When writer and poet Lewis MacAdams cofounded Friends of the Los Angeles River in 1986, there seemed to be little hope for the 51-mile-long, concrete-lined flood channel. Since then, with FoLAR’s help and inspiration, we’ve seen the addition of river-adjacent parks near downtown (Rio de Los Angeles State Park, L.A. State Historic Park) and miles of pathway. Bigger still is a plan known as Alternative 20 that has been endorsed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the river, to reimagine 11.5 miles of waterway near and through downtown. The cost of the project? Around $1.4 billion, with L.A. on the hook for as much as $980 million. But 71-year-old MacAdams is feeling Zen.
For a major revival project to happen, California’s rebounding economy could be key.
“This is the point where everybody is looking at everybody else to come up with the money for Alternative 20. The Army Corps wants the city to pay a much larger percentage than the city wants to pay. The city has to get the money from somewhere, and what we’re seeing is that a much larger percentage of the funding will be coming from the state. The state is a way more powerful entity than it was even two years ago.”
Work long enough on the river, and you learn to be patient.
“I remember coming back from Washington after the Corps endorsed the budget. I was surprised at people who I thought would have known better asking, ‘When are we going to break ground?’ I would say—this is a pure guess—somewhere around ten years. This is a project about building a better river, building a river that the city can be proud of— building a city that the river can be proud of, actually. You have to look at it in terms of building a transportation system like the Red Line.”
MacAdams is about hearts and minds.
“In the last year or two I’ve seen a tendency for people in some quarters to say, ‘FoLAR’s about the past. They did amazing things. Now let the grown ups play.’ I think we’re doing great. People who think FoLAR’s time has come and gone should go to our Elysian Valley visitor center, the Frog Spot, for our Saturday night party with beer, wine, pizza, three bands, and maybe 300 people dancing and having a good time. That’s God to me.”