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Poet Activist Dreams of Restoring the L.A. River

Lewis MacAdams is determined to bring new life to a Los Angeles icon. Sponsored by Grape-Nuts.

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Lewis MacAdams has dedicated a great deal of his life to bringing the Los Angeles River back to the glorious waterway it once was — and more. He'd like to see it embraced by parks, horse trails, bike and pedestrian paths and open to bird watchers, anglers and picnickers. To that end, the poet, writer and filmmaker founded Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), which he characterizes as a "40-year artwork" project.

What was once the prime source of water for the City of Angels changed in the 1930s, when the Army Corps of Engineers turned the river banks into a concrete "flood control channel," causing the riparian paradise to become (in the words of one journalist) a "50-mile-long paved toilet of a drainage ditch." Texas-born MacAdams, a Princeton graduate and prolific author, has become the river’s most important and influential advocate, lobbying state and federal officials on behalf of his dream.

That dream includes everything from creating a Los Angeles River Conservancy, to restoring the river’s ecosystem, to coordinating community-based cleanups. As Lewis once remarked, "My theory is, it took 40 years to screw it up; it will take 40 years to fix it."

Here, the poet activist shares the difficulties involved in bringing his dream into reality.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve taken on? or, What's a goal you're trying to achieve right now? Dedicating the last 27 years to creating a movement to bring the Los Angeles River back to life. Right now, I'm working with many others to transform the Union Pacific Piggyback Yard, the last active rail yard in the City of Los Angeles, into a multi-land use. The Union Pacific Piggyback Yard is approximately 125 acres of land that sits across the river from Los Angeles Union Station, with about two-thirds of a mile of river front, between USC Medical Center and the river. Built in the late 19th century, it is the last active rail yard in the city of Los Angeles and the largest piece of single-owned property in the central city, more than double the size of the Los Angeles State Historic Park at the Cornfield  and Rio de Los Angeles State Park in the Taylor Yard combined.

In the two studies undertaken so far — neither, it should be noted, with the cooperation of the railroad — we are proposing that about 80 acres of the site will be used for parkland creation, wetlands restoration and flood protection. Forty acres around the edges would be reserved for mixed use, public-private partnership development. The next step is to formally involve the railroad in a discussion of the yard's future. 

Friends of the Los Angeles River and the River Revitalization Corporation have engaged a number of firms to articulate the original vision, including the engineering firm Geosyntec, land use consultants and urban designers, Mia Lehrer and Associates. If successful, this will be the first major project I am aware of in the United States to use flood detention to help shape planning and land use decisions. It is a bold and challenging adventure. We invite you to join us; so stay tuned.

Q. What inspired you to take on this challenge?  or, How do you plan to achieve this goal? One night, not long after I first moved to Los Angeles, I was on my way to the bus stop when I first saw the L.A. River; I knew I would be involved in it for the rest of my life. Now, 27 years later, that is what I have gone and done.

Q. Did you succeed? or What will you do when you succeed? I won’t succeed in my lifetime. That is why I'm committed to building Friends of the Los Angeles River to live past (me) and into future generations.

The river
is a rigorous mistress,
but when you tickle her
with your deeds, you can hear laughter
from beneath her concrete corset.
            Lewis MacAdams

Danielle Charney April 18, 2013 at 05:55 AM
Would love to see the river and all the surrounding areas alive again- and thriving- great work
Douglas Fay April 18, 2013 at 06:22 AM
Lewis Macadams deserves our respect and support. Why hasn't te Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and Foundation embraced his efforts? It sounds like the proposed $50 million Annenberg Foundation development on the Ballona Wetlands should have been considered for the railroad property. Oh that's right, the SMBRC/F secure millions of grant dollars then create projects so they can make our money disappear.
mimi April 18, 2013 at 03:52 PM
Scraps - I agree and would love to see this restoration succeed. I never knew the history until today. Thanks.
Barbara Epstein April 19, 2013 at 04:42 AM
Sad to live without hope or imagination. How do you get through your days? We were lucky enough to be treated to a guided walk by journalist and broadcaster Patt Morrison, who wrote the book about the river, along part of the river and saw the restoration progress with our own eyes. Volunteers help clean up and created lovely walking paths many people enjoy every day.
Clint Worthington June 12, 2013 at 01:53 PM
Apparently it has been some time since Mr. Macadams has spoken to Union Pacific Railroad. LATC ( (Southern Pacific Piggyback Yard) also known as The Shops is currently undergoing an expansion. All of the buildings at the Coach Yard have been torn down including The Shops Tower. The Shops is being expanded to actually handle more more cars and trains. If you are familiar with the yard, you can see the changes from either Richmond Street or when you cross over the yard in I5.

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