This Is Not Your Imagination

by Randy Lee Maitand

The Concrete is a River
1. ORIGINS THAT SEEM OTHERWISE

With landscape architect and urban designer Ben Feldmann, as my guide, I had come to the Los Angeles River[1]—but I had come to the river as poet, writer, civic troublemaker, performance artist, lobbyist, and founder/president of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), Lewis MacAdams imagined I would: having no clue what I was doing, saying, or writing about the L.A. River—except that 1. people didn’t know it was a river (“that big concrete ditch is called a river?”) and that 2. various interests wanted to “revitalize” or “restore” it, and that 3. all these interests and various people had different definitions for “restore” and “revitalize” and even the word “river” itself, and that 4. “restoring” the river was also tied up somehow in the idea of “sustainability” and where and how Los Angeles got its water, and that 5.  to think about Los Angeles and its river and the way it got its water, you also had to think about people, engineers, decision makers, politicians, lobbyists, industry people, and the framework by which they assembled their perceptions and decisions and that 6. this framework, being what it was at the time, was unquestionably short-sighted, if not delusional, for the men who made “modern L.A.” made it after the image of something that wasn’t there. Because what wasn’t there was water—but these men saw neighborhoods with nice stucco homes that also had green front yards; they saw groves of oranges and olives and modern systems of irrigation humming along—in the middle of a desert, in a basin fed by a river that could only be relied on in the few winter months as a consistent source of water. But goddamnit, these men, through will, could fabricate geography, environment—and you could say that in their lifetimes, they probably pulled it off. They saw what they wanted to see.

The story of the modern L.A. River starts at the turn of the 19th century, with Los Angeles nearly doubling in size in a decade’s time, and in the stewardship of Fred Eaton, son of a prominent Pasadena family, who had had been brought up in parlors overlooked by paintings of barons with hunting dogs, a man whose very cigar smoke reeked of Protestant investment and operational return. Eaton had the airs of a dandy, with his well-cut suits and affection for quoting modernist poetry—but his dear friend and fellow amateur engineering enthusiast, William Mulholland, was a bulky and temperamental Irishman, who had taught himself mathematics by drawing in the dirt with stick and drinking absurd quantities of whiskey. What Mulholland lacked in formal training he made up for with a fiery insistence that with a little prodding, the numbers could work. It was these two men who spear headed the ambitious Los Angeles Aqueduct project—which diverted water from the Owens Valley River some 200 miles to the north into Los Angeles, effectively turning Los Angeles’ natural river into an afterthought—and by the late 30s a nuisance, that needed to be obliterated with 3 million barrels of concrete.

What Eaton and Mulholland saw in Owens Valley around 1904, was an opportunity to feed water into a city that desperately needed it, by taking it from a part of the country that nobody cared about, and to make a profit in the meantime. No one knew that the city was planning the aqueduct. Not the hard-faced farmers in hardscrabble Owens Valley, trying to filch from the edge of the Sierra’s something like a livelihood. No one knew that when Eaton went around the area buying up property, it would be this property he’d sell back to the city after they’d approved the $1.5 billion bond measure to see the project to light[2]. That land up there was cheap; those lives those few people were leading in Independence, were tough; everyone won. Los Angeles got its water; those farmers in Owens Valley got the hell out of Owens Valley; and Eaton and Mulholland made a nice little chunk of change.

Except now it will have been a century since Eaton and Mulholland’s boys (most of them poorly paid Chinese) dynamited and cut the aqueduct’s route literally through the hard rock of the Sierra’s and Owens Valley doesn’t seem like it will continue to produce enough water to meet Los Angeles’ absurd (and exponentially growing) water needs; and Owens Lake (that which the river fed in the sprawling basin) is pretty much dried up, exposing the surrounding area to the largest dust storms in the country (dust which of course is carcinogenic due its high amounts of nickel, cadmium, and arsenic); and the Los Angeles River now, is a performance project, started by MacAdams in the mid-80s.

“I started out as a poet and became a lobbyist,” he told me when I met him about two weeks ago. When I asked him how something as serious-seeming and influential as FoLAR grew out of an admittedly half-cocked and strange performance “attended by only about twelve people” he shrugged and gave me a look like, well, what the hell are you doing?

