Lewis MacAdams: the L.A. River's best friend

Seriously? You still don't know there's a river in L.A.? That there wouldn't even be a Los Angeles without the Los Angeles River? You haven't been paying attention. And you especially haven't been paying attention to the writer and poet Lewis MacAdams, or to FoLAR, Friends of the Los Angeles River, which he co-founded nearly 25 years ago when the river was pretty much a joke, a nullity, a 50-mile-long paved toilet of a drainage ditch. Decades ago, Los Angeles, just about the chintziest big city in the country when it comes to parks, sold out what could have been an "emerald necklace" of the river and its byways. MacAdams and FoLAR leveraged the river back into our imaginations. Public officials speak about it; MacAdams speaks to it, a poet's whisper and a lover's roar. If the Colorado can sculpt the Grand Canyon, what might the L.A. River, newly incarnated, make of itself, and this place?

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson came to L.A. to declare the Los Angeles River to be "traditional navigable waters." What does it all mean?

It changed everything. [Federal] resources that've been [available] for any other river in the United States could be applied to the Los Angeles River and its tributaries. The Army Corps of Engineers basically [contended] that it's not a river, it's a flood control channel. That argument has been won; the EPA has taken control over the river from the Corps. There's a real presence in Washington of people who know what the river can be. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the new director of the L.A. region of the Corps, Mark Toy, [was] an environmental engineering major at UCLA.

FoLAR turns 25 next year. As the '70s phrase goes, is it still all about consciousness-raising?

When we started, I thought all I'd have to do is convince people the river can be a better place. I quickly began to understand that first I had to convince people there actually is a Los Angeles River. That took a long time.

Before the river was channelized, it moved across the floodplain. So that channel we see has nothing to do with what the river looked like before. Now the river has kind of reached people's consciousness, and that makes it much easier to do what we do. So now we can go into specific issues.

I called it a 40-year artwork. I vastly underestimated how long it was going to take. My theory was, it took 40 years to screw it up; it'll take 40 years to fix it. Somebody said no good idea is ever accomplished in one lifetime. Ultimately the river's going to be there. My attitude is, if it's not impossible, I'm not interested.

But people are breaking the law now just by being in the river. What kind of river access do you want?

Within limits, like not after 10 o'clock and not during the rainy season. We want the river open for everybody to fish, swim, boat, ride horses, take photographs. The city has so little public space; the river carries a huge presence.

Who, or what, is there now?

You see cinnamon teal, which are marsh ducks, in the L.A. River because there are no more marshes, and I feel like, it's like the same [as] with people: Only the tough survive in Los Angeles. Last year we did about 25 samples of fish in the river — there's a lot more fish than most people would have imagined, carp a foot and a half long, all through the Glendale narrows. How they got there, nobody knows, but they're there in large numbers. We tested them for PCBs and mercury, and much to our surprise, the fish came back almost clean. Why, we don't know.

The Anglo anglers tend to be the catch-and-release guys. Other people are catching and eating. I've seen guys with big sticks knocking carp out and tossing 'em in their coolers. Definitely old school. You see families fishing a lot. There's this image in my mind: a dad and his daughter beside the bank with a bamboo rod.

What do volunteers find when they clean up the river every year?

Most of the charismatic mega-fauna — the phone booths and hot tubs — is gone. Most of what is in the river now is plastic, and the single largest contributor is Frito-Lay products, all the bright shiny wrappers. It's not as glamorous as picking up a Santeria sword, with blood on the handcuffs tied to it with red and green ribbons. We found a human skull once too. That was a long time ago.

Does all the water in the river come from water treatment plants?

Except during the rainy season. There's 60 millions of gallons going down the river every day. If you look at all the plans for reclaimed water, eventually there wouldn't be any water left for the river. We say, what does the river need for its own ecology to survive? One of FoLAR's jobs is speaking for the river.

Who even owns the river? In writing my book about the river, I found that decades ago, pieces of the riverbed were sold off as private lots.

