Parks and green space in most cities are wildly accurate indicators of wealth and resources. And it’s not just a question of who has them. You must also ask how they are prioritized. There are parks which the City of Los Angeles all but leaves to rot, relegated as drug spots with chained-off bathrooms, encrusted in graffiti. Meanwhile a short drive away are parks in wealthy neighborhoods with pristine grass, graffiti seemingly erased overnight.
Until recently, we were a park-poor city where almost 50% of Angelenos could not walk to a park or open space. That means 5 million human beings who could not walk to a park. The city’s housing, inequality and environmental crises are interrelated, and making eye contact with them all is the honest way to move forward. With a 51-mile long river running through our landscape, it only makes sense to restore that land to as healthy and natural a park space as possible.
When contemplating the Los Angeles River, it’s easy for someone in the present day to completely ignore the indigenous tribes’ perspective. There is no separating the tragedy of the river from the parallel history and tragedy of the indigenous peoples whom we’ve all but erased from our metropolis’ landscape. The tribes had a completely different approach to commerce and the river. The area that is now Downtown Los Angeles, where the Arroyo Seco and river meet, was a massive trading area and inter-tribal meeting ground for peoples across the Western Americas for thousands of years. Separating indigenous peoples from the river was one way we diminished their practice of prayer ritual, access to goods, and native vegetation (which attracted animals, too). Reconnecting all Angelenos to the river needs to include consciously and deliberately reconnecting indigenous peoples to the river they stewarded for thousands of years.
When you think of the emaciated polar bear dying on the shrinking iceberg or plastic in the oceans, those heartaches seem far away. Resilience to climate change is needed there, but also here. In our own backyards. Without resolving racism, we will not resolve climate change. We must make right the slow violence of the environmental racism that is children in Flint who still do not have clean drinking water, or children who grow up next to freeways with brake dust and exhaust in their lungs while we prevent their access to clean open space, or families who are then forced out of their homes when developers decide that land is suddenly prime for some other, more profitable use. Our path forward must intrinsically, by mandate of justice, include righting the wrongs that racism has burdened on people of color across the nation and certainly across the Los Angeles area. Climate change is an existential threat and until we protect everyone, we simply are not done.
Climate change is a major factor in conversations about where our region’s resources should go, and that doesn’t just mean mudslides and fires in Malibu. Nor is it just about the waterline rising and flooding our Venice neighbors. Homes in wealthy areas receive vastly more County resources to protect and enrich them than those in other areas. The truth is that the homes in the wealthiest areas are among the first that climate change will decimate. Our current contract with nature is completely unsustainable. Public funds don’t have the money to continue protecting these homes against climate change, if for no other reason than because it’s becoming an untenable economic proposition to save a smaller number of structures abutting nature instead of putting those funds towards protecting tens of thousands of homes elsewhere. If you want Los Angeles to continue to exist as we’ve known it, we are going to have to look at ways to build climate change resilience into our infrastructure. A large part of that means holding onto water – it means restoring our river and saving it from the drainage ditch it’s become.
The river is thus a part of these many conversations and communities. Rivers have a way of showing us how we’re treating one another. As much as restoration is a journey to help great blue herons and cottonwoods, it’s about changing our relationship with our fellow humans. Changes within the river channel will signify changes within us.
Decades ago, at the dawn of the Friends of the LA River, it took some radical actions and civil disobedience to move the needle even a smidge. On a whim, Lewis MacAdams and his friends brought bolt cutters to break into the river and held a poetry reading. Someone said off-the-cuff, “This is the founding of the Friends of the LA River.” That kooky spirit and curveball sensibility was what guided the group even as the LA “River” was a punchline. There were various master plans for the river and in documents and at meetings many officials continually referred to the river as a flood control channel. Lewis kept interrupting to say “that’s not a flood control channel, it’s a river.” He persisted in correcting officials – for years.
Things began to change around 1986, as a changing guard in LA politics was fueled by increased enfranchisement of Latinos and other minorities, and as other issues adjacent to the river gained strength. In 2000, FOLAR hosted a symposium with Occidental College. Every single voice told the mayor the river needed to be revitalized and made into a park space. Truly a remarkable change in public engagement, but then think what else happened between 1986 -2000: The fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, the first Bush and Clinton presidencies, Princess Diana’s death, the DotCom bubble, manufacturing moving overwhelmingly to China, and even the Spice Girls. All of this to say, big things can happen but only when humans want them to. During the same timeframe as all those events, people in one city struggled to get a relatively small group of officials to regard the river they all shared with respect. It has now been twenty years since even that symposium. We still do not have our river back.
Since 2000, FOLAR’s focus has shifted to influencing planning changes and educating the next generation. Part of this is hosting the nation’s largest river cleanup event every year. And by biggest, we mean outpacing rivers that touch even ten different states. During one recent cleanup, a little boy held a chip bag to his mother and pointedly asked “This! We have this in our cabinet. Is this bag from us??”
Additionally, FOLAR has a mobile classroom, The River Rover, to bring science lessons to students to help teach them about the watershed, how it functions, and then bring them to the river and the Aquarium of the Pacific at the ocean. FOLAR knows it’s important to show kids that “nature” is not just far away Yellowstone or Yosemite Parks. Without FOLAR, some of these students would not otherwise see either body of water.
We need to recognize that the river is a reflection of what we are doing to one another. The river being concretized is a reflection of prioritizing certain people. The people who are experiencing homelessness along the river reflect who we think deserves what. The plastics dumped into the river is a reflection of us thinking there is no cost, no effect, no other life that needs to deal with what we’ve dumped. And we keep resigning to inequality (injustice) because we don’t have the will. If we had the will we would have the means. If Los Angeles County – a county with a larger population than 41 individual states, changed the way we did something, it would have a giant effect.
FOLAR’s Lewis MacAdams passed away this year but his words and work life on. When others would peg the river’s successful return to some metric, he’d hold firm:
“The work of revitalizing the river will be done when the steelhead trout return to the waters. Nature will tell us. Nature knows.”
Be the voice for your river,
P.S. You might wonder why we’ve dedicated a series to a river you may never see. Or why we’re talking about it as a company and not as individuals on our personal social media. It’s because MagicLink’s values, like our value, scale with us as we grow. And if something is worth talking about, it is worth talking about now.
It’s not responsible to ignore what’s happening in our communities. We hope you’ll join us in making eye contact with the opportunities for justice in your own corner of the world.