Listening to the River—Land&People

If ever there were a river in need of friends it is the Los Angeles River. Once wild and unpredictable, the 51-mile Los Angeles River now is largely confined to a concrete ditch, the result of a 1938 “reclamation” project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The river runs through thirteen cities from Canoga Park to Long Beach, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. Straddled by freeways, contained by cement, and bordered by chain-link fence, the L.A. River mostly runs under the public radar. But all this is changing.

Performance artist and poet Lewis MacAdams is an agent of that change. A native of Texas, MacAdams attended Princeton and the State University of New York at Buffalo before moving to California. In 1980 he saw the Los Angeles River for the first time and was inspired. “I knew from the very first time I saw it that I would have some involvement with it,” MacAdams recalls. In 1985 he led a few friends down to the ledge of the huge culvert, cut the fence, and declared the need to speak for the river. “Under the concrete, the river is laughing,” he assured them.

MacAdams’s performance that day inspired both a movement and a new organization. Friends of the Los Angeles River, or FOLAR, has become one of the nation’s most visible and effective advocacy groups for urban rivers.

From its headquarters at the Los Angeles River Center just north of downtown, FOLAR has mobilized thousands of Angelenos to restore the river–from water monitoring and clean-up parties to nature walks, poetry readings, and performance art. A series of lectures, seminars, and workshops, cosponsored with Occidental College, is among FOLAR’s efforts to get people down to the water and rethink what the river means to them and their communities. Last year FOLAR, along with a broad coalition of community groups and the Trust for Public Land, succeeded in winning state funds to acquire an abandoned railyard in L.A.’s Chinatown for a new riverside park. Known as the Cornfields for the crops that once grew in the river’s floodplain, the park-in-progress is testimony to what can happen when a river has friends like Lewis MacAdams.

We spoke in Los Angeles.

What is it about the L.A. River that draws you to it?

I like looking at birds, trees, and how the river changes through the seasons–the way the willows dip down after a heavy rain. Even a river as channelized as the L.A. River has its seasons. What interests me most, however, is bringing people together in the interest of creating something–a kind of “social sculpture.” The yearning for a healthy river brings out something really positive in people. It fascinates me how the city’s thinking about the river has changed over the past decade.

What difference does the river make to people living in Los Angeles?

People say that L.A. is a place that lacks a center, that it’s a “placeless” place. The river can give people a sense that there is a center and a history here. I believe people really need that. When people ask me, “What can I do to help?” I say, “Just go down and take a walk on the river, and the river will tell you.” For some people, helping the river may be just knowing it is there. For others, it will be to come down and pick up trash. Still others will get involved in planning. It’s very personal.

You see the river as a way of bringing people together?

There is an the gospel hymn that goes “Shall We Gather at the River?”

I’ve met many people from many different communities whose only common thing is the river. One of the greatest moments for me was meeting with the Chinatown Yard Alliance at the Gourmet Carousel, one of the cheapest dim sum places around–and looking around at people from all walks of life, all working to win the battle over the Cornfields. Experiences like that draw me to this work more than anything. I admit when I see a hawk circling over the river or see willows bending into the water after a storm, I dig that, too. But it’s more about community in the largest sense of the word.

How do you make people care about a river that looks so little like one?

By creating a consciousness of the river and its role in life of the city. By putting forward the image of a living river. By providing an image of people having fun there. By saying, “You can make this a place that feels good. You can make this a place that makes your city a better place to live.” It’s a promise the river can embody. I want people to fill in the details of that promise themselves. When it comes to finding solutions for the river, we need to leave room for people’s imaginations. That is the power of art.

Isn’t hopelessness a potential response to the state of the river?

Yes, hopelessness is a potential response. It’s almost an advantage that the river already had been destroyed, so people don’t feel like this is the last stand such as saving the last of a species or an ancient forest. It’s important to give yourself impossible goals. It can drive you beyond anything you can ever imagine. When I started FOLAR, I made it a goal to restore the steelhead run to the river. To make a promise like that makes people laugh, and that’s good, too. It can’t seem like martyrdom. Patience is key, and it’s something I’m trying to learn. It’s kind of reassuring to know that the river is always going to be here. Water will keep flowing through the world. It can be ugly or beautiful, but it’s still going to be here.

How did you come to envision FOLAR as an art project?

I never said we were an environmental group, I always said we were an artwork. We found that this intrigued people and that we could avoid a polarizing response when we presented ourselves that way. By calling it an artwork rather than a “cause,” people don’t feel threatened or made uptight by it. There is a role for imagination and vision in restoring and reclaiming a natural resource. That’s really at the heart of our work.

At the time I created FOLAR, most of the people I knew were artists. Few of them had ever been to the river. Someone made a wonderful tape of industrial music and reggae, and group of us put a big boom box in a wheelbarrow and led a walk down the river. It was performance art but it was also an exploration, in a Lewis-and-Clark kind of way. Another time people gathered at the only footbridge and together poured water they had taken from purer sources into the L.A. River. Since then there have been a number of performances with the river as a backdrop. They’ve all helped to put the river on the map, so to speak, by giving people a reason to look at the river close up.

In our culture, we tend to see art as a singular, individual act. I like to think of it more in terms of ritual and communal acts. And I don’t just mean human acts. It’s a form that’s open to every living thing. You can call it art or you can call it ritual or you can call it religion or you can call it activism. But it’s some sense of “gathering by the river.”

Why do you refer to FOLAR as “40-year artwork”?

The emphasis on 40 years is as important as the emphasis on artwork. I figured it would take at least forty years to undo the damage humans had done to the river. I remind myself that it’s not just about fixing the river, it’s about building a movement.

The river is a powerful metaphor, even a river like the L.A. River. I remember the first time I saw the Los Angeles River. Like the river, my life then was in a state of shambles and desperation. And I think about a time when my son was three, playing at the river with his little sister, and his reaction at seeing a crawdad for the first time. Like a mirror, the river reflects those moments in my own life.

For me, it’s also about learning patience. Rivers are not into straight lines, the fastest route. They seek the easiest route. That’s the nature of water. So rivers remind us that there’s plenty of time to accomplish our goals.

Renee Lertzman is a writer and consultant living in Brooklyn, New York.