If awards were given for most abused, most channelized, most ecologically altered urban rivers, the Los Angeles River would be a strong candidate. Its renown comes in part from the rampart-like flood channels that are intended to prevent damage from the periodic flash floods that have always been in the river’s nature. Its base flow and even its course were constantly in flux before the region surrounding Los Angeles was developed. In fact, “It did not always empty into the San Pedro Bay at Long Beach, as it does today. [At times], it meandered west across the coastal plain, flowing into the Santa Monica Bay” (Gumprecht 2001, 9).
When the area was first settled, the Los Angeles River was the primary source of drinking water for the city until the opening of the L.A. Aqueduct in 1913.
Over time, public valuation of the now channelized river waned, while the stigma of filth and danger took hold. Transforming this stigma became the work (read: Life Masterpiece) of Lewis Mac Adams.
Sometime during 1985-1986, Lewis Mac Adams, an artist from Texas took up the cause of the Los Angeles River. Approaching it as a performance piece, he describes embracing the river as a “40-year artwork” (Mac Adams, 2013). Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, Mac Adams made modest gains in drawing attention to the L.A. River, and formed a non-profit organization called, Friends of the Los Angeles River through which he and others advocated for funding and political support. In 1999, Friends of the Los Angeles River partnered with Robert Gottlieb, Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.
In partnership with Gottlieb, and a handful of Occidental graduate students, Friends of the L.A. River hosted a year-long re-envisioning campaign that saw no less than 40 individual forums, events, activities, and projects throughout the 1999-2000 academic year.
Student participation began in late August, 1999, with a classic Trash Pick-Up along the banks of the river. Two weeks later, they enjoyed a narrative of the history of the Los Angeles River, told by Mac Adams himself. The first official Re-envisioning event was kicked off a few weeks later on October 1.
This first event was held in an auditorium at Occidental College. The Regional Administrator of EPA, Felicia Marcus, and Mary Nichols, Secretary of California Resources Agency, spoke about opportunities for revitalizing the L.A. River. 120 people were in attendance.
With a strong turnout at the first event, and keynote speakers who spoke with authority about existing conditions and what was within reach, momentum for a true movement increased.
Subsequent events became more creative, more engaging, more inspiring. One, hosted by the Arroyo Arts Collective, “sponsored a weekend-long art installation along a two-mile stretch of the River” (Gottlieb 2001, 3). Other events featured poetry readings.
On September 14, 2000, “more than 450 people came to Occidental College’s Keck Theater to hear a debate and mayoral forum on the L.A. River and the Urban Environment, the last event in the Re-Envisioning series” (Gottlieb 2001, 30). Mac Adams remembers this moment as the climax of that time. That Mayoral Candidates would engage in a conversation entitled “Which Way for the L.A. River and L.A.’s Urban Environment?” meant that the movement to re-envision the river was a success. Community buy-in occurred on a large scale – people wanted to see the river differently.
Lewis Mac Adams and Friends of the Los Angeles River continue to advocate. In the years since the re-envisioning campaign, their role as advocates has evolved from advocating for the river, to advocating for the people who use it.
The Los Angeles River Re-envisioning campaign provides a powerful illustration of what can be achieved through partnerships that bring together community, academia, and community advocacy organizations. This story can be particularly instructive in imagining how a Malden River advocacy group might take full advantage of the resources found in a Tufts University partnership.