The Same River Twice

It's been a horror movie set, a sewer, a flood control ditch. Now environmentalists, and some politicians, are pushing a novel idea: They want to turn the Los Angeles River into... a river.

The best place to put a kayak into the Los Angeles River in Sherman Oaks, California, is near the Castle batting cages, which are nestled between a miniature golf course, Interstates 101 and 405, and the four-lane hiss of Sepulveda Boulevard. The cages are not scenic, exactly. They sit on vast swaths of asphalt painted green to resemble grass, and they are surrounded by impatient parents talking on cell phones. But everyone at the Castle watches the baseballs as they come thwocking out of these huge pitching machines, pinging off the aluminum bats and ricocheting against the chain-link roof of the cages. No one notices the river. And so, on a scorching afternoon last July, I slipped unseen through a hole in a rusty fence at the edge of the parking lot, down a sloping concrete bank -- away from the cops, who could give me a $500 ticket just for being in the riverbed -- to the edge of Arnold Schwarzenegger's favorite body of water.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Los Angeles is the river you saw in Terminator II. Remember the scene in which a liquid extraterrestrial in a tractor trailer chases Arnold up a dry concrete riverbed? In Repo Man, beer-swilling punks drag race through the river, and in Chinatown, Jack Nicholson sees it turn from trickle to flood as he investigates a water scam. The Los Angeles River is Hollywood's favorite urban wasteland. It's a mutant version of nature, an emblem of artificial L.A..

Once a meandering wash inhabited by steelhead and grizzly -- and endowed with a current strong enough, during wintertime floods, to tear out bridges and homes -- the L.A. was straitjacketed in the 1940s and '50s, when the Army Corps of Engineers turned it into a ramrod-straight flood control chute.

The river is now paved along most of its 51-mile course. It's paved from Canoga Park, where it officially begins, through the suburban San Fernando Valley. It's paved as it runs south from downtown through Maywood, Cudahy, and Compton, some of the poorest and most densely populated cities in the nation. And it's paved most of the way from there to its drab estuary, which gives way to San Pedro Bay in Long Beach.

But still the Los Angeles River carries some hints of wildness. Near the headwaters, on the Sepulveda Flood Control Basin, there's a necklace of four oblong soft-bottomed ponds where egrets stand watch on the shore and owls roost beneath bridges. Twelve miles downstream there's a six-mile stretch, the Glendale Narrows, on which the water riffles over small rocks and past tiny islands dotted with willows and cottonwoods.

In L.A., which has less park acreage per capita than any other U.S. city, such splashes of green gleam out as signals of hope. And since 1985, a small group of idealists called Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOL.A.R) has argued that city leaders are faced with a choice: They can keep the river as a Repo Man sewer, or they can seize on the promise it embodies and deliver L.A. a cool, natural refuge.

Now, finally, politicians are listening. California governor Gray Davis embraces FOL.A.R's vision of a 51-mile greenway -- a network of grassy parks, hiking trails, and bicycle paths -- along the Los Angeles, and last June he signed a budget earmarking $83 million for that purpose. Likewise, in Congress, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recently introduced the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, which would provide $125 million a year for urban parks and would pay special heed to L.A..

Nationwide, cities are looking to their long-neglected rivers as a source of solace from sprawl. Providence, Rhode Island, recently unearthed the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck rivers from asphalt and created a park near their confluence. Portland, Oregon, is building a River District with loft housing, boutiques, and a wealth of public art; and Boston has announced a plan to restore water quality and habitat on its Muddy River at a cost of $43 million.

But the Los Angeles River, with its pallid gray banks, is the darkest horse in the pack. It may just be too far gone. Photographer James Rexroad and I were in Sherman Oaks to see if a river that resembles a parking lot has any chance of rebounding. And merely by posing that question, by setting our boats onto the fetid water for a three-day journey, we were exercising a certain ridiculous hope. As we pulled on our life jackets, I saw a few tendrils of algae in the water. "James," I said, "there's something green in there."

"Splendid," he said.

A helicopter flew low overhead -- the police, perhaps. We hid, backs flat against a high wall, and then, taking care to step around the broken glass on the pavement, we hopped into our kayaks and began gliding downstream.

