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The flow of ideas

October 02, 2006

COAXING A CHORTLE out of a Southern California audience used to require little more than saying the words "Los Angeles River." A river? Here? Maybe once, but after a 1938 flood killed more than 100 people, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replaced it with one of the world's ugliest concrete-lined flood channels.

In clear weather, it became a stone-dry campground for the homeless and a canvas for taggers, with just a trickle of treated wastewater running down a narrow central ditch. When heavy rains came, it was a violent torrent funneling brown floodwater and anything in its path swiftly to the sea. In between, it remained a forgotten gash in the cityscape.

Activists and dreamers have long tried to get residents and elected officials to take seriously the idea of a restored river, concrete stripped from its base, willows lining its banks, migratory birds making a stopover, cyclists riding alongside. Some planted trees, some organized trash pickups. In 2000, then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa pushed through a $2.1-billion bond package for parklands, and then-Gov. Gray Davis dedicated $60 million of it to purchase two river-adjacent industrial properties -- Taylor Yard and the Cornfields -- that now are intimately connected with the river's resurrection.

The city is nearing the conclusion of an 18-month brainstorming process that calls on residents to help shape a 20-year master plan, which would determine just what revitalizing the Los Angeles River should mean. Residents recently weighed in at three workshops. A draft master plan is due later this fall, and a final plan is to be presented to the City Council in January (more information is at www.lariver.org).

Should there be wetlands? It's not inconceivable. This very river once nourished freshwater marshes across much of the county, making the region into a lush carpet of green rather than the desert it's often mistaken for (technically, it's a semi-desert). Soccer fields? There's plenty of potential space now covered by concrete riverbank. A river walk? Housing? Boating? The Army Corps of Engineers is on board with revitalization plans and will ensure that any changes won't affect important flood protections.

The river and its future are now taken so seriously that the jokes have changed. Wags no longer sport T-shirts with the words "L.A. River Yacht Club." Instead, Richard Montoya wrote a play called "Water and Power," in which the central tension is between a plan to create riverside green space for Eastside families and a plot to make the riverbanks safe for "gringo hipsters walking little dogs."

There are indeed competing notions of restoration. But the river is 51 miles long -- and lined with as much possibility as concrete.

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