Photos by Lenore LevinePrevious stop on tour:
The Glendale Narrows

THE RIVER'S DOWNTOWN STRETCH HAS SEEN THE FEWEST changes so far — and has inspired the biggest projects and greatest hopes. To restore the river through the city center has enormous practical and symbolic implications.

Downtown is just one of many cultural and commercial centers in this postmodern, ganglionic basin, but it is L.A.'s rough geographic center — and its birthplace. Downtown also showcases L.A.'s worst habits: It's exceptionally poor in public and green space, and its neighborhoods, largely lower-income and nonwhite, are fragmented by freeways, railroad tracks, walls of industry and the river at its ugliest. More than anywhere else, river restoration here sets out to design public and private space differently — to set community, history and nature aright.

It takes creative vision — special glasses, even — to see what the Riveristas see here. But imagine a lot of parks, and a greenbelt to connect them, and a center-city riverwalk. (Think, say, both the San Antonio Riverwalk and the Chicago lakefront.) Now add a bikeway, the central hub for paths that head in all directions. And, eventually, transfer all the rail traffic to one side, or, to green both banks, put the tracks underground, as other cities have done.

Fantasy? Not possible? That was exactly the response to Friends of the L.A. River founder Lewis MacAdams' first calls to restore any part of the river. With his windmill-tilting vision that has consistently turned out to be superb practicality and common sense before its time, MacAdams plans to seek funds for an international design competition in 2002 for the downtown stretch.

That's the long-term future. In the short to medium term, three big new park projects should create more than 100 acres of greenway on longtime industrial sites on the north end, and the city has definitely committed to the bikeway. Right now, four ambitious public art projects point the way, by imaginatively reconnecting the river to the civic heart of L.A.
Down to the confluence

, up to 103 acres of state park, will be the north anchor for the downtown L.A. River Greenway, and a major connector through the Glendale Narrows up toward Griffith Park. (See Glendale Narrows.)

Confluence Park: It all comes together here. The river flows in from the Valley and the Northeast, heading downtown toward South L.A., and the Arroyo Seco joins it from Pasadena. It's the logical spot for a big city park, and it's the future nexus of the L.A. River Greenway and Bikeway.

“This is where L.A. was founded, and you can't even find it,” as River Project director Melanie Winter says. At the moment, the birthplace of L.A. looks like a Blade Runner junkyard that got cut up and put back together wrong. But the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is funding North East Trees to start this major history-themed park on city-owned lots (now sanitation, maintenance and truck-parking yards), and will expand it as adjacent land becomes available. (ETA start 2003)

Take the planned loop path from the park to . . .

The new Los Angeles River Center and Gardens. L.A. has one. Ergo, it's official: We have a river. The well-known former Lawry's headquarters — a gorgeous hacienda-style complex — now houses river and art exhibits, meeting spaces, and offices for environmental and community groups (SMMC, FoLAR and NET included). It has a maze of shady courtyards, and check out the lovely new River Garden Park (once a paint factory), a stylized re-creation of the river that features works by the community arts group ArtShare Los Angeles. Soon to come: a docent, and a restaurant with a job-training program.

SMMC — with foresight and political muscle from Mike Hernandez, Richard Polanco, Gloria Molina and Antonio Villaraigosa — bought back half of the Lawry's site last year, after it was purchased by Home Depot. Right at the nexus of the greenway, and a hop from both Taylor Yard and Confluence Park, it will be the central way station and education/
community center on the L.A. River Greenway.

You'll be able to take the Blue Line, now under construction, from downtown and Pasadena right to this nexus. And artist Cheri Gaulke's design for the Avenue 26 Station, “Water Street: River of Dreams,” inscribes the confluence's history into this future public portal. It'll include a sculpture of a Tongva woman gathering water, a dry riverbed, river boulders, native sycamores, historic photographs and two “story fences” with quotations, poems and tales from sources that range from Tongva myths to current Tongva leader Vera Rocha to FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams. (ETA 2003)

The Cornfield, a 47-acre abandoned Union Pacific rail yard where dust lords over the weeds (once farmland, hence its name), has gone from being the most fiercely fought-over land on the river to the most remarkable victory to date. The Chinatown Yard Alliance, which wants State Parks to buy the site for parks and community uses, has at long last persuaded Majestic Realty (that's L.A. über-developer Ed Roski's company) to abandon the Mayor Riordan°©backed plan to build close to a million square feet of industrial warehouses. In March, Majestic, faced with a lawsuit for failing to do a full environmental-impact report and the subsequent suspension of key HUD subsidies, agreed to sell. The new state budget earmarks $36 million for the site; the Trust for Public Land has to finish up ongoing negotiations for the sale by Majestic's November 30 deadline. The sale would mark a dramatic turning point for downtown land use.