The banks of the river were 20 feet tall and vertical and stenciled with numbers -- mile markers painted by Los Angeles County, which now manages the channel along with the Corps. We passed a broken Styrofoam cooler, a squashed, muddy hat, a discarded lawn chair. We floated past the Fashion Square shopping mall, but it seemed worlds away. All we saw was concrete, and the water that splashed up at us from our paddles.

It was treated sewage. The upstream Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant is the primary source of the river's flow. In fact, the current seemed to grow stronger as evening approached, and we imagined the day's flushes slowly working their way toward our boats.

The river was a bit more inviting, probably, in 1769 when the explorer Don Gaspar de Portolá, a Spaniard, brought the first Europeans north from Mexico. Father Juan Crespi, traveling with Portolá, described "a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river." The party camped in that valley, just two miles north of what is today downtown L.A., and the town the Spaniards built there in 1781 was named El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles. The river enabled the villagers to grow bounties of corn, wheat, and grapes for a burgeoning wine industry. The river could deliver only so much, of course -- its flow was only a trickle in the summer -- but hopeful 19th century Americans ignored this fact. They flocked west by the tens of thousands and expected the L.A. to deliver water with the year-round consistency of their rivers back home. They planted huge lawns and grew camellias and roses. They drained marshes and cut diversion channels to water their cattle. And then, when the river was nearly sucked dry, they lined it with railroad tracks and freight yards and dumped industrial waste into its bed. Scads of it. According to writer Blake Gumprecht's comprehensive history, The Los Angeles River, one citizen reported at a 1904 City Council meeting that four cows had almost drowned in a riverbed puddle of oil and tar.

The river was the city's slave. It was reviled -- and so, in 1930, Los Angeles lost a fine opportunity. That year, in a report prepared for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Harlan Bartholomew advised the city fathers to build hundreds of miles of "pleasureway parks" along the L.A. and its tributaries and wetlands.

Olmsted and Bartholomew waxed rhapsodic about the "spaciousness and seclusion" these parks would afford, and they stressed that natural tranquillity was needed most by the people who could not savor California's beaches and mountains -- low-income families trapped in L.A.'s urban core. Their report recommended maintaining a wide and natural river, even if that meant that giant industrial landowners such as the Southern Pacific Railroad would have to endure frequent flooding. The Chamber killed the study before it even reached the printer.

Meanwhile, a rival report financed by a Southern Pacific vice president urged that the river be "armored" -- paved, to protect "humble homebuilders" from "calamity." That strategy had the support of the city's power brokers and it got all the fuel it needed in 1938, when the worst deluge in Los Angeles history killed 87 people. Between 1941 and 1959, 17,000 laborers were assigned to paving the river. They worked around the clock, sometimes under floodlights; they mixed 3.5 million barrels of cement and laid 7 million tons of reinforced steel on the banks where wild grapevines once spread.

In January 1980, poet and freelance journalist Lewis MacAdams happened to cross the L.A. River on his way home from a $3-an-hour construction job. "It was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen," recalls MacAdams, now 56. "It was brooding and vile -- and I understood the yin and the yang of it: The river was so fucked up, I knew the pendulum would swing. Out of darkness comes light."

MacAdams had just emigrated south from Bolinas -- a northern California hippie town where he had helped derail the Army Corps of Engineers' plans to drain treated sewage into the ocean -- and he was intrigued by the concept of duration, a motif then prevalent in the performance art world. A few years earlier, a Los Angeleno named Chris Burden had sequestered himself in a gym locker for five days; and a man-woman team, Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano, would soon spend a year connected by an eight-foot rope.

In 1985, MacAdams resolved to make the greening of the Los Angeles his "40-year art project." He staged a performance piece in which he painted his hands and face green and demonstratively summoned the spirits of various animals that had vanished from L.A. He slithered like a rattlesnake, roared like a grizzly, howled like a coyote. Then he launched Friends of the Los Angeles River, a group that has spent the past 15 years letting Los Angelenos know that the river exists -- placing signs on bridges, educating schoolchildren about riparian habitat, and demanding that the concrete be jackhammered out. "Our work won't be over," insists MacAdams, "until the yellow-billed cuckoo sings in the sycamores."

