An otherwise conservationist friend once said, “The problem with the Los Angeles River is that there is really no such thing. It's a concrete flood channel.”

That was what I thought. Until I attended my first Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) conference last week.It wasn't just a routine meeting. Perhaps 300 “Friends” gathered at the downtown library on a beautiful Saturday. They were seeking direction on the future not just of the problematic river, but of the disjointed center of this city. It someday may be said that this conference was the occasion when centering downtown around a resurrected L.A. River became a serious option for Los Angeles' future.

What was new was some surprising support for FoLAR, primarily from local Latino legislators – state Senator Richard Polanco and U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra – who see renewal of the riverbank's old Taylor and Chinatown rail yards as connecting Eastside communities with each other and providing them with desperately needed greenbelt and recreation. But most surprising was the admission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that greening the river was doable. Army Deputy Secretary Michael L. Davis said the corps was open to a project that would convert the Taylor site to recreational uses that would also include flood-control ponds and settling basins. Previous FoLAR proposals had been criticized for reducing flood control, but the new proposal, which the Army accepted, could actually decrease flood risk.

The Army's new position was a big change. For decades, the corps that created the concrete river was an immovable object in the fight to modify the big channel into something like a real stream – with banks, parklands, even beaches.

The other obstacle has been the attitude of downstream cities like Pico Rivera, Compton and Bell Gardens – places that might be flooded in the once-in-a-century rainstorm that the present 480 miles of concrete channels and towering levies are intended to confine. Many people in these cities recall the river at its most destructive; you'll probably never see the Downey City Council backing a FoLAR proposal.

But now the key problem looks like Los Angeles' own planning to exploit the Taylor Yard for “big box” commercial development. Dick Riordan's representative, the affable Tom LaBonge, didn't offer too much hope here. Even Ed Reyes, chief of staff to Councilman Mike Hernandez – who has already authorized considerable recreational expenditures on the riverbanks – didn't seem very positive.

The Taylor Yard remains one of the last great, empty downtown properties: The temptation to develop it to the max must be monumental. But now Polanco and Becerra support FoLAR with what they claim is the backing of much of the inner-city Latino community. Suddenly, foes of the river's recovery can't say the issue is a fight between Westside-Silver Lake tree huggers and blue-collar neighborhoods.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. As Polanco said, “There's money. What's missing is the vision.”

The Silicon Rebirth

“What has happened in the [Silicon] Valley over the past few years,” Michael Lewis has recently reported in The New York Times, “has the locals comparing themselves to Renaissance Florentines. It is, as [mega-financier John] Doerr puts it, 'the single greatest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet.'”

Comparing themselves to whom? This bizarre epiphany was echoed by a Sunday L.A. Times op-ed that also connected the Renaissance with the peninsular Wirtschaftwunder. But what all this allusion reminds me of is my long-ago experience of trying to teach the humanities to computer nerds. Who, evidently, remain the single greatest creation of historical chowderbrains in the history of the planet.

It's not just that Doerr is overlooking such amazing “legal” creations of wealth as 300 B.C. Carthage, 1920s Wall Street and 18th-century London. It's rather that not a single man (they were nearly all males) quoted grasped what actually made a little Tuscan market town into Renaissance Florence. Hey, guys – the Renaissance wasn't just about making money. No, the Renaissance was about what the Florentines did with all that wealth they made on the cloth trade. Which was to create civilization. They subsidized possibly the planet's greatest-ever gathering of writers, composers, architects, painters, scholars, sculptors and poets. They revived knowledge of the past and made modern Western culture possible.

The real Florentines didn't just know how to use money to make money. Even nerds in Cupertino can do that. The Renaissance was, primarily, about educated humanity riffing on the classic idea that there's more to life than making a buck. The Italians' abundance nourished art and wisdom and integrated them in a dazzling urban environment. Sure, they invested in businesses, but what made them immortal were their investments in creativity and civilization.

Netscape, Yahoo!, Intel and Intuit are all fun in their way. But the money the Silicon Giants don't reinvest, according to Lewis, still goes into yachts, cars, planes, divorces, $25 million homes – into nouveau riche selfishness. Judging from the new museums and Disney Hall, even Los Angeles' nabobs have more civic savvy.

So when San Jose develops its own school of landscape painters or Aptos spawns some major filmmakers, Menlo Park flaunts its matchless ceramicists or East Palo Alto gets a cluster of jazz clubs and hit rappers, or even when someone endows a really good museum in Redwood City, then I'll try to believe the legend of the Silicon Renaissance.

Otherwise, Silicon Valley scans like the original cast from Sinclair Lewis: George Babbitt playing to the millennium. What's happening in this micro-business paradise is what occurred generations ago in corporate Detroit: the creation of wealth off technology, and its reinvestment in more technology and private wants. Until that bubble burst, and the auto business was scattered all over North America. Been to the Motor City lately? Did it really remind you of Florence?

The Forgotten Man

I admit it: Reading mayoral archivist Jim Newton's account of Dick Riordan's triumphal frolic through the Orient was wearing me down. Thank heavens all hands are now back safe from all those travel hazards. Another week of cavorting and somebody might have been conked by an errant champagne cork.

In Taiwan, the mayor celebrated the renewal of a long-standing port agreement with the vast Evergreen Corp. In 1993, Evergreen, said to be the world's second-largest shipping firm, paid nearly $900,000 in fines for more than $172,000 worth of state and local campaign-money laundering. With all the Newtonian hoopla about that contract signing last week, you'd have thought the company was just about to move its cargo facilities to Morro Bay. But there was no real doubt that Evergreen would re-up: Newton's was a suspense story without suspense. Just plenty of fawning.

Newton also reported that in Beijing the mayor gamely toasted a Chinese official who, in fact, was not in attendance. But Newton cited no in absentia toasting in Taipei. It would have been appropriate, however, for Riordan to have lifted a glass to the faraway Arthur K. Snyder, ex-L.A. councilman, attorney and fixer still appealing a felony conviction. Snyder's name was often pegged to the furtive activities resulting in Evergreen's fine. As well as to lobbying for Mangrove Estates, the huge, still-pending Evergreen development east of City Hall. Presumably, in renewing its port contract, Evergreen was simply protecting both of its investments.

Racing to the Bottom

Sometimes, an individual's statement encapsulates exactly what's wrong with an entire institution. The way that a long-ago U.S. commander's “In order to save the village, it became necessary to destroy it” did with the military in Vietnam.

Speaking in the same spirit was an anonymous hospital administrator, quoted in Josh Meyer's Times story from Thursday of last week, contesting an official finding that King-Drew Medical Center was responsible for the fatal poisoning of dialysis patient Blanca Maldonado:

“It's like I parked my car and you ran into it and killed yourself, or if I left a knife out and you killed yourself. Why is that my fault?” the K-D official reportedly said, with “anger.”

What really happened was that a novice doctor, as yet reportedly still undisciplined, left an open, unmarked container of orange poison liquid by Maldonado's bed. Which she then drank. This cowardly scumbag who's equating murderous professional ineptitude with patient suicide deserves immediate firing and blacklisting from the medical profession. So does everyone responsible for his employment.

If that doesn't cure the K-D staff's apparently endemic belief that no patient deaths are ever the hospital's fault, maybe the only answer left is to close the place down.

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