with their backs turned.


Six lanes down there, easy, just for the taking.

Richard Katz, 39, (D-Sylmar) has been brooding over the wasted potential of the L.A. River for years. Every time he drove by it he was struck with admiration. What gorgeous concrete it had, how wonderfully strategic its winding course. This river, he figured, could ease commuter misery on the Ventura and Long Beach freeways by as much as 25%.

But it was not until last year that Katz, as chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, finally worked up the nerve to go public with his thinking. He knew they would laugh and complain. And they did.

Since then, Katz has been called everything from a flake to a madman, a hater of frogs, red-winged blackbirds and marsh weeds, whose harebrained scheme might even get you washed to sea in your car seat someday.

A group called Friends of the L.A. River has vowed, in the rousing words of leader Lewis MacAdams, “He’ll build it over our dead bodies! The L.A. River is not a freeway!” Mayor Tom Bradley has stirred; he opposes Katz’s plan as too cynical, suggesting instead that the long-neglected river now be dolled up somewhat with trees, hiking trails, bikeways.

Inevitably, the national media has descended, smirking about the latest nutsy news from Lotusland.

Katz is hardly daunted: Amid the giggles and insults, county officials are taking his proposal so seriously that the Los Angeles County Transportation Committee is expected to approve a $100,000 feasibility study later this month.


Now visions of grateful commuter voters dance through Katz’s head. He is already trying to decide whether he would rather be your next mayor or run for statewide office instead. It makes him grin when people refer to his proposed freeway as the Katz Korridor.

Katz didn’t have to be asked twice to carry his crusade into the riverbed itself. It sounded like a fine idea, he thought. He’d never driven it himself. His press secretary issued a dress code of blue jeans and said she might even bring along a cooler of pop.

The expedition started out beneath the trash-heaped gloom of the downtown 6th Street viaduct--with Katz, river ready in jeans and boots, doing his level best to invest the mission with all the decorum he could muster.

Katz is serious about his plan, and he didn’t see anything the least bit amusing about this trip. He is so earnest, in fact, that all afternoon he kept swapping from his sunglasses to regular spectacles every time the photographer took aim. No was any newspaper going to capture the father of the L.A. River freeway plan lolling about in a sea of sewage in Hollywood shades.

Katz hadn’t even gotten his little expedition loaded into the Blazer before he had made his basic sales pitch:

Not only is his freeway going to make life easier for about 6,000 commuters an hour, it’s cheap ($30 million a mile, compared to an extravaganza like Metro Rail at $300 million a mile). And it’s simple: All that’s required is construction of a 10-foot retaining wall separating cars from sewage, which will continue on its placid course to the sea.


And all he wants is a measly third of this riverbed for cars. Wildlife could still reside in the other two-thirds. Birds and frogs that can adapt to sewage water, he observes dryly, ought to be able to adjust to a little traffic. And of course nobody’s going to drown, because when it rains, for heaven’s sake, we simply shut it down. Maybe two weeks a year, maximum. As for flash flooding, weather forecasters aren’t that bad. And if they are, “Then you stand the same risk on any city street.”

In the meantime, if people laugh, so be it.

“Only in L.A. would you think of putting cars into a riverbed,” Katz observed gravely, “but only in L.A. would you have a riverbed in 18 inches of concrete. Mine may not be the total solution, but it is a solution. And I understand why people are skeptical of my idea. If it’s so simple, they wonder why it hasn’t been done already. That’s what I’d like to know too.”

Upon that firm note, as dozens of homeless watched in fascination from their rag piles and cardboard shelters, Katz plunged through a scuzzy, dark tunnel with his merry little band, to splash down in the heart of his desire.

A thin brown sea of sewage, it slapped against the Blazer’s wheels, the stench causing everyone to gag and moan.

Except Katz. He just sat there, wearing a little grin of surprised delight. It would be the single sweetest moment of his day. A sewer. Just as he said. The stuff was scattered in puddles across maybe half of the 300-foot basin, overflow from a narrower, deeper trench down the center--where a half-naked man was crouched, intently doing his laundry with a box of Tide.

“Look, he’s washing his face in it too,” Katz said under his breath, sounding like an accidental Peeping Tom.


“It’s like a scene in Egypt,” Elena Stern, Katz’s press secretary, observed, squinting into the harsh landscape. So silent, so quiet. Nothing but glaring concrete and parched mud, graffiti, dozens of homeless camps, all vacant, a plain of human debris, a few shriveled sunflowers baking in the heat. For those who live here, there is no relief. Above are only rail yards and smokestacks.

“The solution to the homeless problem is not letting people live in a sewer we call a river,” Katz finally said, uncertainly.

Whereupon he sped south through the ooze.

This is the stretch of the river Katz would turn into a three-lane truck route, easing congestion to Long Beach; the northern half would be for car-poolers and buses bound for the Valley.

