Stand on any corner in Los Angeles and ask a few passersby about the Los Angeles River; you’ll learn a lot about the city. Most, like Cris Beam, will say, “River? There’s no L.A. River.” A handful, like architect Dean Larkin, know the river well. “It makes me sad,” he says. “Other cities and towns are built around these beautiful rivers. Our river is a concrete scar. I always thought the term river was loosely applied.”

A few like Click for the original imageit for its perverse industrial nature. “I first realized the L.A. River was cool when I was a kid and the game show Truth or Consequences had a competition,” says television writer Alexa Junge. “A guy in a man-made boat had to get from some point in L.A. to the ocean via the river. Another guy got to go on a cruise from L.A. to San Diego. They would show the guy on the cruise with women in bikinis serving him grapes, and then they would show this other guy in a wagon in the concrete river.”

Since the city was settled in 1781-and it was settled there because of the waterway-the L.A. River has been treated worse than just about any natural landscape in the country. It has been water faucet, sewer, dumping ground, and gravel provider. As L.A. grew, the river outlived its usefulness, and its sporadic nature-dry for half the year and then sometimes flooding violently in the winter-became untenable. So its earthen bed was replaced with a 51-mile-long concrete flood channel hidden below a nearly constant maze of highway overpasses. The only people who seem to visit it these days are graffiti taggers and anyone who needs to get rid of a dead car, an old fridge, or a broken air conditioner.

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This year, for the first time in history, the Los Angeles River has powerful advocates-people who want to transform the despised eyesore into a gorgeous network of parks and trails. But they are battling equally powerful developers who would continue to hide the river behind industrial complexes. For some designers, both sides are missing the point: the only way to save L.A. is by embracing its ugly truths.

The battle Click for the original imagehas come to a head at perhaps the river’s ugliest corner, where it runs near the abandoned Union Pacific rail yards in Chinatown, just north of downtown. There are places further up the river where the channel floor is dirt, trees have taken hold, and waterfowl nest. But here the flow has ground down to a trickle in its massive concrete bed. A tangle of bridges and highway overpasses looms above, and below there is not a single living thing-not even algae.

Chinatown Yards is the kind of site that has historically only called to industrial developers; who else would want it? When John Hunter of Majestic Realty-one of the largest and most powerful developers in the area-learned that Union Pacific was hoping to sell its large rail yard, he thought he had an easy and lucrative proposition. Majestic’s staff quickly sketched out a 950,000-square-foot manufacturing and distribution complex, and prospective tenants began lining up. What Majestic didn’t know was that at the same time a small group of activists called Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) was gaining a surprising amount of money and influence-enough to really challenge the project.

With close ties to Mayor Richard Riordan’s office and some 40 million square feet of property, Click for the original imageMajestic simply doesn’t brook attacks from the likes of FoLAR. “This is a small group of extremist activists,” Hunter says. For a long time that was exactly how FoLAR members would have characterized themselves. But during the past few years the group has won the support of former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, State Senator Tom Hayden, and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. “This has got to be a shock to the developers,” says Hayden, who has helped FoLAR transform itself into a powerful, well-connected group. “The river was long ago ceded to industrial and commercial developers. It’s an abrupt turn they’re going to get used to.”

FoLAR was founded in 1986 as exactly the kind of organization developers like Hunter laugh at: a small group of artsy zealots who speak in vague pieties and know nothing about political realities. When poet Lewis MacAdams created the group, he turned to other artists as potential members. For years they toiled away, ignored by politi-cians, the press, and the public. “When I started FoLAR, I thought it was just going to be a question of convincing people the river could get better,” MacAdams says. “To my surprise, it took years to convince people it was a river at all. It had basically been expunged from memory. Maps only referred to it as a flood-control channel. On a lot of maps there wasn’t even a line there.”

