The so-called “Greatest” Generation that grew up during the depression and fought during World War II is often lauded as, well, the greatest generation. When they were in charge of Los Angeles, however, they made some mistakes. From 1930-1960, downtown was abandoned and left to rot, public transportation was neglected, white flight occurred, and the L.A. River was paved into a desolate concrete wasteland.
Three quarters of a century later, Angelenos are working to undo those mistakes. One such group, Friends of the LA River (FoLAR), wants to rip up the concrete and return the river to a natural environment teeming with life. To generate awareness about the river's potential, on Saturday, FoLAR hosted the first annual “Off Tha’ Hook” fly-fishing competition on the river in North Atwater Park.
At 9 a.m., two dozen or so fisherman carrying long skinny poles meander along the crest of the concrete levy that contains the river, looking for the choicest spot to cast their line. This part of the river is much more lush and woodsy than the concrete tube you see downtown. In Atwater Park, the river is 70 feet across, and long green bushes with yellow flowers run along the brown banks. Colorful birds (there are 212 species on the river) fly low in the sky. Hikers dot the hills of Griffith Park towering above. If it weren’t for the 5 freeway running through it, you might mistake it for a national park.
Still, even Lewis Macadams, the poet/founder of FoLAR and L.A. River’s number one advocate, acknowledges the slightly farcical nature of the event. It's meant to be interpreted as a symbolic step towards returning the river to its riparian roots, not a hardcore fishing competition.
“People are enjoying the sheer goofiness of it,” says MacAdams, “Somebody just told me that the best way to catch an L.A. River carp is with matzoh and garlic. It’s a very L.A. thing. It’s a beautiful morning.”
The fishermen aim for three kinds of fish, the only three sizable enough to not be comical: large mouth bass, carp, and tilapia, with carp being the largest and most desirable.
“Carp are the most difficult fish to catch [while fly fishing]. You gotta get a lot of stuff right,” says Matus Sobolic, who catches a six-pounder, the largest of the day, “You have to walk around and actually see a carp, then cast into it. It’s more like hunting than fishing.”
A FoLAR representative believes that the carp were washed into the river from carp farms by floods in the early 20th century. Chinese railroad workers encamped next to the river maintained the farms as a source of food. But Jim Burns, who runs L.A. River Fly Fishing, a sponsor of the event, says that’s an urban legend.
“That story is kind of like the pet alligator that got dropped in the bathtub then ended up in the sewer,” says Burns, “It's romantic, but the fact is we don’t really know where they came from.”
FoLAR does not make a recommendation on the fish's edibility, though they state that mercury levels in L.A. River fish are not any higher than those found in edible ocean fish.
Still, most of the fly fishermen are here for sport alone. “I don’t keep the wild fish,” says Sobolic. “They have it hard enough.”
And so for the fisherman like Sobolic and the other attendees, which include about 25 children and their parents practicing their angling skills, Off Tha’ Hook is about shared enjoyment of the river, not fish.
“This really means something. It means the river is vital,” says Burns. “That it's something that people want to enjoy rather than just sort of accept. And, more importantly, are pursuing a better river in the future.”
FoLAR is producing concrete results. In May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced, after months of lobbying and negotiations induced by FoLAR and conducted in part by Mayor Garcetti, that it would recommend a $1 billion project to rip up miles of concrete, restore the river to a more natural state, and to increase recreational access. The project awaits Congressional approval, but early stage fundraising has already begun.
A revival of the L.A. River may seem singularly positive, but sometimes lost in the excitement is the reason the river was paved in the first place. The Greatest Generation didn't pave it over for fun — from 1900 to the 1930s, a growing Los Angeles was devastated by seasonal flash floods (photos) emanating from the river. In 1938, the Army Corps was called upon to stop the flooding, so they channelized the river. It worked.
The idea of ripping up concrete once built to contain a hazardous river begs some questions. First, will the floods return? Will FoLAR unintentionally unleash a water monster that can’t be contained?
“[The Army Corps] has told us very clearly that there are certain parts of the river they will never unpave,” says Karin Flores, FoLAR's outreach director. She says the Corps has a plan to handle potential flooding, including the creation of new floodplains.
But even if the Corps is careful, a second, deeper question remains. By undoing the work that has already been done, are we really naturalizing the river, or are we only engineering it further? Are we stepping inadvertently into the short-sighted shoes of the Greatest Generation?
“Some of the visions of the new river I’ve seen are highly engineered,” says Shelly Backlar, director of education programs at FoLAR. “For example, how much water does a restored Los Angeles River need? If you look at historic flow, it’s a seasonal river. Even the water in the river now is imported water that comes into homes from northern California.”
What Backlar means is that if we want to both prevent floods and have a lush river year-round, it might require more technology on the river, not less. That technology will inevitably cause suffering to someone — whether it's residents next to a floodplain or drought-thirsty farmers in Central California. We can imagine a Kafkaesque nightmare where the river is paved then unpaved over and over again every 50 years into eternity, depending on whose in charge.
Fortunately, the people spearheading the change, like Backlar and MacAdams, understand these risks, and are doing what they can to mitigate them.
“It’s important to keep the tough questions in mind as we move forward,” says Bakalar.
Thus the way to look at the river's revival is not as off-the-moment environmentalism, but as perfecting a centuries-long process of urban development. Fly fisherman like Sobolic aren't on the river to make a statement, or even to be part of a symbolic movement. They're there because the river is truly beginning to be enjoyable. FoLAR's goal is to foster and maintain that enjoyability by whatever means necessary.
Los Angeles suffers not because it lacks in natural landscapes, but because it’s too rich in them. Why celebrate a river when there’s an endless beach a few miles away? But, if we're smart, we really might be able to have it all — the perfect blend of rural and urban in a single city. We can have mountains and beach and even a river too. We can farm in our city. We can kayak in it and hike and camp.
And now we can fly fish too.
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