The going was easy, 40 m.p.h. at least. Without any work at all, this was a better road than the freeway visible above, where cars inched along in bumper-to-bumper traffic in a cloud of smog.

“That’s what’s dehumanizing,” he said, pointing. “People sitting in their cars three hours a day, going absolutely nowhere.”

Katz began to loosen up a little, such was his growing pleasure. He was in love with his plan all over again. He even began to show an edge of personality.


He has never really understood it, he said sardonically, all this civic uproar over the rights of a river Angelenos entombed in concrete 50 years ago, when it dared do in 1938 what real rivers sometimes do and flooded.

For good measure, the provoked citizenry also dammed off natural river waters in three reservoirs, turning the hapless river--once, it is said, a thing of genuine beauty, with clear rushing waters, dancing fish, graceful trees, flowers, birds--into what it is today. A sewage canal. Sixty-million gallons of treated water flow through each day. Rain is now the L.A. River’s only relief.

In that light, all Richard Katz is trying to do is bury the last evidence of a city’s shame.

Not that he’s preaching remorse. He would’ve paved it over too.

“It made a lot of sense. They were responding to people’s fears,” he said, shrugging, visibly bored. That’s one of the most refreshing things about Katz. As politicians go, he may be cautious, but he’s not coy. The only thing that impresses him about the Los Angeles River is the genius the Army engineers displayed in almost completely destroying it.

“Just look at this,” he exulted, revving up to 60, waving at the wide-open concrete canyon running ahead, unbroken, for miles. “Eight lanes! The infrastructure. It’s all here!”

Brightening Katz’s spirits further, there was nothing along this stretch of river for environmentalists to mourn. A few scrawny-looking weeds and reeds clutching the ooze here and there, their leaves a dark, decadent-looking green. A few small birds, maybe sandpipers. And one big, majestic blue heron, poised royally in the muck.


Katz frowned at it. Why these damned birds didn’t go find cleaner water was beyond him. But he isn’t trying to displace even a single bird, he repeated for the 10th time.

“I’m a hiker, a camper. . . . I’m on the board of Defenders of National Wildlife! I’m sponsor of a wildlife protection bill to ban hunting of mountain lions! I’m sensitive, I’m sensitive,” he erupted, laughing, pink-cheeked with exasperation.

In fact, as an added plus to his plan, Katz would beautify the river banks with highway funds. Build bike trails, plant trees to break noise for homeowners, help clean the air of fumes. In short, with a little engineering genius, “It’s a win for everybody!”

With that, Katz doubled around and soared back uptown to explore the northern leg of his freeway.

So much for the decent part of Katz’s day.

He made it just past Figueroa.

And there it was. The first hateful sight.

So many big, fluffy bushes growing that it was hard to see the ugly concrete river walls. Same strange quietness. But green now. Damper. We had left Egypt. “These bushes wouldn’t be here,” Katz said calmly, staring at them, “if this were a typical rain season. They would’ve been washed away by now.” Maybe. But there was still a lot of water here, maybe a foot of it. Running fast. Washing away the stench. The air smelled better down here, in fact, than it did on the streets above. Katz ignored all these observations.

The going was getting rougher. The bushes were getting bigger, closing off the passageways to the side. Katz pressed on, bushes mashing the sides of the Blazer. “Don’t tell Lewis I’m hurting his plants,” he remarked with a dark little chuckle.


Finally, the bushes won, leaving the Blazer nowhere to go except either straight up a 45-degree concrete bank--or toward the river’s center.

Above, to one side, was Dodger Stadium; to the other, the raucous, congested streets of Highland Park. But we might as well have been foraging the Amazon, it was so still, so treacherous. Katz’s festive little party fell silent.

Katz himself looked intent, almost fascinated--there’s a streak of Jungle Jim in this guy. If this thing could be done, he was going to do it. If he didn’t get us all drowned first on a scorching October day in Highland Park in sight of City Hall.

Gingerly, Katz edged the Blazer forward a few inches. It lurched forward into a hole. Short shrieks, then silence.

He backed up. The Blazer pulled out. But now we are at a crazy angle, perpendicular to the bank, bracketed by bushes on all sides--facing the center canal, five feet away. It looked black and beckoning.

Katz gave up. He departed the river with no less dignity than whence he came.

“There is nothing down here that wouldn’t grow elsewhere,” was his only immediate comment as he surfaced into the city streets in his bedraggled Blazer, now splattered with clinging globs of brown and green.


Katz stared blankly at a traffic jam in front of a Jack in the Box. Fire trucks. Maybe six of them. He tried to make a turn, a Sparklett’s truck cut him off. “A little gunk down there, a few holes,” he muttered, “but a whole lot better than up here.” A motorist honked irritably at him from behind.

Richard Katz, a pleasant and patient man, sighed and pulled into the clotted rush-hour traffic of the Golden State.