A veritable flotilla of Angelenos gathered this week at an online memorial to celebrate the life of the LA River‘s unofficial poet laureate, Lewis MacAdams.
In 1986, Lewis MacAdams led a ragtag bunch of artists into the concrete bed of the Los Angeles River, cutting open the chain wire fence, and asking the river for permission to speak for it in the human realm. And with that, Friends of the Los Angeles River, was born. Decades of activism followed. Lewis was the artist-in-residence of what he always described as a forty-year artwork. When I interviewed him thirty years later, it was in the courtyard of a stroke rehabilitation facility in Pasadena, hospital announcements screeching their way into our recording as a wheelchair-bound Lewis narrated in real time the fulcrum moment that had him handing over the reins of river advocacy, reflecting on his unlikely life with a concrete river, and “staring at the roses, waiting for the next rose petals to fall”.
A quick potted history, to get our bearings. It’s the 1930s and Los Angeles has been beset by floods. Swathes of the city were built inside the flood plain. People grossly underestimated nature’s forcefulness or overestimated human ingenuity, or both.
The 1940s arrive and the Army Corps of Engineers starts enveloping the river in flood-controlling concrete and infrastructure. By mid-century the city could breathe easier about catastrophic flooding washing it away. With the river tamed, it slips out of public consciousness.
Later, in 1986, the writer, poet, construction worker, and Princeton alum Lewis MacAdams sees the concretized river from a bus stop and knows, somehow, that it will occupy him for the rest of his life.
If – like Lewis always said – the River is a forty-year artwork, then there are six years left until opening night. And with the river looming large in community and urban planning conversations, it’s a ripe moment to consider what the art is, and who are its makers.
Up and down the length of the river, community meetings canvas opinions. The County of Los Angeles is progressing a plan to take back control of stretches of the river from the Army Corps. Forty-two acre Taylor Yard on the east bank of the river is finally on track to become – borrowing Mayor Garcetti’s description – the “crown jewel” of river revitalization. The forthcoming Olympics in 2028 is likely to feature the river, a do-over from the 1984 Olympics when a stretch of river near the Sepulveda Basin was proposed and then axed as the rowing and canoeing venue. Debates about both gentrification and homelessness necessarily encompass the river, a hot spot for both phenomena. A Lower River Revitalization Plan is underway, alongside a river-long Revitalization Master Plan rewrite, a much-needed update to the 2007 iteration. There are one hundred and thirty river planning documents, and counting. Thirteen city governments, and the County, and a long list of agencies and nonprofits, all have a hand in the river’s present and future. During the pandemic, the river is a crucial outdoor space for people to get a nearby nature fix and escape the monotony of life indoors.
For all of the activity going on about the river, there’s something crucial missing. We have lost the idea of the river being an artwork, and we’ve handed over too much creative control to bureaucracy.
It’s a team effort, and I’m all for lining up to bat with bureaucrats, but I am issuing here a plea that we join together to re-vivify Lewis MacAdams’ characterization of the river as an artwork, and that we carve out space for art, artists and artistry to take their place, again, in the life of the river.
Metabolic Studio is a gracious exception. With philanthropist and artist Lauren Bon at the helm, Metabolic enacts that enormous neon sign on their Spring Street studio exterior wall that reads “Artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.” In the mid-2000s, their land art project Not A Cornfield planted tracts of corn across a post-industrial brownfield that is now the 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park downtown. Following this with a commensurate second act was always going to be a big ask, but Bon and her studio have done so, buying water rights for some of the LA River’s flow, which they will extract from the river with a water wheel, purifying it through carefully-honed biofiltration equipment, and gifting it to irrigate city parks.
The creative and ecological emancipation of a river straitjacketed by millions of barrels of concrete is a hefty project. A load that must be shouldered by many. As governments govern, planners plan, and architects imagine, can we take pause for a moment and imagine the LA River in six years from now, as the ribbon is cut to unveil the river as a forty-year artwork. What will have changed, and what will have stayed the same? Will there be habitat, places not just for humans but for all the other creatures? Will there be mechanisms that slow the water down so as to recharge groundwater, rather than the usual race to the ocean at Long Beach? Will diversity be assured in residential, social, commercial, and cultural land use? Will we have made a place that is quintessentially Los Angeles, that embraces the greys and browns, as well as the greens and blues, of nature here?
It took me a while to come to grips with this artwork idea of Lewis’, mostly because over many years I have watched him and other river protagonists pursue many endeavours to nurture, protect, and remake the river in ways which are often not obviously artistic: lobbying, kayaking, trash collecting, researching, and collectively organizing, to name just a few.
So what does art mean, and how is the river an artwork?
And then, suddenly – while looking at a photograph of Lewis MacAdams down by the river looking at a life-sized concrete sculpture of himself – I realized that the key word might never have been art, but work.
The sculpture quotes Lewis: “If it’s not impossible, I’m not interested”. This quest for impossible is exactly the creative collision of art and work that the Los Angeles River hungers for. The flashes of imagination that come from working at and beyond the edges of possibility.
Treating the river as an artwork is to treat ourselves as people who can and must create. We are not consumers, or visitors, or bystanders, but people who actively cultivate a relationship with the river, who ask what we might do for and with it, who spend time there and imagine a future more balanced and successful than the past. This is what our river needs, what the city needs, and it is what will make opening night – just six years from now – the kind of event it is meant to be.
Dr Tilly Hinton is a river enthusiast who literally moved across the planet to live near, and work with, the Los Angeles River. Her projects include LA River X, I Am The LA River, and Storytime for the Apocalypse. She has a Masters and a PhD about the river’s recent social history, and she took Lewis MacAdams seriously when he told her that her job was articulating the river’s future mythology. Her first book, about people’s love for the LA River, is in development.