FOL.A.R has an annual budget of just $100,000, and its lyrical vision might have amounted to a flaky nothing were it not for MacAdams' beatnik magnetism. A onetime friend of Allen Ginsberg, MacAdams is the sort of fellow who can make the word dude sound exhilarating, redolent of City Lights Books circa 1968. Now balding and fond of porkpie hats, he is soft-spoken and casual, with a habit of twisting every conversation toward the cosmic -- toward, say, a discussion of Wim Wenders' notion of beauty -- and he has literally written the book on cool: Birth of the Cool, a look at New York City hipster culture of the '40s, '50s, and '60s, will be released in February.

"Lewis," says FOL.A.R board member Bob Warnock, "has the ability to speak at the Lions Club and get people excited about the poetry of the river. That helped early on."

So did a bizarre proposal. In a 1989 Los Angeles Times op-ed, California assemblyman Richard Katz suggested turning the riverbed into a dry-season road -- a "bargain freeway." Compared to that goofy scenario, FOL.A.R's agenda appeared sober and reasonable, and it began to garner support.

In 1990, Mayor Tom Bradley formed a Los Angeles River Task Force. That same year the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles began surveying the river's plants and animals. Then in 1994, a local nonprofit called Northeast Trees made its first planting on the banks of the river: 30 cottonwoods in a utility corridor previously surrounded by fences.

The group has since planted 4,000 more trees and built 12 small parks along the Los Angeles River. Governor Davis aims to augment these with a 61-acre state park at Taylor Yard, a defunct rail yard just north of downtown, and California assemblyman Marco Firebaugh is working to bring several riverside parks to beleaguered southeast L.A. County. Already under construction is the six-acre Maywood Park, part of which is set on a Superfund site.

"The river certainly isn't pure of human intervention," MacAdams told me when I visited his L.A. home, "but it's still nature." It was dusk as we sat there, on a hilltop porch overlooking the sun-dappled Silver Lake Reservoir, and we were drinking bottles of Fat Weasel Ale. MacAdams' ebullient eight-year-old daughter, Natalia, sat in her dad's lap, taking teeny sips of the beer and saying, "Yek."

"Tell him what you've done on the river," MacAdams beseeched her.

"Well," Natalia said, "we always go walking and we throw rocks in the water and look at ducks and go searching for frogs and tadpoles and..." She faltered and MacAdams whispered something into her ear.

"And egrets too," she said.

Rexroad and I had glimpsed some of the river's softer splendors ourselves. The day before our Sherman Oaks launch, Denis Schure, a FOL.A.R board member, treated us to a brief canoe ride on the ponds at the Sepulveda Flood Control Basin, which are surrounded by a 2,000-acre expanse of golf courses and soccer fields -- land that can flood without incurring damage. There were green herons, catfish swam among the rocks, and we glided to within a few feet of a great blue heron perched on a log. The bird soared away from us, its broad wings beating slowly.

It was all beautiful, but also atypical of the L.A. River. When we flowed east from the batting cages, the water carrying our kayaks was concentrated in a four-foot-wide, two-foot-deep "low flow" channel. It gushed through this algae-slimed tube at five or six miles per hour; there was no way to stop, even when we encountered a metal cable inexplicably spanning the river at neck level. We ducked. A few seconds later, we knocked out a transient's two-by-four bridge. We basked in the cheers of riverside residents who hailed us from their porches. We dropped down a sudden three-foot dip in the channel, then wallowed up against a wall of white water -- the collision of the river and a tributary, the Tujunga Wash -- and floated on until, eventually, we encountered two chunks of concrete that had been uprooted by floods and then sprayed with graffiti. "Break," said one chunk. "Free!" read its neighbor.

Along the channel a bit, in Atwater Village, the L.A. seemed decidedly more free. Here on the Glendale Narrows the river bottom is dirt, and along the banks -- on a patch of city- and county-owned land that was until recently vacant and littered with trash -- Northeast Trees has opened a park. There are beds of geraniums and poppies in it, and native sages, and a sign advising passersby to do the Warrior yoga pose. One habituZ is said to be a stout, fiftyish man who comes up from Chinatown every so often to release large crates of ducks into the river. "The Duckman is very antisocial," a passerby informed us. "He screams at anyone who approaches his ducks."

