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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay

River of Rising Hope

December 11, 1996|ROBERT A. JONES

A big ol' rain, and down by the riverside our famous sluiceway was humming. The Los Angeles River runs close to my house in Studio City. When it rains I like to walk down to the big ditch and watch the show.

First it rises and the surface starts to roll. Pretty soon you can smell it. It's a fresh smell, like a real river. And then you can hear it. Like a real river.

It seems a miracle, almost, this river growing so quickly from a meek little sewer. Sometimes I bring my son, Casey. He throws sticks over the wire fence so they make a satisfying plop into the stream.

Otherwise, we usually see no one by the river. Did everyone else forget to come? Nah. They just like to stay dry. Or they don't know about the miracle of the river rising. As one frustrated river lover once observed to me, "the Los Angeles River has no constituency."

And why should it, entombed under all that concrete for 40 years? The entombment has caught the river in a kind of Catch-22: Without supporters, a change for the better has proven impossible. And without a change for the better, it gets no supporters.

All along, what's been needed is a few stretches of restored riverway that can demonstrate the sweet appeal of running water in a desert city. Hey, anyone would love a river park in Los Angeles. From that appeal, a constituency would grow.

And now, suddenly, the time seems ripe. In fact, it seems doubly ripe. There's a chance to restore a public section of the river, and another chance to do the same along some private stretches. These opportunities likely will not appear again soon, perhaps not in our lifetimes.

First, the public opportunity. Little known to most of us, City Councilman Mike Feuer got $10 million in the recent parks bond initiative designated for river restoration. Ten million dollars is lot of money if spent properly.

"Properly" means the money should not be spent in the usual fashion of sprinkling the benefits among many communities. That would get you a bridge here, a flower pot there, and pretty soon the money would be gone without making any appreciable difference.

No, the money should be spent on one, carefully chosen stretch of river where the public response would be great and the opportunity for commercial exploitation equally great.

Was that a typo, that bit about commercial exploitation? Noooo. Experiences in Chicago, Cleveland and San Antonio have shown that river restoration projects need--even require--the attention of business people who will create restaurants and shops that face onto the river and attract even more visitors.

"I picture a riverbank that's terraced, not vertical concrete," says Lewis McAdams, founder of Friends of Los Angeles River. "And a river bottom where green things are allowed to grow. Inflatable dams that back up water in the summer. Bicycle paths and cafes along the riverfront."

In other words, a watered oasis in the city. That's what the river has always offered to Los Angeles, an offer that equates to jobs and new business as well as surcease from the urban mayhem.

And that brings us to the private opportunity. In Chicago, which made a great success of restoring its namesake river, the rebirth actually began along the private stretches. Banks and insurance companies saw the advantages of embracing a restored river rather than turning their corporate backs on a sewer.

In Los Angeles, we don't have many banks and insurance companies that control stretches of the river. But we do have movie studios. From Studio City to Glendale, five studios reside along the river and, at present, all five utterly ignore its potential.

Warner Bros. and CBS Studios have built parking lots along their frontage. Universal parks its junked equipment there. And so on.

But here, too, a change of attitude has appeared. Michael Klusman, president of CBS Studios, says the studio is considering a commissary along the riverbank. And he is intrigued by the idea of inflatable dams and perhaps even a small waterfall.

*

Scott Reese of Glendale's Parks and Recreation Department says the new animation studio being built by DreamWorks SKG may incorporate new approaches to the river. "This studio is a groundbreaking, and that always gives you a great opportunity. The studio has been very positive. They realize they could set the example."

But the greatest opportunity, by far, exists at Universal. Not only does Universal have the longest stretch of river frontage, it has embarked on a huge expansion scheme that would double development on its lands.

Any time a studio asks for that kind of development--it totals $3 billion--and imposes all the subsequent harassments of traffic and noise on its neighbors, a few paybacks to the community are taken for granted.

What better payback than giving the community a river park for strolling, breathing-out and--not incidentally--spending a few dollars at Universal cafes and stores?

Universal officials are making no promises at this point. Neither are they saying no. When I called and asked, I got a carefully composed reply saying that Universal encouraged suggestions to its development plan and was giving "careful consideration to the river."

Granted, it all seems far away. But the same once was true in Chicago and Cleveland and San Antonio and others. The rivers in those cities were garbage and treated as such. Today, they are garbage no more.

We should remember, as the poet Gary Snyder once wrote, that the Los Angeles River was never killed. It was merely buried. And it still exists today, under all that concrete. Waiting.

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