To the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Joseph Giovannini's 12/18 essay on the Los Angeles River is exceptionally well-written. I just wish he had devoted as much thought and care to the research.
To portray the current dust-ups around the revitalization efforts as big vision vs. small, government vs. grassroots, and realistic vs. romantic makes for a good story. It's also simplistic to the point of negligent--and it's wrong.
Friends of the LA River has played a crucial role in visioning big and facilitating and championing public leadership, with a cutting-edge insistence that this is a city-building project and not a romantic old-style environmentalist project to recreate the Garden of Eden. FoLAR, with TreePeople and Heal the Bay, persuaded L.A. County to shift from a narrow mission of flood control to a huge and hydrologically informed mission of watershed management. They've worked with roughly a zillion top-down public agencies on access laws, and have worked with federal, state, county, and city partners on countless projects, from tiny to gargantuan. That Lewis MacAdams is a poet does not mean he's Wordsworthian--but it has helped him see the future about 20 years before the rest of us. I've often heard him call himself an "infrastructuralist." Nostalgic? Hardly. Romantic? Not.
Averse to concrete? Bullshit. There are river advocates, to be sure, who lobby for all nature all the time. Most of us, though--and I believe I can include FoLAR--have long insisted that we have to use the concrete to our advantage, and that a newly healthy river will vary, according to what makes most sense along the widely varying 51 miles of cityscape, from more naturalized to unapologetically urban.
While Gehry's mapping project is a fantastic contribution, he has, at least to my knowledge, said absolutely nothing about the big potential of the river, and about the importance of hydrology--and about the river's essential importance to L.A.--that others haven't been saying very loudly for a very long time.
I wish that Giovannini had deployed his considerable smarts and eloquence to explain the actual and quite serious points of contention around the river--none of those being more crucial than this:
Whose River Is It?
The LA River project is actually about Los Angeles, he says? You bet it is! And one of the defining goals in 30 years of river plans (just look, for example, at the City of L.A. master plan) has been to make this megalopolis more equitable, and to help revitalize areas where communities have been deprived of essential park space, public space, connectedness, clean air, and clean water for...well, forever. Accordingly, many of the riverside low-income communities have supported the revitalization, and have been indispensable players in coalitions that have won game-changing battles at the Cornfield and Taylor Yard (now two big state parks) and other sites.
To allow the revitalization to now become a free-for-all for developers would be an unconscionable betrayal.
Frank Gehry is a brilliant architect, and most of us are genuinely optimistic that his role will prove to be hugely constructive. He has also been a key player in some of the biggest gentrification projects and schemes in the city's recent history. The public park atop Disney Hall--which Giovannini points to--is notable in part for being hidden safely away from the street. Gehry also insisted initially on secrecy around his involvement with the river. And he has consistently talked about the river as if he's the first to recognize its tremendous potential. Of course his involvement has made a lot of L.A. River advocates at least a little nervous about how inclusive and equitable his vision will be.
The irony is that FoLAR long ago articulated a profoundly innovative and forward-looking vision that, against all odds, has gotten us to the point where Gehry and others now, finally, at long last, can see and understand the potential. Rewriting this history to portray the current disagreements as old-fogey nature-lovers vs. the new hip design guard erases those far-seeing efforts. It marginalizes visionaries we very much still need. And it misses the crucial issues that are actually most at stake.
History is a powerful tool, and it can be wielded well or badly. We'll need to have good, clean, solid, well-informed history--not history that makes so much of the past invisible--as we figure out exactly how to move forward on a project that has such tremendous import for the future of this megalopolis.
photo courtesy of Bruce McDermott