Can the L.A. River Be Saved? by Mike Davis, 1989

“Lewis Macadams and I are standing at the Fremont Gate of Elysian Park, near the North Broadway bridge, trying to imagine the luxuriant thickets of wild grapes that the Portola expedition described finding here in 1769 along the bank of the wild desert river they named the Rio de Porciuncula. A few blocks away, no one knows where exactly, was Yang-Na, a large village of Gabrielino Indians who lived off the fat of the land in game-rich marshes now occupied by derelict railyards and warehouses. Lewis explains that the aboriginal river was a stream of unique beauty and constancy — even in drought years the enormous underground reservoirs of the Verdugo and Tujunga aquifers assured a steady flow of life-giving waters.

Periodically, however, mountain deluges would supercharge the Rio de Porciuncula with the volume of the Lower Colorado. These almost biblical floods would turn the Los Angeles coastal plain into a vast lake, and drive the Gabrielinos to hilltop refuges. (After one such inundation in the 1820s, the river was permanently diverted away from Ballona Creek into a channel that emerged at the Wilmington Lagoon.)

The River was famous for seducing newcomers. The legendary William Mulholland, arriving in Los Angeles in 1877, described it as ‘a beautiful, limpid little stream with willows on its banks. It was so attractive to me that it at once became something about which my whole scheme of life was woven. I loved it so much.’ Even after the first big boom in the 1880s, the River long retained an arcadian aspect. Brandishing a dog-eared 1890s topographical map prepared by city engineer J. H. Dockweiler and pointing toward Elysian Valley, Lewis showed me that although railroad workers’ shanties then lined the Arroyo Seco confluence and the Southern Pacific main line hugged the north bank, the south bank of the River — through present-day ‘Frogtown’ — was a checkerboard marked ‘alfalfa,’ ‘grain,’ ‘pasture,’ ‘walnuts,’ and ‘strawberries.’ Even through downtown there were still sandbars, reed marshes and swimming holes where tough immigrant kids from Brooklyn and Boyle Heights hung out.

By the end of the First World War, however, the bottom land had become industrial sinew (Lewis points toward the ancient smokestack of the Edison Electric Plant): thick grids of trackage, classification and storage yards, lumber and produce depots, breweries, foundries, and slum housing. Sixty thousand blue-collar workers and their families were crowded in the stretch of downtown between the river and Alameda Street from Elysian Park to Washington Boulevard. For 20 years a fierce class war raged here, as the Merchants and Manufacturers Association (led by the Times‘ proprietor, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis) locked out the unions, and the river wards retaliated by voting ‘Red.’ Socialist councilman Fred Wheeler was long the tribune of the people from the tenements ‘east of Alameda.’

By the 1920s the labor movement was crushed and the Anglo working class had moved away from the River to the bungalow tractlands of South-Central Los Angeles. As the valley of the Los Angeles River became even more industrially congested, it nonetheless remained the dominant axis of the sprawling metropolis. Lewis explained how under the inspired leadership of Merrill Butler, the city’s chief engineer of bridges and structures during the 1920s and 1930s, the River was spanned by a series of magnificent reinforced concrete bridges, designed in a harmonic progression from the Neo-classical (Macy and First Street) to the Gothic (Fourth Street) to the Streamline Moderne (Seventh Street). These monumental viaducts, together with the approaches of the Arroyo Seco and Romano Parkways (today the Pasadena and San Bernardino freeways), were the last attempts to acknowledge the primacy of the River in a ‘City Beautiful’ vision of Los Angeles.

After the Second World War the River corridor was brutalized beyond recognition by public-works bureaucracies and private industry. While the State Division of Highways sliced up Boyle Heights like a giant salami, the Army Corps of Engineers transformed the river channel into a huge concrete sewer for downtown industries to flush their toxic wastes. ‘Model’ public-housing projects like William Mead Homes (‘Dogtown’) and Aliso Village, together with fragments of old neighborhoods like Mateo Street and North Main, were left as forlorn residential islands in a tangled inferno of railroad yards, freeway overpasses, jail and noxious industries. The natural Los Angeles River was repressed from memory, its once sweet waters reduced, most of the year, to a trickle of sewage in the channel’s central trough. (Only Gordon Douglas’ 1952 eco-sci-fi cult film Them! reminded us of the barbarity of what had been done to the River, as giant killer ants — radioactive mutants of atomic testing in the desert — established their colony in its concrete caverns and sewers.)

Now Lewis MacAdams — poet, filmmaker, occasional Weekly contributor, and co-founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River — is trying to convince me that we have a realistic opportunity to repair some of this rape of landscape and history. Squinting his eyes, he looks up-river, beyond the industrial wasteland of North Broadway, toward that ‘naturalized’ stretch of the River in Elysian Valley where the channel has been left sandy-bottomed because of the high water table. He sketches a vision of a restored riverine ecology from the Sepulveda Basin to Long Beach, with pure flows, swimming holes, willow, alder, and sycamore trees, fishing from bridges, even wild grape thickets.

Along the River Lewis visualizes social justice as well as environmental reparation. He talks about bikeways, parks, soccer fields, nature centers, schools and low-income housing, using recycled railroad land to meet some of the needs of the working-class inner city ignored by central-city redevelopment.

Eastside kids swimming in the River again? Wild alders, trout and affordable housing? Has Lewis hallucinated into the dreamtime of the extinct Yang-Nans? In a city most of us imagine to be headed, helter-skelter, toward a Blade Runner future, is there any reason to take seriously this proposed synthesis of Edward Abbey, Mark Twain and Saint-Simon?”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of Newspapers.com, LA Weekly, September 7, 1989. (top) Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Review of Books, “In Memoriam: Lewis MacAdams,” by Julia Ingalls, May 24, 2020

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