By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The L.A. River is one of the worst in L.A.'s long line of missed opportunities.In 1930, the Chamber of Commerce buried a parks plan it had commissioned from a famed team of landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers and Harlan Bartholomew & Associates, to respond to L.A.'s crisis of overdevelopment -- the erasure of all but 1 percent of open space, and of all but 0.59 percent outside the mountains. That beautifully ambitious plan prescribed a wide L.A. River greenway, to create parks, enhance recreation and scenery, and absorb floodwaters. Characteristically, civic leaders instead chose a plan that made the river safe for new suburbs, freeways and industry within an inch of its banks -- that defied ecological sense, and favored unbridled private development over public space. At a crossroads, the U.S. city with the worst shortage of park space per capita -- and perhaps the most beautiful natural setting -- turned one of its most obvious sites for green space into a parks-free zone. A city that constructed 250- to 350-mile aqueducts to import water turned its river into a chute that would rid the basin of its water as fast as possible. And a city prone to carving up its neighborhoods turned its major connective artery into a no man's land.
The L.A. River is the country's most degraded river.A city with mounting pollution crises also engineered a new sort of river basin, in which things could wash into but not out of the river -- in other words, a superbly fucked-up watershed. While the concrete box prevented the river from replenishing soils with nutrients, beaches with sand and the aquifer with water, the county's storm-drain network emptied into the river and its concrete tributaries. If everyone in L.A. knows that the drains carry sewage to the ocean -- which forces the unfortunate and unending beach closures -- many fewer realize that the L.A. River, as the central storm-drain artery, collects trash, motor oil, human and animal feces, herbicides and the hundreds more pollutants in your basic City-America-2001 toxic street stew from across a densely populated 834-square-mile watershed and expresses it to the Pacific. People in L.A. may not know where their river is, but their lawn-care products and bits of brake linings from their BMWs and Toyotas wash into it all the time. Of course, the concrete box also obliterated wildlife habitat. Fish, frogs and birds disappeared, and steelhead trout ceased to use the river to spawn.
The L.A. River is arguably the most extraordinary river in the United States. In a final semantic move, the county rechristened the river the Los Angeles River Flood Control Channel, and referred to it as either the Flood Control Channel or the Storm Control System. Now, the Mississippi contains extraordinary volumes of water -- it could float the QE2 -- and a number of other rivers rival ours for wondrous ecological ruin: In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it caught fire. What makes the L.A. River so peerlessly amazing is that its city actively "disappeared" it: We stopped calling the river a river. And it all but vanished from our collective memory. U.S. cities tended to ignore and abuse their rivers as their industrial cores declined through the 1900s. Still, can you imagine anyone asking, "What is the Colorado River?" "What is the Hudson River?" This act is unparalleled: A major American city redefined its river as infrastructure; decreed that the sole purpose of a river is to control its own floods; and said its river now belongs in the same category as the electrical grid and the freeway system and will forthwith be removed from the company of the Columbia, the Allegheny, the Salmon. In a city with a notorious, extreme tendency to erase both nature and history, L.A.'s ultimate act of erasure has been not just to forget but to denythat the river it was founded on runs 51 miles -- 51 miles! -- right through its heart.
The L.A. River is a well-known joke, and a symbol of L.A.By the 1960s, the L.A. River was a paradox: an infamous unknown river. How could you not laugh at a river with a concrete bed and without much water -- Easterners like Twain had laughed at the river's flow before -- in a city that was supposed to be America's New Eden? It didn't help that the channel is an excellent place to film the sort of scene in which a cyborg Terminator flees on a motorcycle from a liquid-metal alien driving a tractor-trailer. Them!, Point Blank, Escape From New York, Repo Man, To Live and Die in L.A., Point Break, Mi Familia: The river has served as a film set for 45 years of scenes of urban violence and utter alienation. With smog a close second, the greasy trickle in the quality-engineered DMZ between neighborhoods became the bleakest, most laughable symbol of everything gone wrong in L.A.
The L.A. River is a 15-year cause, fought with vision and tenacity. As a flood-control solution, the concrete looked final; as a river, it looked unredeemable. So in 1985, when Lewis MacAdams, an artist and writer, took a few friends and a pair of wire cutters to the river's edge and vowed to resurrect it, the response was underwhelming. People said, What river?"We asked the river," MacAdams says. "We didn't hear it say no." In 1986, they founded Friends of the L.A. River. The cause seemed zany, but lovely. In 1990, after the chairman of the state Assembly Transportation Committee proposed to turn the channel into a freeway (but only during dry season), Mayor Tom Bradley appointed a task force on how to make the river more riverlike, not less. In 1991, FoLAR sponsored the first conference on restoration; the '90s would see three more. The county Board of Supervisors directed Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and Regional Planning to produce a master plan, which was published in 1996. North East Trees planted the first trees in 1994, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Trust for Public Land opened the first new park in 1995, and the city of L.A. opened the first new bikeway in 1997 -- all in the Glendale Narrows stretch north of downtown. Restoration began to draw $2 million to $3 million each year in state, county and city funds. County Public Works itself, and even the Corps to some degree, joined the cause. In 2000, this momentum took a quantum leap, as propositions 12 and 13 sent $82-plus million the river's way, Speaker of the Assembly (and Prop. 12's author) Antonio Villaraigosa championed the river as L.A.'s number-one greening priority, and Senator Barbara Boxer stood on its banks and declared that she hoped to be able to kayak down it in the near future. In 2001, the astonishingly multiethnic, multi-interest Chinatown Yard Alliance has all but wrested the "Cornfield" land from Ed Roski's Majestic Realty and into the hands of California State Parks. The concrete ditch has inspired the brand-new Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (the state's first urban conservancy), four large parks in the works (three downtown), and a cool $41.85 million in the energy-obsessed state budget for this year.
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