We never encountered the Duckman, though we combed the riverbank for three successive mornings. But we did meet plenty of the river's local aficionados. Buddy Roberts, an English instructor at California State University, leads a pequeña limpieza -- a neighborhood cleanup of the river channel in Atwater -- every six months, and he often brings his students down to the water to see the red-winged blackbirds and minnows. Roberts' neighbor, Angelo Fabio, plants canna, an Australian flower that blossoms red, yellow, and orange on the banks, and a short, sturdy fellow we met, Forest Glen Owen, frequents the river to "observe and to get this sense of the motion of water in my body." Owen was insistent that, if I really wanted to produce a solid work of journalism about the greening of Los Angeles, I needed to visit his lawn, on which he has planted an obscure Japanese grass that stays perennially short. "It's very Buddhist," he said. "You don't need one of those loud, polluting lawn mowers." "But some people cut grass with hand-powered reel mowers," I noted.

"Yes, but they're still decapitating the grass," Owen sniffed, and then he strode briskly away.

With his silk shirt, gold watch, and genteel approach to the out-of-doors, Owen embodied a stereotype of the L.A. River's defenders. Most of them live upstream, in northern Los Angeles, an area that's wealthier and whiter than the lower L.A.. basin, and their green agenda has at times been perceived as pious and selfish. Certainly, it was considered so in the early '90s when the Army Corps was readying to build two- to eight-foot concrete walls atop the levees that protect poor neighborhoods along the river's flood-prone final 12 miles. FOL.A.R protested that the walls would desecrate a "once-enchanted river." Writer D.J. Waldie, a proud downstreamer, countered that the environmentalists were ignoring a hard reality: Downstream homeowners, he wrote in L.A.'s now-defunct Buzz magazine, were vulnerable to a "working-class tax." Until the walls were built, they were obliged under federal law to pay upward of $400 each year for flood insurance.

"Lewis MacAdams didn't have to buy that insurance," notes author Blake Gumprecht. "He lives on a hill. His home isn't going to flood unless Noah comes back."

But MacAdams comes down from that hill frequently to immerse himself in the minutiae of local politics. His main haunt these days is Chinatown, where the battle over the L.A. River -- concrete versus nature -- is being played out in distilled form. A company named Majestic Realty is buying land to build factories and warehouses on the Cornfield, a 50-acre vacant lot that was once a Southern Pacific rail yard. Majestic has promised to bring 1,000 jobs to impoverished Chinatown. The plan has the blessing of Mayor Richard Riordan, who has helped Majestic secure $11.75 million in loans and grants from the federal government.

MacAdams abhors the plan. He wants to see a park on the Cornfield, and a swimming pool, a large lake, and a middle school, and he has built a broad coalition -- the Chinatown Yards Alliance includes both the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Sierra Club -- to promote that vision. The coalition is now suing Majestic and the city in Los Angeles Superior Court, demanding an environmental impact study. One of the lead players in the suit is Chi Mui, a slight and serious man who lives in Chinatown with his wife and two children. Mui is a senior field deputy for California senator Richard Polanco, and one afternoon MacAdams and I met him on a cracked patch of asphalt overlooking the Cornfield.

"The warehouses," Mui said, "are a deception they're trying to sell Chinatown. They won't bring a thousand jobs. They'll only bring freight trucks that will drive the tourists away. We have enough warehouses, but parks?"

Mui pointed out that the greenest thing in Chinatown, population 25,000, is the backyard-sized lawn at the city-run community center. "There are a thousand kids at the elementary school and the playground is basically asphalt. There isn't a blade of grass. Kids play soccer and football on the pavement. I don't want to see that anymore. This place" -- Mui gestured at the derelict train tracks below -- "is Chinatown's future."

It is also, MacAdams argues, a crucial link to Los Angeles' pre-freeway past -- to a time when the Spaniards drank from the Zanja Madre, a three-foot ditch cut to the river. MacAdams had promised to show us a relic of that era, and now we all hopped a fence and scrambled downhill until we reached a small arch of ancient bricks protruding out of the dirt: the domed roof of the Zanja, discovered last February by two amateur archaeologists. Mui smiled, and MacAdams bent down and scratched some dust away from the bricks. "This," he said, "is a visitor from another time, and it has revealed itself to restore Los Angeles' history. It's a link, all the way back to when this city was founded by the river, and its discovery signifies the end of 100 years of Anglo domination."

Somehow, it didn't quite matter that MacAdams is Anglo himself, or that he lives on a hill. I could almost see the Portolá expedition camped by a fire; I could smell the sweet, oily steelhead as it baked on the flames.