But when FoLAR enlisted Melanie Winter as executive director in 1997, the political machine got into gear. “It’s amazing how much press you can get; you just need letterhead, a fax machine, Click for the original imageand a phone,” the PR-savvy Winter says. While appealing to political leaders, Winter also built a vocal grassroots constituency through annual river cleanups, walking tours, newsletters, and press conferences. This work culminated in spring 2000, when the three politicians-Villaraigosa, Hayden, and Boxer-successfully fought for more than $100 million in bonds and state and federal funds. The money will support a chain of parks, paths, and bikeways along much of the river’s banks. Central to the plan is the 47-acre Chinatown Yards; ideas for the site include parkland, a school, and a Shaolin temple. Any of these would give a boost to Chinatown, which has a single park and only one decrepit school.

Hunter thinks the proposal is nuts. “We have thoroughly researched the site, and you can’t build a park there,” he says. “The soil is too polluted. What the community needs are jobs-light manufacturing jobs. There is only one possible plan for the site, and that’s ours.” Winter retorts: “The only possible thing for a guy who builds industrial properties is an industrial property. In terms of toxic levels, we’ve seen the geologics on the site. The contamination is not severe.”

“They want to build a warehouse. Warehouse is nothing,” says Collin Lai, president of the Chinese American Click for the original imageCitizensAlliance Los Angeles lodge. “We need mixed-use land. Anything is better than a warehouse. We’re the last of the Mohicans fighting the giant: Majestic.” Everyone agrees that Chinatown has lost most of its employers and economic strength. Majestic argues that its development will bring jobs to Chinatown and more shoppers to its stores. But Lai thinks the Shaolin temple would do the same in a more appropriate way. “The temple is very good; it’s a like a training center,” he explains. “There’s a constant influx of students and monks. That means a constant influx of retail activity.”

The L.A. city council has ruled again and again that Majestic has the right to build on the Chinatown Yards site. FoLAR, along with environmental groups including the Click for the original imageNatural Resources Defense Council, is suing Majestic and the city for not undertaking a proper review of the site; they hope a judge will force a more thorough and public review of the plans. In addition, they intend to pressure the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-from which Majestic is set to receive several million dollars in brownfield-redevelopment money-to support parks instead of manufacturing. After the lawsuit was filed in early fall, the press response was so great that four of the five mayoral candidates expressed at least token support of FoLAR. Even Steven Soboroff, the chosen candidate of Mayor Riordan, appeared to promote the park plan. But litigation will run well into 2001 or longer before there is any resolution.

FoLAR’s status with politicians is surprising, because it was first seen as a group of indulgent yuppies with little concern for working and poor citizens. One of its earliest critics was D. J. Waldie, a city official in Lakewood, a blue-collar suburb that sits in the river’s floodplain. Click for the original imageIn 1996 he argued that FoLAR’s plans would destroy the river’s safety features and flood working people’s homes just so some rich folks could walk their dogs on a pretty stretch of green upriver. “Many things have changed since then, and my views have too,” Waldie says. “I see the river as a possible restoration not of nature but of our ability to connect with each other in Los Angeles. We long ignored it as a place, and we now realize we have wasted opportunities along the river. City officials are coming to understand that the river through their community is not a void, a black hole, a concrete hole. It’s something else.”

Winter explains the recent burst of excitement by presenting a nine-page list of recommendations from the Los Angeles River Master Plan Advisory Committee. For FoLAR, whose largest budget was less than $150,000, this packet is thrillingly absurd. It lists all of the projects Click for the original imagefor which funding suddenly seems plausible: $5 million for Cudahy Riverfront Park; $5 million for the Elysian Valley Greenway; $8 million for Wrigley Heights Community Park; $3 million for the Dominguez Gap wetlands habitat; and about $50 million for bikeways along much of the river’s 51 miles. It’s not FoLAR’s money, and the group doesn’t control it-there is a dizzying array of city, county, state, federal, and nonprofit groups that have input into how the money is spent. But if it weren’t for FoLAR, none of this money would be available, and the group will continue to define what happens next.

