The Los Angeles River, once the lifeblood of the city, was encased in concrete by the Army Corps of Engineers after devastating floods in the 1930s. Before Lewis MacAdams began his work, most Angelenos were scarcely aware they even had a river. MacAdams’ unique use of poetry, art and community engagement help change the ways Angelenos think about their once forgotten river.
His 30-year love affair with the river started one night in the winter of 1986 with a lot of heavy drinking. He and a few friends went down to a stretch of the river just north of downtown and cut a hole in the chain link fence, declaring the waterway "open to the people."
"When I saw the river for the first time, it was just a tragedy it was so screwed up," MacAdams, 72, said.
He asked the river if he could speak for it in the human realm and it didn’t say no. From that night on, the river became his muse. He went on to create Friends of the Los Angeles River or FoLAR to advocate for it.
At first people didn’t understand why MacAdams was so bent on restoring the natural ecosystem of what many people saw as a concrete flood channel. He envisioned a more beautiful waterway that would bring people and nature together.
"When we started river clean up the first year, I called for 10,000 people to show up, and 10 showed up," MacAdams said. "But I didn't care, and people made fun of it, but I didn't care because I knew something was going on there."
Andy Lipkis, executive director of the environmental non-profit TreePeople, said MacAdams has inspired him and others who pioneered L.A.'s early environmental movement.
"Nobody has had the impact that he has had. He's not a classic leader but he is a classic visionary," Lipkis says. "We so undervalue visionaries because they're often a threat to us. They shake up our reality and have us uncomfortably see things we don't see."
In 1995, the city set about bulldozing all the vegetation in the L.A. River in the name of flood control. When MacAdams heard about it, he lay down in front of the bulldozers to stop the destruction.
He called it performance art but it led to FoLAR's first meeting with the county government.
"I was called into a meeting with head of the county Department of Public Works," MacAdams said. "And he keep referring to the river as a flood control channel. And every time he said, 'flood control channel,' I interrupted him, and I said 'river.' This back-and-forth [went on] for a few minutes, these middle aged men shouting at each other 'River!' 'No, flood control channel!' 'No river!'
It took decades to settle that argument. In 2008 the L.A. River was officially designated as a "navigable waterway" by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The crowning jewel of his push to revitalize the waterway is the so-called Alternative 20 plan, passed by the Los Angeles City Council this June. It’s a $1.3 billion plan to revitalize the river —removing concrete, restoring the ecosystem and creating more bike lanes and public parks.
MacAdams didn’t do it alone.
The plan is the result of work by many politicians, engineers, scientists, community activists, artists and environmentalists who MacAdams energized over decades. Mayor Eric Garcetti, a former creative writing student of MacAdams, said he inspired him push hard for river revitalization in his political career.
On Thursday, MacAdams will step down as president of FoLAR. Marissa Christensen, the current senior policy director, will take his place.
He said he's turning over the reins with regret that he couldn't have accomplished more.
"Well, we haven't gotten any concrete out yet," he said. "When we get some concrete coming out, I'll give myself the benefit of the doubt."
MacAdams insists he isn't retiring despite his recent stroke. He plans to stay on FoLAR's board and continue urging people to make their own personal connection with the river. But how?
"That's a question many people have asked me and the answer is basically just take a walk along the river and the river will tell you what to do next," he said. "It's no secret."
Currently in the planning phase is a seven-foot-tall statue of MacAdams somewhere along the river’s edge. It'll be an homage to the man who has devoted his life to shaping the city’s vision of the river. A poem he has written about his beloved river muse will be etched into the statue:
I think of the river
the way it reads in the
Sam Shepard story,
a “huge concrete serpent,”
a “dumping ground for murder victims.”
I think of the river beside a freeway off-ramp as
roller-bladers, bent into it,
spandexed buttocks rotating,
roll downstream. I think
of William Mulholland’s
“gentle, limpid stream”
coursing from a Pharaoh’s forehead
or from the brow of a Rhine-maiden,
green-eyed and coffee-colored,
a bracelet of drowned children
wrapped around her wrist, descending
from the mountains east of Irwindale
into the jardin des rocas. The river
is a rigorous mistress,
but when you tickle her
with your deeds, you can hear laughter
from beneath her concrete corset.