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Friend, Advocate, and Lover to the L.A. River, Lewis MacAdams says Goodbye To FoLAR

Lewis MacAdams Riverwalk
Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell, Lewis MacAdams, Councilmember Ed P. Reyes, Irma Munoz, Board Chair, MRCA, Councilmember Tom LaBonge and Gary Lee Moore, City Engineer for Los Angeles. Opening Ceremony of Sunnynook River Park and plaque dedication for Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the LA River, FoLAR. | Photo by: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Lewis MacAdams, poet, activist, and dear friend to the L.A. River, has decided to step down from his role as president of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). The incoming president will be Marissa Christiansen who has been serving as the senior policy director for the nonprofit organization. This shift in leadership comes at a pivotal time when the river is receiving increased attention towards investment such as the $1.3 billion federal grant to revive 11 miles of the stretch and plans to update the L.A. River County Master Plan. Over the past decade, considerable progress has been made to activate the neglected river, such as restoring wetland ecosystems and opening adjacent spaces for recreational activity thanks to the consistent advocacy by FoLAR, among other groups. 

What started off as a performance art piece by Lewis MacAdams and two other artists, where the three men cut into a fence blocking access to the river and declared it “open”, has grown into a multidimensional nonprofit organization. FoLAR did not “discover” the river but rather popularized it with the intention to restore and protect the natural and cultural heritage of the riverway by advocating for inclusive urban planning, hosting massive cleanups, conducting research, and organizing educational workshops for youth and the public.

 

Equally as dynamic is Lewis MacAdams’ own story. Originally born in San Angelo, Texas, MacAdams was raised by two politically concerned parents and came of age during the civil rights movement. With an English degree from Princeton, he later moved to Northern California and got involved with public works construction in Marin County while making a living teaching and performing poetry. Years later, when MacAdams moved to Los Angeles, the L.A. River caught his attention and instantly “knew that [he] would be involved with the river for the rest of [his] life.” This initial meeting planted the seeds for his performance piece to be done on site 5 years later.

While MacAdams doesn’t consider himself an “environmentalist” but rather a “infrastructuralist”, his legacy reminds us that water politics is interconnected to many social issues and foundational to the health and vibrancy of any city, such as ours. It was poor foresight that reshaped this natural landscape into a concrete channel in the first place. In the 1930s, L.A. officials needed a solution to prevent destructive flooding from the river which resulted in the 52-mile concrete channel we know today. However, MacAdams’ ingenuity has already started to change the course of the river for the better. Armed with poetry and a passion for politics, he has attracted a wide base of support for FoLAR, in an effort to restore the L.A. River. In an interview with KCET in 2011, MacAdams said he hopes the mission of FoLAR “outlives” him. Will his vision to restore the ecosystem of the L.A. River and support for community stewardship be continued under the new leadership or abandoned for commercial development along the river?

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