I spent two hours with four lawyers yesterday [on that]. A whole class at UCLA law school spent a semester researching that. It's not clear who's in charge, or who owns the river.

How many agencies have nominal say-so?

You count all the cities and mosquito abatement districts, it goes on and on. One of the issues we haven't come close to winning is the creation of some kind of Los Angeles River agency. Half the river is in the city of L.A.; there've been attempts by the city to fashion some kind of joint powers authority, but that doesn't seem to be in the works.

Because the river was paved to be a "water freeway," people have drowned in it during flood season. Do you cringe when it rains and think, don't let anything happen because it feeds the attitude that the river is just a dangerous flood control ditch?

I used to have that feeling, but now I love to watch, to stand on the footbridge over the river when the water is really coursing and to feel the power of the river — it's amazing.

The EPA event was at Compton Creek, a river tributary. There's been conflict between upriver residents who envision a recreational river and downriver residents who want a channel and walls to protect them from flooding.

[The news conference location] was significant because the implications were that people of color care about rivers too. The idea that only wealthy white people like parks is so absurd. Compton Creek could be a very thriving ecosystem if the county would work with ecologists and biologists.

There is definitely a difference between people who live upstream and downstream in terms of the way they see the river. This is vastly oversimplified, but people are more afraid of flood downstream. It's deeper than rational, and that's part of the issue. [FoLAR fought higher walls] because we didn't want to separate people from the river. We wanted the river to have a place in people's lives. But people were scared, and there was some reality to it, no doubt — but it was exploited. We have to be totally realistic about flood protection. [But] if we establish a different way to protect from floods …

So that's why you're eyeing Union Pacific's rail yard downtown.

This completely unknown area, 125 acres with three-quarters of a mile of riverfront, the largest single piece of property in the central city. It's still a relatively active rail yard where they transfer containers from 18-wheelers to railcars and back again. What we want to do in that yard is to create a major flood detention area, 70 or 80 acres, and that would really help protect downstream from flooding and would allow some widening of the river to help create more parks downstream. A huge opportunity.

Is Union Pacific selling?

Not yet, but that was the same with the Cornfield and Taylor Yard [former railroad property near the river that was bought for public lands]. They weren't willing to sell, until they were.

Scads of urban designers and landscape architects are crafting projects for the river's future. Is that because it's a sort of blank canvas?

One of the things about the river is because nobody's in charge, it's really a kind of free public space, freer than a park in a way. I have a poem about this. Someday it'll all look Victorian, but right now it's raw.

Is it the Donald Rumsfeld river — the river you have rather than the river you wish you had?

No, you start with the river you have and then go to the river you wish you have. One advantage when we started FoLAR was that there was not much room for nostalgia. There was no "backwards" to go. We really had to think: What is a postmodern river, a human-surrounded river? The L.A. River symbolizes all the damage that human ego has done to the natural world; it seems to have this symbolic presence.

What's the biggest threat to the river?

[Even] the most well-meaning plans, and the master plan, which is a great document, tend to be based around human rather than natural [needs]. If you think of the river as its banks, then it becomes a little like the San Antonio River River Walk. One of the biggest challenges is to stay focused on the river as a river. This isn't just for the humans. It's for the four-legged ones and the swimming ones and the flying ones.

There's a legend about how, before Tom LaBonge was a councilman, he and you got "L.A. River" signs put on the bridges.

We couldn't get anybody to put up signs on the bridges that said "L.A. River." Because Tom knows the city at such a complete level, he took a couple of fifths to the sign shop and got 'em to make the signs, and took another couple of fifths to the part of the city that puts up the signs and within a couple of weeks there were signs on every bridge crossing the river. That's not something one should underestimate, because the river had basically disappeared from the maps and from the consciousness of the city.

We say "the Mississippi" and "the Seine"; will we ever call it "the L.A."?

The Los Angeles…that's what I usually call it.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

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