A tale of two LA Rivers

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Los Angeles, where we lay our scene,
From newfound grudge break to old mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Unfolding like scenes from Baz Luhrmann's over-the-top interpretation of "Romeo + Juliet," starring young Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes, two parties noisily celebrated two different versions of the Los Angeles River earlier this month--two weeks apart and on opposite sides of the river.

jondoeforty1.jpgOne featured young women dressed as water nymphs greeting guests, while others--barely clothed at all--gyrated bizarrely in rings suspended above a stage at St. Vibiana downtown. The former cathedral, we were assured, had been "desacralized," so it was all OK. The other featured mud people emerging bizarrely from a teepee between a chain link fence and a hangar-sized warehouse on the east side of the river, while a rock band banged away on a stage outside, and a DJ set up inside. One fĂȘted the architect Frank Gehry, a newcomer to the river, the other celebrated an old hand on the river, poet Lewis MacAdams.

Neither party mentioned the other, which was probably for the best, given their nasty exchanges in the press recently. But this still seemed a bit odd, as if each could pretend, for one night, anyway, that the other was not in town.

A few partygoers went to both. Those who did exchanged shrugs and wry smiles. "How did it come to this?" we asked each other. "And what is to be done?"

How quickly things fall apart. It seems like only yesterday that the Los Angeles River was what brought us together--the symbol of a city changing for the better in so many ways. And now?

Well, to butcher an apocryphal Mark Twain quotation: while the vodka, beer, and wine at both parties was certainly for drinking, the river is now for fighting over.

Or so it seems, anyway, from what one sees in the news, where big egos battle for sound bites. But there is another story here, a strong undercurrent that offers hope that this, too, could pass.

For several months now, the Relational Center has quietly been bringing many of the parties together to try to reconnect them to why we're all here on the river, in LA, today, and the collective movement we're building for the city. I say "we," though I've not been part of these discussions, because I feel a part of what's happening on the river, which is really for all of us, not just one party or the other.

"Isolation is the through-line in this troubling story," Relational Center staff write on their website. Not about the river, though it would certainly be apropos, but about all of their work, which is addressing problems in community health, education, youth development, and more. On one hand, it's hard to describe how they do this--by focusing on building something so abstract and ubiquitous, yet so crucial and tenuous as social bonds. On the other hand, it's pretty simple. They get people together to talk.

To talk about their shared values and what they want to see down by the riverside. Then to focus on their different skills and knowledge and see if all of that can translate into shared strategic leadership, which is at risk now on the river.

It's a storytelling model. The hope is that people can come to see themselves telling a story they share, even if they don't all tell it exactly the same way.

The tensions don't ever go away. They were there from the beginning. They'll be there at the end of this story. The river has become a river again, thanks to its many friends. But it is also more than a river. It is the center of a vision for revitalizing Los Angeles. That makes it about political, economic, social, and cultural visions and decisions, too. And that's a lot for any river to carry.

With apologies to Shakespeare for the epigram, which, needless to say, is slightly mangled, too, for the occasion, and with thanks to Flickr user jondoeforty1 for the LA River photo.

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