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Nature amid the concrete

February 11, 2007|D.J. Waldie | D.J. WALDIE is the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is the public information officer of the city of Lakewood.

A few days ago in Lakewood, a crowd of 300 gathered on the west bank of the San Gabriel River flood-control channel to take a walk. First, there were a few speeches. Afterward, a park supervisor showed slides of native California shrubs and trees. Then the audience -- awfully patient 6- and 7-year-olds in tow -- started out on the mile-long trail that city officials had just formally dedicated to the enjoyment of nature.

But what nature is that? The answer will determine if a vastly more ambitious plan for nearly 32 miles of the flood-control system in Los Angeles will restore it to something resembling a river. The parks, residential units, offices and bike paths in the restoration plan outlined by city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month could take as long as 50 years to complete and cost $2 billion.

It might be said that with enough money and passion, much of the riverside in L.A. could one day look like Lakewood's mile of green and pleasant land. In the process, we would redefine what nature means in Los Angeles.

In Lakewood, both banks of the river's channel have become 80 acres of parkland. The new trail -- on a strip of power-line right of way -- meanders on the west bank. The city's equestrian center and a park with picnic shelters, baseball diamonds and bridle paths fill the east bank. Most of that is under power lines too.

It took 30 years to assemble this green corridor through rows of tract houses, so the riverbanks' landscape has a mixed look. Mature eucalyptus trees tower eastward. Newly established elderberries are clumped along the trail. From there, walkers look down into the man-made void of the San Gabriel River. Water runs in the "low flow" slot in the middle of the flood channel most days; the concrete on either side glares brightly. Two egrets -- white plumes against greater white -- stood motionless at the edge of the slot as the first walkers on the new trail passed. A juvenile pelican skimmed to a perfect water landing nearby. After a moment, it took wing again, and the pelican rose in company with a blue heron that was almost lavender in the winter light.

Is that nature? And if it is (as I think it is), what should the proportion of concrete to heron be?

The Los Angeles River -- birth mother of the city -- ghosts along the margins of Valley suburbs, industrial brownfields, Eastside barrios and Chinatown on its concrete-lined way to the Pacific. We'd always thought that the river was where nature dead-ended. But that would be true if nature could be found only in the kind of place -- the Sierras or the Yosemite Valley -- that John Muir, 19th century prophet of California wilderness, would recognize. Knotted in the river restoration plan -- and perhaps a little lost in its multitude of projects -- is the notion that nature in Los Angeles was never really misplaced. Nature was always there, like the patient egrets in the flood-control channel. It only required a greater intimacy, like a riverside walk, to restore us to it.

Los Angeles keeps fishing around for the grand gesture that will finally quiet our uncertainties about living here, including what nature means to us. That gesture wasn't the mid-1960s Music Center. It doesn't seem to have been the Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. And it probably won't be the Grand Avenue project (with just 16 acres of parkland among its stores, offices, hotels and condos from Bunker Hill to City Hall).

The new Los Angeles River greenway plan promises, one day, more than 20 times the public open space, to be anchored near downtown by the 57-acre Rio de Los Angeles State Park at the Taylor Yard and the 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park at the Cornfield. From there, the greenway would thread together bike paths, landscaped trails, pocket parks and newly restored riparian habitat and connect them to existing parkland all the way from the western San Fernando Valley to Vernon.

Dispersed and human-scaled, the greenway's reconnection of neighborhoods to the river might be the perfect mirror of the city's image of itself. Too perfect, perhaps. Los Angeles is always about selling the city to someone else. And the plan's first steps -- five projects selected from a core list of 20 -- include opportunities for residential and commercial development that could leave taxpayer-financed greenway projects the pretty backdrop in a sales brochure. Far worse would be a quasi-privatized river, like Malibu's not-quite-public beaches. Nature is everywhere, but it's unavailable behind locked gates.

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