What's so great about the Cornfield? Size: It's the largest piece of open space available downtown in decades. Location: Right by the â river on the north edge of downtown, it's a key greenway link from the city center to the nexus. Location, location: Chinatown has one small park, no middle or high school, and is cut off by two freeways and the barren Cornfield itself. History: Archaeologists have found a piece of the original Zanja Madre, the irrigation “mother ditch” that sustained the early pueblo.

The Alliance — an astonishingly multi-issue and multiethnic coalition of business, neighborhood, environmental and political players — has designed a stunning site plan, which State Parks can mine for ideas. It proposes a new river-fed zanja (with bike path) that leads from a school on one end through a “great meadow” to a Zanja Madre museum, Shaolin Institute and Chinatown cultural center on the other. A terraced entrance connects Chinatown to the park and beyond. It turns a no man's land into a grand central-city public space, framed by views of the downtown skyline and the Elysian Hills. (ETA start 2002)

From the Cornfield to Maywood, you encounter seven miles of dead space for greenway projects. The stretch along the east side of downtown is bleak, heavily industrial and barely imagined.

The Boyle Heights Greenways proposal — from a 1998 FoLAR-led workshop on the river through downtown would turn half a dozen old railroad spurs into finger parks to breach the wall of industry here and connect these neighborhoods (squeezed by the freeway on the other side) to the river. As the momentum for restoration reaches into this stretch, it's the sort of project that should (one can hope) get funded and proliferate.

Ideally . . . A greenway with a string of pedestrian bridges would connect the downtown commercial and museum district to Boyle Heights, through Little Tokyo and the Arts District.

The city has almost completed its decade-long restoration of 11 bridges, nine of them over the river. Built from 1918 to the 1930s, most by L.A.'s famed city engineer Merrill Butler, they're deemed some of the largest and most beautiful concrete-arch bridges in the country. Check out the Beaux Arts portals and balconies on the North Broadway Bridge, the Gothic arches of the Fourth Street, the twisted columns on the Spanish Colonial Cesar Chavez, the elegantly modernist copper lamps and octagonal pylons of the Glendale-Hyperion.

L.A.'s Latino communities downtown have tended to remember best the historic role of the river. On Olvera Street, the diagonal pattern of the bricks commemorates the zanja system that El Pueblo de Los Angeles relied on from 1781 to 1904. And you can view an in-the-ground piece of the Zanja Madre — the Mother Ditch itself — in the “History of Water in Los Angeles” exhibit in the Avila Adobe, the museum in L.A.'s oldest existing house.

How surprising — and how encouraging, and apt — that so many of the ambitious public-art pieces in the Gateway Transit Center (a.k.a. the Union Station Gateway Intermodal Transit Center) invoke the L.A. River. In the complex meant to be L.A.'s 21st-century transportation hub, sited in the historic downtown area, the artwork at once commemorates the centrality of the river in the city's past and imagines it securely into the future.

See especially the “City of Dreams, River of History” pieces in the East Portal lobby: May Sun's river-rock bench and water sculpture, embedded with artifacts (bottles, shells, horseshoes) from excavations in old Chinatown; her bronze inlays of river flora and fauna on the lobby floor; and the same motifs on the borders of Richard Wyatt's 80-foot-long mural of multiethnic faces in L.A. Outside, landscape architect Laurie Olin's verdant, watery “Arroyo” walkway winds up to the bus plaza from Cesar Chavez Avenue and North Vignes Street, and East Los Streetscapers have painted lush, fauna-filled tree canopies — “La Sombra del Arroyo” — on the undersides of the pedestrian bridges.


Artist Andrew Leicester designed the Zanja Madre Plaza, at Eighth Street and Figueroa (1992), as an allegorical water garden that traces L.A.'s use of water as far back as the original mother ditch. A “giant water vampire,” William Mulholland called L.A. — hence the big bat wings on the gates, among the many symbolic sculptures here. It's won awards.

Final stop on river tour: Long Beach Harbor


This stretch is lined with industry and railroad tracks, and fenced off on both sides. Take wire cutters. Just kidding: It's best viewed from the bridges. Take an open mind as to what this bleak landscape could look like.


A crucial stretch of the L.A. River Bikeway for both commuting and recreation. The city does plan to build it, and is seeking funds.

Glendale Narrows (Barclay Street) to Union Station, with spurs across the river to the River Center and Taylor Yard and to the Arroyo Seco Bikeway. (ETA start 2003)

Union Station south through downtown to Maywood: The city has funded North East Trees to do the first feasibility study. (ETA study 2002)

Arroyo Seco Bikeway: County Public Works will extend the Avenue 64 to Avenue 43 existing bikeway south to San Fernando Road, almost to the confluence. Dry-season only: It's inside the channel most of the way. (ETA 2002)

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