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BROKEN RELATIONSHIP: A shoe on the bottom of the Los Angeles River.
Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes
BROKEN RELATIONSHIP: A shoe on the bottom of the Los Angeles River.

River music

Lifestyle | Revitalized attitudes toward urban rivers and nature are spurring reclamation efforts nationwide

Issue: "Effective compassion," July 27, 2013

To take a full, hard look at mankind’s broken relationship with nature, just YouTube the famous car race scene in the 1978 film Grease

John Travolta’s character smirks and flicks his gelled hair while striding his white steel Greased Lightning. He and his nemesis skid along a narrow stream of tarry water, under bridges and past expressways, while their fans cheer by the concrete banks.

That notorious car race scene was shot at the Los Angeles River (LAR). Most viewers may not realize it’s a real river. Nor do they imagine that the emaciated stream within a sheet of concrete once used to provide enough water for a town, and to feed its banks with so much wildlife and nutrients that practically any crop flourished.

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Decades ago LAR flash floods prompted the city to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to drown the river in 3.5 million barrels of concrete. Residents salted LAR with cheese-stained Frito-Lay bags, broken furniture, and industrial leaks. Environmentalist Billy McKibben somberly wrote that LAR symbolizes “the end of nature.” 

Others emphasized humor and irony: Comedian Conan O’Brien’s first sketch after he relocated from New York City to Los Angeles lampooned LAR’s pathetic existence: O’Brien tried (and failed) to canoe down it. But at least he recognized there was a river. Many Angelenos don’t even know it exists.

LAR’s story is similar to many of the world’s urban rivers: Seoul’s Han River, Poland’s Vistula, Brazil’s Capibaribe, China’s Yangtze. In America, we have the green-sludged Chicago River, the dissipating Colorado, the toxic Hudson—just to name a few.

Although specific challenges are unique to each river, city dwellers’ attitudes to urban rivers followed a similar chain of responses: They treated the river as a garbage chute, a self-flushing toilet, a backyard to chuck undesirable transients and bums, and eventually, a serial killer to be gated and punished when it froths flash floods in rages of protest.

But LAR is now a symbol of a major shift in the national approach to urban rivers and nature—and it all started with a small-town lad’s tanked performance art piece. 

Lewis MacAdams met the river for the first time in 1985 while walking to the downtown bus stop to Venice. He was shocked to see a vomit of sewage water, strangled beneath concrete and caged within graffitied walls, barbed fences, and “NO TRESPASSING” signs. He had moved to Los Angeles to make it into the film industry “just like any other schmo who comes to LA,” but it took him only five minutes to decide the river would be his life’s work.

MacAdams created a performance piece, “Friends of the Los Angeles River,” by donning a white suit and painting his face a watery green. It failed so dismally that a theater refused to pay him and his girlfriend dumped him. But in 1986, MacAdams revived Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) as a nonprofit community organization that continues to speak for the river today.

The city of Los Angeles adopted a LAR revitalization plan in 2007 that envisioned a beautified river as “the soul of the city,” connecting communities and serving neglected neighborhoods. An annual FoLAR cleanup draws more than 3,000 people, who get down on their knees to pick up trash clogging the river. (The initial event in 1989 included barely 30 volunteers.)

Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance (MWA) in New York City, said, “People are changing their approaches to urban waterfronts.” The MWA includes 700 civic organizations, companies, and local unions, all pledging commitment to revitalize the New York-New Jersey waterfront. MWA’s annual City of Water Day Festival, an all-day event of waterfront activities, sees up to 25,000 local participants throughout the New York-New Jersey region.

Lewis pointed to LA and revitalization of the San Antonio River. Bike paths, parks, boardwalks, and hiking trails now accompany rivers across the nation such as the Anacostia in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, the Blue River in Kansas City, and the Santa Cruz River in Tucson. In Denver, more than 400 volunteers show up for the annual CH2M HILL Spring RiverSweep along the South Platte River.

People are seeing nature not just as something that is pristine or destroyed. They’re asking: Can a metropolitan city—a place where “wilderness” is associated only with violence and disorder—coexist with nature’s wilderness? Catholic theologian Douglas Christie, who teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, hopes residents will “give more attention to the world and cherish its beauty.”

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