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Goin' Down to the River

Backers view the L.A. waterway and its wildlife as vital to the city, and offer monthly outings to interest people in its future.

April 22, 1999|BRENDA REES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every great city seems to be located on a big river, where residents and tourists can leisurely stroll on the banks, observe the city skyline and marvel at the meeting of nature and urbanism. Manhattan has the Hudson, Paris the Seine, and London the Thames.

But what about Los Angeles? How often do folks actually opt to take a walk down by the Los Angeles River, which many Angelenos perceive as nothing more than a glorified sewage ditch or dumping ground that dangerously overflows every rainy season?

According to Friends of the Los Angeles River, there are many reasons to take a guided riverside walk. The most important? People get to use their imagination about what the river can become in the future. Sure, many of the river's 51 miles aren't the most picturesque at the moment. But the river group and other environmental organizations say the potential is immense for making the waterway an integral and vital part of Los Angeles.

Last year, Friends of the Los Angeles River, along with the Sierra Club, established monthly walks along different segments of the river as a way of introducing people to the historical, artistic, natural and political aspects of the waterway.

The next event, Saturday, is a river cleanup project coinciding with Earth Day. The next regular walk is May 16.

Past walks have focused on the historic bridges of downtown Los Angeles, the bird life in Compton Creek and the community improvements made in the Long Beach basin.

On a recent walk, artist Leo Limon led people to see his familiar "River Cat" paintings in the Los Feliz-Atwater Village area. For years, Limon has been transforming the circular storm drains into brightly painted cats' faces that smile on walkers and bikers as well as those traveling in cars north on the Golden State Freeway.

The more popular river walks are the ones held at the "soft bottom" areas of the river (i.e., no concrete bottom), which give Angelenos peeks at some of the area's lush vegetation and wildlife. More than 250 types of birds can be found in the river channel, and about 150 species of vegetation grow in and around the banks.

"The river walks grew out of our annual Great Los Angeles River Cleanup event that we hold every spring," says Melanie Winter, executive director of Friends of the Los Angeles River. "We decided we needed more than just one event to bring people down to the river."

Winter says that each walk usually has an expert guide who can answer questions or lead discussions. Informal and unscripted, the monthly walks bring together nearby residents, river lovers and curiosity seekers.

Joe Linton, coordinator of the walks program, stresses that these are walks, not hikes, so participants shouldn't expect a grueling workout--just an opportunity, as he says, "to see the river as is it now and to think: How can it be better?"

What's With All

the Concrete?

While people are interested in the river wildlife and community improvements, like riverside parks and bike paths, Linton says that "most people are curious about the history of the river, how long it's been concreted over and why. That's a question that comes up all the time."

Throughout its history, the Los Angeles River has endured periods of extreme drought and devastating floods. For the early settlers and Gabrielino Indians of the area, floods were considered good omens, because they replenished the soil for next year's crops.

But with the population boom after the turn of the century and the deadly flood of 1938, which claimed 49 lives and caused more than $40 million (or about $465 million in 1999 dollars) in damage, the public demanded that the city take action. The Army Corps of Engineers began channelizing the river--employing 10,000 workers to apply 3 million barrels of concrete by hand. By 1940, the Sepulveda Flood Basin and Dam were completed to hold excess river water before it snakes into a downstream channel.

While the engineers built a structure that solved the flooding problem, they didn't design the channel with aesthetics in mind. Today, groups such as Friends of the Los Angeles River are busy revitalizing the river's often-neglected image.

Some of the plans include a network of parks, nature trails, native plants, bike paths, waterfront bars and townhouses. Taking a river walk, organizers say, is like seeing the drawing board of possibilities for the future.

"We can never change the river back to the way it was," Winter says. "But we can take what the Los Angeles River is now and transform it into something we all can use and appreciate. That's what we want people to discover when they come on a river walk."

The 10th annual Great Los Angeles River Cleanup will be Saturday, 9 a.m.-noon, at sites along the river. For locations and how to volunteer, call (818) 343-4325. Walks of the Los Angeles River are held the third Sunday of every month at 4:30 p.m. Call (213) 381-3570 or check out the Friends of the L.A. River Web site at http://www.folar.org.

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