2. NOT THE PRESENT, BUT SOMETHING LIKE IT

But on this Saturday morning in mid-March, when Feldmann guided us down a pissbitter smelling tunnel and we emerged onto the white concrete embankments of the actual river, I couldn’t see the river as something I had come to “as a river” that could be revived so much as I saw it as something already secured and memorialized in celluloid—as a plot point in a movie with Jack Nicholson, about powerful men who can rape valleys and daughters simply because they can. I saw not a canard nor an embittered and obsessed poet, nor feeling the real sting of a real absence, but the thrill of discovering a movie set. I saw something scout teams “located” that would be “perfect” for this or that turn in the story about irradiated ants and the coming Reds. I saw a man living in a drainage pipe and another man sitting on a concrete pylon beside a red paint bucket, shaving his face with a disposable razor.

Verily, for where I stood, Eddie Furlong and Budnick steered a dirtbike up the concrete sides of this gulley to escape the shape-shifting pile of liquid metal sent from the future to kill them; and perhaps a few hundred yards to the south, was where John Travolta and Olivia Newtown John raced hotrods, or that was where Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez snorted speed and drank from white cans labeled BEER.

If the L.A. River stood for anything, it was the inverse, lower-level Hollywood sign; it was the point where fiction meets reality.

3. FEUDS WITH SHAME, WITH PRIVATE PROPERTY

I had made plans with Feldmann that previous Wednesday to bike the river, so I could see what MacAdams described as the “bleakest” stretch of the 52-mile long river—where the river passes near the Piggyback Yard.

Feldmann and his associates at the architecture and design firm, Mia Lehrer, had already finished conceptualizing the master plan for the river reboot at the Piggyback Yard site—though it couldn’t be moved on because Phil Anschutz and his company Union Pacific own the Piggyback property and are just sitting on it, waiting for a high bid from a private developer. Where Feldmann and MacAdams have imagined a public space, Anschutz probably envisions apartment towers, reinforced concrete, a giant pile of dough driven to the front door of his palace.

But if there is an L.A. River metaphor, or symbol, here we find it: the L.A. River is itself a matter of what is called “aspect seeing.” The debate about the L.A. River is about what could be there; what it could like; what it could do for the city. For whatever it is people are talking about, it’s certainly not there yet. It is pure potential, something like “poetic energy.”

Already in the channel was a photo team shooting some corny girl with her back to the 6th ST Bridge while three people around her held white balloons. From the bank on the western side of the river, the view, in either direction, is massive. The bridges, seen from far below, loom. The thick concrete supports are scarred with what looks like white paint.

Feldmann pointed these marks out to me as we got off our bikes saying that in a few years these bridges would have to be rebuilt. The pouty was an agent the city was introducing to the concrete to keep it from further eroding.

“They’re so beautiful though,” he said, “these older bridges.”

“But they could come down at any minute right?”

He laughed. The sky, devoid of cloud, seemed to zip upward from the blaringly white concrete. To the east the other embankment rose to a chainlink fence about ten feet high, and beyond that were roads, and rail yards, and factories. Cutting through the middle of the concrete was a fast line of dark water. Where the channel was fed by drainpipes from the city streets the concrete near the channel was slick and mossy and foul smelling.

Yearning for a point of view, and having none, I could only think of MacAdams sitting at his desk in the FoLAR offices on W Avenue 26, part of the Santa Monica Mountains Conversancy complex, and his sneakers—ankle-cut Chucks—on which he’d neatly drawn with the names of bands in permanent marker, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember which bands he had written.

I tried to picture MacAdams by focusing on the things I could remember: the box of posters next to the door; the two women in the office who looked like the two women who work at my dad’s office in Grand Rapids; the carpet; the table in the middle of the room; MacAdam’s desk at the other end, and the baggy khakis he wore; that after I’d sort of burst into the quiet office, a little late, he stood, shook my hand, and sat again, but with some labor, and crossed his legs. I noticed that his left hand didn’t work as well as his right when he tried to find a piece of paper on his desk for me (I told him it was okay, I didn’t need it) and thought maybe I’d be the last person to write something about him in print (I’ll allow myself this grandiose morbidity). And he had had on a hat too, a straw fedora type of thing that only very old men wear without seeming idiotic. Our conversation was long, meandering. Multiple times MacAdams openly wondered if I had any idea what I was doing. Each time I assured him I had no idea (“you’re totally right, I’m thinking of ... you’re right, of nothing?” even this I wasn’t comfortable confirming). As a way of making me feel better he told me he’d interviewed William S. Burroughs and at one point during that interview Burroughs told him “had [he] read Korzybski” he wouldn’t have asked that question. In his telling, MacAdams had no idea who Korzybski was, but afterward had the chance to read him and realize how specifically right Burroughs had been. In parking lot afterward, I had to look Korzybski up on Wikipedia.

