L.A. River lovers should thank Lewis MacAdams
At its headwaters in the hills of the northwestern San Fernando Valley, it is nothing more than a trickle in the rocks — just like any other river, anywhere.
In some of its reaches, past the Hansen Dam, the reeds grow so high and the banks so swampy, so positively Mesopotamian, that people want to camp and fish there — just like any other river.
Coursing through the sudden hipness that is Los Feliz and Atwater Village, Glassell Park and Frogtown, it has become an attraction, a selling point, a draw both to the young and the restless and the developers and new residents who will change the neighborhoods forever — just like any other river.
Even as it spills into the sea at Long Beach, our river is just like any other river, as the walls of the concrete basin that contains it have spread seemingly wide as the Mississippi, and from the air the fresh waters glisten at sunset as they do from above any great delta.
But if it is our Seine, our Thames, our Hudson, it is also still the Los Angeles River, a waterway that did not present itself in the usual manner. A shabby actor on a stool at a Hollywood diner, its many talents were in need of shepherding before discovery.
And now that the river’s a star, the man who for all practical purposes did discover it, Lewis MacAdams, the poet turned riparian people’s entrepreneur, was properly able to step down last week as head of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, the organization he cofounded 30 years ago in part as a kind of artistic/environmentalist prank.
MacAdams and friends went through the chain link for a stroll along what had turned into little more than a flood-control channel. “A latter-day urban hell.” he termed it. Later he created a performance piece in a downtown space featuring the lordly water engineer William Mulholland and a totem pole speared with unspeakable trash.
He turned outrage into art, and then into the activism that has culminated in the recognition of the river as a navigable waterway. The Army Corps of Engineers has committed to a $1.6 billion restoration of the Los Angeles River, putting it in its proper place at the recreational and spiritual heart of the region.
Thanks, Lewis MacAdams. You gave us back our river.