I just got back from riding down the bike path along the Los Angeles River, and I’d like to write some Whitmanesque stanzas about the atomic oneness of nature, but the diesel fumes have aggravated my asthma and my ears are still ringing from the trucks blaring past on the Golden State Freeway.
When John Muir wrote about the effects of time spent in the wilderness -- “the galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware” -- he wasn’t thinking about the L.A. River. It is, and will remain, an above-ground sewer, rendering the efforts of those who want to remake it into a recreational paradise seem more than a little quixotic.
The five-mile bike path runs from the northern part of Griffith Park to Fletcher Drive near Silver Lake. It passes along the Glendale Narrows section of the river, which, unlike most of the waterway’s length, has no concrete bottom because groundwater rises to the surface here and would crack through a man-made barrier. The result is something that almost resembles a real river, with trees, shrubs and natural grasses. Picture a mountain stream, then line its banks with graffiti-scarred concrete, smoke-belching industrial buildings and the snarling, lung-burning, 10-lane tornado that is the I-5, and you have the Glendale Narrows.
Pro-restoration groups such as Friends of the Los Angeles River see this area as an example of what the whole aqueduct could look like. Somehow, I find this less than inspiring. Admittedly, it is reassuring to see wildlife thriving in the midst of such blight -- the waters teem with great blue herons, egrets, black-necked stilts and other beautiful birds -- but this is a nature experience only for those who have never actually experienced nature. Those birds are wading in treated sewage during the dry season and urban runoff replete with deadly chemicals, dog feces and other nastiness during the wet season; at any time of year, it’s also a garbage dump.
The Glendale Narrows bike path is only the beginning of what’s in store. The city’s 2007 Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan calls for extending the bike path, building parks and other green space along the river’s banks, removing concrete where possible, improving water quality, widening the channel in places and other projects. It’s a lovely idea, but even if the city could come up with the $2 billion-plus needed to realize its vision, could it possibly overcome 70 years of development and environmentally insensitive planning that have turned the L.A. River into what is probably the most degraded urban river in the United States? Don’t hold your breath. Unless, of course, you’re riding along the bike path during rush hour.
-- Dan Turner