The Los Angeles River bears little resemblance to those of Europe or the American northeast. Even in its original state, it was dry for much of the year. With virtually no flow during the summer months, the river could not dig a deep channel, so when the Click for the original imageannual winter storms came, the water would push along unpredictably. Starting eastward from the San Fernando Valley and turning south around Griffith Park, some years the river would take a sharp turn west and feed into the ocean at Santa Monica. Other years it would veer south, all the way to Long Beach, as it does today. Often enough it would flood large parts of the Los Angeles Basin.

As Blake Gumprecht makes clear in his wonderful book The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth, although Los Angeles is commonly called a desert, it isn’t one at all. The river’s massive floodplain allowed a forest to grow through most of what is now the city. There were 50-foot-tall cottonwoods, willows, and sycamores, and countless clumps of alder, hackberry, and California rose. The woods were so thick that people could not pass through them in some places. If they did, they’d find bears, big cats, and other wild animals. Many of the indigenous plants could survive months without any water at all, and then a few weeks completely submerged. The local Indians were equally adaptive. “The Gabrielinos just realized you couldn’t live next to the stream,” Gumprecht says. “‘The river flooded here last year, so I can’t live here.'”

European settlers, on the other hand, had never faced such a body of water. On August 2, 1769, a small expedition of Spanish soldiers stopped at the riverbank quite close to where the Chinatown Click for the original imageYards site is today. A priest accompanying the group, Father Juan Crespí, wrote that it was “a very lush and pleasing spot, in every respect.” Following Crespí’s advice, a mission was built there, right in the heart of the floodplain. That mission eventually became the country’s second-largest city, but the floods carried on as they had for millennia. And they came at the worst possible intervals-so frequently that they caused great damage and loss of life, but just infrequently enough that the residents soon forgot about them and decided not to move the settlement elsewhere. Each flood brought new screams of shock at an unexpected calamity; and every year came new immigrants with no memories of the last flood.

From the first days of settlement, Angelenos saw the river as theirs to use and manipulate. They created a system of canals, or zanjas, which brought water to homes and fields. Later a network of reservoirs supplied the city and its ever-growing suburbs. But in 1913 water shortages led chief water bureau engineer William Mulholland to build a mammoth canal, bringing water from the Owens Valley, 260 miles away. No longer crucial, the river was seen as nothing more than the cause of awful floods. Two particularly bad ones, in 1934 and 1938, caught national attention at a time when the WPA was seeking massive projects for its workers. The 1938 flood killed 87 people and caused nearly $1 billion in damage (in 2000 dollars). Ninety-one bridges were destroyed, highways were washed away, and sewage lines ruptured and leaked into the streets.

After that flood, the Army Corps of Engineers removed all the trees from the riverbanks and all the vegetation from its bed. In a project that lasted until 1959, crews built a nearly 51-mile cement riverbed. If that weren’t unnatural enough, the river’s water sources-streams and washes coming down the mountains-were diverted from underground aquifers to a series of wells that were supposed to provide the city with drinking water. Several of the wells are now EPA Superfund sites where the water sits, undrinkable. During the dry season 95 percent of the water seen in the Los Angeles River is treated sewage.

Today the notion of a Los Angeles River seems absurd. Visible primarily through car windows from the many freeways that cross it, the river is a dry, concrete sewer bed. You’ve probably seen it in movies-maybe in Grease, or Chinatown, or Terminator 2. But every few winters, it earns its concrete confines. Since Spanish settlement in 1781 the river has seriously flooded more than two dozen times, causing massive property damage and many deaths. And more often than that isolated storm surges fill small sections of the river, killing kids or homeless people whose experience of the “river” never gave them any indication of potential danger. More Angelenos have been killed by flooding of the L.A. River than by earthquakes. Even so, it is hard to believe-and very few do-that this river will some day destroy much of the city.

