City / Culture: A River Revival, As Performance Art

Much of the credit for the revitalization of the Los Angeles River goes to a locally-based poet, author, performance artist, raconteur, and visionary named Lewis MacAdams.

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These days, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency comes to town, visits the shores of the region’s waterway, and makes a key announcement.

These days, municipal leaders form task forces, launch websites, and hold press conferences on land adjacent to the waterway and speak of spending billions of dollars on the waterway’s revival.

And these days, it seems like not a month goes by without another intriguing photo exhibition, book, or performance art project taking place in, or being about, that same waterway.

That body of water is the Los Angeles River. The once and future, mighty Los Angeles River.

And so much of the credit for all of the above goes to a locally-based poet, author, performance artist, raconteur, and visionary. His name: Lewis MacAdams.

In 1986, MacAdams (pictured at left), along with Pat Patterson and Roger Wong, co-created Friends of the Los Angeles River. Patterson was a sculptor, Wong ran an art gallery. None of the trio was a civic official. At that time – and in great part still to this day – the River was clad in a concrete straightjacket; a beige, spray-buff-quilt of a rain public work begun in the 1930s by the Army Corps of Engineers, the same outfit behind the New Orleans levees, as well as all this.

Eight hundred years ago, the Los Angeles River welcomed the native Tongva people; 241 years ago, Spanish settlers arrived and called the liquid Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles de Porciuncula. A dozen year’s later, that Los Angeles name stuck, and a future mega-city born.

In 1986, though, the River was an afterthought. It was a flood control channel – considered, if at all, tedious urban infrastructure, or as hidden in plain sight. As noted here previously, even twenty or so years later, the act of putting up signs on bridges that said, “Los Angeles River,” was shocking.

So imagine ’86. MacAdams tells of taking wire-cutters and slicing open a riverfront fence. He and his two partners then walked to the confluence of the River and the Arroyo Seco – “a clanging urban Hades of railroad tracks and freeway overpasses and flapping plastic,” as MacAdams says in his essay contribution to the anthology book, Not A Cornfield: History / Site / Document.**

“We asked the river if we could speak for it in the human realm,” MacAdams also said. “We didn’t hear it say no, so we went to work.”

Going to work meant donning green body paint and a white suit, and with scant audience, doing a performance piece channeling William Mulholland, L.A.‘s preeminent zanjero, nationally famous thanks in great part to Chinatown, the Roman Polanski and Robert Towne flick.

Since that beginning, MacAdams’ Friends of the Los Angeles River performance piece has evolved into a 501c-3 non-profit organization. FoLAR boasts legions of dues-paying members, carries hard-earned political and media clout, and sponsors tours, events, a “Rivies” award show, and a massive annual river clean-up.

In the Cornfield book, MacAdams says:

I guessed haphazardly that it had taken forty years to screw the river up so it would take at least that long to fix it. I was being optimistic.


By saying forty years I figured that the piece would last longer than me, so I had to make something that was bigger and different than my own art ego.


I started telling people that when the steelhead trout run returns and the yellow-billed cuckoos are singing in the sycamores, the work of Friends of the Los Angeles River would be done. I wanted them to see a living river.

City / Culture highlights work done in urban settings by creative people. Works that could also, depending on a person’s political beliefs, be considered the expected work of local, or other, governments. Revitalizing a major river is a particularly remarkable, and large-scale examples of this. Los Angeles may have a mayor and 15 powerful city councilmembers, but Lewis MacAdams, writer and performer, is the person most responsible for the revitalization of the Los Angeles River. The pace might be a trickle, but the idea is a current.

Related: City / Culture’s former Not A Cornfield colleague Hilary Kaplan, in 2003, writing in Next American City. And City / Culture’s boss, Juan Devis, and his Departures piece on the River.

Disclosure**=Jeremy Rosenberg was project manager for this book – a publication of the Annenberg Foundation – and he wrote a chapter as well.

Read past City / Culture columns here and contact the columnist.

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