Where MacAdams approached the river like a poem, or a piece of art, Feldmann was detailed and expert—but he also recognized what MacAdams had recognized all those years priors. The Los Angeles River doesn’t need to be what it is—an afterthought or the occasional shopping cart dumping ground sometimes filling with water. It’s not a secret Los Angeles has a water problem. But imagine if some of that water came from a source literally running right through the heart of downtown—and imagine downtown that had some green and some space where people could bike and sit out and read near the water? It’s hard to imagine when you’re downtown that some thirty miles to the west is the ocean and that a few miles to the east is a river. But that’s what downtown Los Angeles feels like—blighted and paved and far from water.

Feldmann, for his part, is part of the green movement in civic engineering. Spaces are being reimagined as we consider the “multi-use” potential of each site: not only could the river be aesthetically restored, in Feldmann and Mia Lehrer’s plan, but it could also serve as a way to replenish the aquifer beneath the city. The main difference between a guy like Mulholland and guys like Feldmann and MacAdams are in the conception and perception of their ideas. Mulholland wanted to divert the Owens River to Los Angeles and he did that. But he had no idea that he’d also dry up Owens Lake. Or maybe he and Eaton did know and just didn’t care. Either way, Feldmann is of the school, if you do one thing, you have to the best of your ability imagine all the possible ramifications—from the political to the environmental.

A recent father, Feldmann had come to Los Angeles after having lived in the Bay Area for 10 years, and grown up in Santa Barbara. Wednesday before we agreed to bike the river, we’d met at the design firm, Mia Lehrer, where he and Mia, and other members of their team, conceptualized and finalized the Piggyback Yard reboot. This was when the idea of a single civic space serving a city’s multiple needs came up. Inevitably, we talked about Los Angeles as a series of civic and engineering decisions that at best could be called “shaky.” In this light, Feldmann explained to me the Piggyback Yard project. MacAdams wrote the introduction to their plan:

Together, we created the Piggyback Yard Conceptual Master Plan. At its heart, at the midway point in its 52 mile flow, at the center of a rarely glimpsed Los Angeles River Valley, the Piggyback Yard Conceptual Master Plan offers genuine access to a unique urban riparian landscape for a diverse population, bridging a gap between east and west L.A, with a combination of wetlands restoration, parkland creation, flood detention and community development that supports a livable Los Angeles River.

Feldmann and I met at Handsome Coffee. I had also brought alone my girlfriend. It was early Sunday morning and there were a lot of “cool” youngish professional looking people[3] getting coffees and juices while just up the road Skid Row buzzed and stunk[4]. He showed us pictures of his baby. He asked if I had one. My girlfriend said I better not, then we set off.

I was still trying to remember what MacAdams had written on shoes, muttering names under my breath, until  guided us down a pissbitter smelling tunnel and we emerged onto the white concrete embankments of the actual river. Already in the channel was a photo team shooting some corny girl with her back to the 6th ST bridge while three people around her held white balloons. From the bank on the western side of the river, the view, in either direction, is massive. The bridges, seen from far below, loom. The thick concrete supports are scarred with what looks like white paint.

Feldmann pointed these marks out to me as we got off our bikes saying that in a few years these bridges would have to be rebuilt. The white was an agent the city was introducing to the concrete to keep it from further eroding.

“They’re so beautiful though,” he said, “these older bridges.”

“But they could come down at any minute right?”

He laughed. The sky, devoid of cloud, seemed to zip upward from the blaringly white concrete. To the east the other embankment rose to a chainlink fence about ten feet high, and beyond that were roads, and rail yards, and factories. Cutting through the middle of the concrete was a fast line of dark water. Where the channel was fed by drainpipes from the city streets the concrete near the channel was slick and mossy and foul smelling.