No one is sure when. The Army Corps of Engineers says that every year there is a one-half of one percent chance of a catastrophic flood; others say it’s a one percent chance. But everyone agrees that one year there will be a winter with slightly more rainfall than usual, with storms coming a bit more frequently. The water will overrun the riverbanks. It will carry giant boulders down from the mountains surrounding L.A., and it will-as it has so many times-submerge some homes, toss others around like toys, and kill many people. Hundreds of thousands will be killed or left homeless in the gigantic floodplain where the city of Los Angeles has been built. “This will not be some horrible act of God,” says biogeomorphologist Christine Perala. “This is the river’s nature; this is what it does. This is what the European settlers couldn’t comprehend. The Indians knew where the high points in the valley were and had the good sense to live there.”

Winter says FoLAR’s plan to naturalize the river would ameliorate the threat of a massive flood. Done right, she explains, a good portion of the concrete that now defines the river can be removed and replaced with carefully designed soft earth capable of holding huge amounts of water during floods-water that will seep into the ground, recharge the depleted natural aquifers underneath, and provide millions of dollars in water each year. With more nature-friendly water-diversion tools-including giant “balloon” dams that would inflate during a flood, forcing water onto parkland, where it could sink into the earth-FoLAR believes the river would flood less often and the concrete would become obsolete.

Winter, MacAdams, and their supporters feel that a restored L.A. River will transform the city if they follow two simple rules: use only native plants, and eliminate concrete. “The plantings must be native,” Winter says. Native plants get the whole process going-they require less water, and attract indigenous bugs and birds; they can reestablish the natural order. “We have researched ecoregion by ecoregion,” she says. “The plants are different in Long Beach than in Tujunga Wash.”

“I have a real philosophical problem with FoLAR on that,” says Gumprecht. “It’s dishonest to pass the Chinatown Yards plan off as an effort to revitalize the river. If you think the Army Corps projects are artificial, then how is this not artificial? Are we trying to develop another tourist site in Los Angeles? Does L.A. really need one? Most of the work seems to be creating places for yuppies to go.”

Landscape architect and Harvard professor Michael Van Valkenburgh agrees. “A nineteenth-century pastoral ideal is cauterized from its condition-it’s preconceived, it’s a priori,” he says. “What’s more interesting than the natural landscape of L.A. is the acculturated landscape; the cement and the nonnative palm trees and oleander are the essence of what I love about Los Angeles. It’s so simple, and so simpleminded, to hang a park idea completely on a re-creation of nature.” Instead Van Valkenburgh would like to see something along the lines of his design for the Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh, which acknowledges the preindustrial waterfront condition while exploring the city’s steel-mill past as well as its present. “I prefer what I call a ‘hyper-nature’ or exaggeration of the natural condition: an intensification of it,” he says. “To not look fey and attenuated and pathetic. The average person wants something soulful-embracing-that ignites their imagination. They want spectacle. I don’t think you can get that out of native plants.”

When told of these concerns, Winter laughs loudly and long. “Some people are in love with the weird, freaky, ugly beauty of the river,” she says. “The more monstrous it is, the more they love it. The more man-made it is, the more they revere it. There are those who find a perverse beauty in that. But it’s not a healthy way for a city to live. To honor that cement in any way would be obscene. To design an entire homage to what is essentially a hubristic mistake? No! They’re just wrong.”

Now that the activists who have struggled for so long suddenly have real money and power, some feel the questions need to shift. It’s no longer enough to say that you are on the side of beauty and nature and livability, that you are against overdevelopment. The question now is, “What will that beauty look like?” Will it speak to all of Los Angeles’s horrible, absurd, wonderful history? The L.A. River is a perfect metaphor for the city that shares its name: the ugly, overbuilt result of thousands of small practical decisions that have left it unable to serve the social, spiritual, and aesthetic needs of its people. But if the river could be given a new life-one that is beautiful and natural and industrial and man-made-it could stop serving as a reminder of small-minded and disastrous twentieth-century urban planning and become a model solution for cities of the twenty-first century.