Just downstream from Chinatown, in East L.A., we met a kid writing his tag, "HINT," onto the banks and I asked him if he favored more riverside parks. "No," he said, "because people would just throw trash in them." We saw a guy washing his clothes -- and his torso and face -- in the water. Then we pulled ashore and spoke to Jerry Griffin, who has built himself a home on a flat, cavelike shelf cut into the banks. Griffin is 32 and toothless and bone thin with wild dark eyes and a dark beard and fine, long black hair that he combs with fastidious care.

"I come from the abused home, the alcoholic father, the whole thing," he said. "Don't I look like fucking Charles Manson?" He threw his head back, cackling in a goofy, genial way, and stepped delicately around his little apartment. There was a spotless purple carpet, a dumpster find, in there, a lamp, some grimy clothes, and a mattress under which Griffin had tucked a few wrinkled photographs, clippings from porn mags. He'd been living there for six weeks.

"Half the time the cops come by," he said, "I'm smoking a bowl. I wave at them; they don't care. I think this is where they actually want us. We're away from everything. This is a no-man's-land.

"It's eerie, man. One morning I woke up and I saw this empty shopping cart being pulled by the current -- slowly, as if someone was pushing it. If I filmed that, I could've gotten the grand prize on 'America's Funniest Home Videos'!"

Griffin cackled again. He showed us his collection of Tom Clancy novels and the Ozzy Osbourne tattoo on his shoulder. "Ozzy just isn't the same dude he was back in '81 and '82," he lamented. Then he spit into a swamp of old tires and Burger King wrappers. "If things keep going the way they are, this is what everywhere's going to look like," he said. "There'll be thieves on every corner, a mutant race of homeless people living underground. The whole world will be the Los Angeles River."

Eventually, we told Griffin we had to leave; we were boating to Long Beach. "My condolences!" he said. "My condolences!" His laughter echoed off the concrete and we got in our boats and flowed south.

Along the L.A.'s last 15 miles, the concrete basin around the low-flow channel grows wider and wider until it is 300 feet across, a huge, gray moonscape. The river runs a completely man-made course -- due south beside the 710 Freeway -- and its banks are awash in the noise of the traffic.

I saw disquieting things as I paddled. I saw a dead dog in the water, a golden retriever, its mouth open and its teeth bared like a pig on a spit as it lay there draped in green strands of algae. I saw a pair of brand-new black dress shoes, my size roughly, by the very edge of the water. The left shoe was on the left bank, the right on the right. I saw a couple of kids hoisting slabs of concrete over a fence to watch them scrape and crash down the banks into the water.

"Fuck, yeah!" said one kid when the last concrete chunk splashed.

"Fuuuu-uck, yeah!" said his friend.

There was an obituary graffitied under a bridge: "Rip traveled well. We'll miss you, homeboy." There was a guy fishing. I waved hello to him, and he ran away.

Finally, I reached a raised concrete weir spanning the water -- the gateway to the estuary, more or less, the end of freshwater. The current splayed out and my boat ground on the bottom. I stood up to wade, and then suddenly a thick cloud of birds darted above me: black stilts, shorebirds that feed on algae. I'd seen a few stilts upstream, but now clumps of them were swooping and diving over the water. A hundred birds, maybe -- black and white feathered with these slender black beaks and absurdly long legs. They took off and landed jauntily, their skinny knees popping, and they exuded the gangly grace of world-class distance runners.

They were dignitaries, really, on a river that will remain encased in concrete for some time to come. Carl Blum, a deputy director for Los Angeles County's Department of Public Works, predicted as much when I called him one morning. "It prevents floods," he said. "It has allowed 10 million people to do their thing, and tearing it out -- you'd be in the billions of dollars. You'd have to tear out the 710 Freeway and railroad systems and thousands of homes. I can't see it happening. The channel here was built to move water out to the ocean, quickly."

But, I asked, is the channel a river or just a flood control chute?

"It serves a function." Blum paused. "I'll let you answer that question."

The stilts shot by me again. They flew low in the sky and they made a loud, happy racket. "Kyik! Kyik! Kyik!" they cried. Then they swooped away and I heard nothing, just the distant roar of the 710.

Kyik! Kyik! Kyik!

Nothing.

Kyik! Kyik! Kyik!

It sounded like a river.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.