Then I remembered.

N.W.A.

I thought of MacAdams—a guy who had been in the orbit of Robert Creeley, Ted Berrigen, Philip Walen—as a “nigga with attitude” and I thought of the joke that everyone says, something about the city that loved concrete so much it paved its river.

4. WHAT HAD HAPPENED

If you trust my googling, it was around here the river spread out in an alluvial fan, turning the Los Angeles Basin into something like a flood plain, and it was along this river the Gabrielino Tribe fished and hunted the oak lined banks, and it was here, after the Spanish had come and U.S. forces had defeated them in the Mexican-American War, settlers imagined a city, hugging the waterway. From the river, an idea of industry spread outward. By the 1870s, it was here the Union Pacific and other railroaders had begun purchasing property, setting down lineal rail connecting the growing city of Los Angeles to the rest of the developing west, and from there, an idea of the country itself. And it was here, in 1938, that oceanic storms caused the river to rise to historic levels, creating conditions for what would be a massive flood[5] that pretty much submerged the Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties. And so it was here, then, that the Army Core of Engineers began to channelize the river—meaning, they poured concrete, meaning, they paved the water and the banks on either side of it, molding the river into that trapezoidal shape that looks like a massive drainage ditch—a massive concrete gash—with most of its water now coming from drain pipes and run off. It’s a concrete reminder of what once was a river—an ambitious project to control and manipulate our environment; but it became the visible trace of our environment’s erasure.

5. BUT LONG BEFORE THAT, AN AFTERTHOUGHT

Before the L.A. River was paved, it needed to be disregarded, ignored. This is where Eaton and Mulholland come in.

The Mayor stood a mile or so from the Owens River basin, on the western side of the White Mountains and to the east, the slope of the Sierra Nevada. But he could not see the river basin for the waste that it represented. And to think Los Angeles, some 200 miles to the south, was dying of thirst.

With William Mulholland, Eaton traveled north to Crowley Lake. On the way Mulholland noted avocets, sandpipers, and gulls for the uninterested Eaton. “This is the place to begin,” Eaton told his friend, who readily agreed. Later that evening they would eat at Knesset and drink whiskey and discuss buying the surrounding property. In the morning Mulholland would feel hung over and slightly dirty—because he had slept in a shrub outside of the hotel in one of his classic stupors. Muholland woke, blinking the sunlight from his eyes. His mouth was dry. Momentarily, he had no idea where he was.

A fine afternoon in Washington, months later, Eaton met with then President, Teddy Roosevelt. The engineer, who was rather a little more than keen about any and all business matters, at this moment, perhaps aware of what lay before him, restrained himself, and showed only the faintest flush in his rounded cheeks when President Roosevelt told him he’d personally see to the dismantling of The Bureau of Reclamation project. Thus an entire region saw its fate secured along the implied dotted line of an afternoon chat. Los Angeles was free to build is aqueduct. Mulholland and Eaton were going to be rich.

Meanwhile, that afternoon, the wind blew hot, and the Spanish pallbearers sweated carrying General Jose Castro’s casket up the sandy footpath to small clearing near a crooked tamarisk, where years prior, the General had had the good fortune to gain Lenora Galindo on the small of her mouth and from there, considerable access to the pleasures of her voluptuous form.

 


[1] This text is a self-conscious re-fabrication of the text “Drip, Jordan” written by Ben Ehrenreich that ran first in Harpers, December 2011. His article was about the Jordan River, and the Israel/ Palestine beef over water.

[2] One of Eaton’s good pals ran the L.A. Times which was integral in drumming up public support for the project.

[3] I’m 29. I remember listening to OK Computer in middle school. I guess I’m part of this demographic.

[4] I’m copying and pasting this from Wikipedia: the novel ends with Meursault recognizing the universe's indifference toward humankind. In the first half of the novel Meursault is clearly an unreflecting, unapologetic individual. Ultimately, Camus presents the world as essentially meaningless and therefore, the only way to arrive at any meaning or purpose is to make it oneself.

[5] called a 50 year flood—because odds are a flood of that magnitude will occur at least once every 50 or so years