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A Gehry-fied River Exposes L.A.'s River Anxieties

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The Los Angeles River isn't just a waterway wrapped in concrete. In the decades since tons of gloomy gray matter was poured over this wild river, it has morphed from a derelict, forgotten watercourse, good only for film shootings of dystopian futures and rebellious countercultures, into a symbol of hope yet to be realized.

As with many things yet to take on solid form, the Los Angeles River has become a symbol, for all the things that Los Angeles might become in the next few decades. It has become a mirror of everyone's dreams. As such, it has birthed a fractured and multi-layered vision of what the Los Angeles River could be.

If you need further proof of the LA River's symbolic power, look no further than the recent brouhaha over the Los Angeles Times exclusive, which revealed that local starchitect Frank Gehry has been tapped by the Mayor's office and the Los Angeles River Revitalization to rebrand the river.

A close reading of the article reveals little details. As of yet, no principles, renderings, or clear plans have been revealed, probably because Gehry's team is still wrapping their heads around the river's complexity. The architect's answers to the paper's queries are general at best, hinting at possible directions.

In a conversation with Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne, Gehry only says, he was tasked to brand the river, give it visual coherence, so it could become something special. Already, the architect has tightened his scope, to deal with the river as a "water reclamation project."

While this narrow focus usually bodes well for Gehry's firm in terms of goal-setting, it is this matter-of-fact statement that disregards many other possibilities of the river that alarms many stakeholders of the river. The city's secrecy in its proceedings doesn't help. "It is an affront. In the face of so much public discussion regarding the river, why was this Gehry deal -- claimed to be a year in the making -- totally omitted from the conversation?" said Project 51 co-founder, Catherine Gudis. She compares the city's hush-hush approach to high-handed methods employed by William Mulholland and Robert Moses, who molded huge swaths of the city according to their sole vision, well-meaning or not.

The river isn't just a "water reclamation" project, a flood control system, infrastructural and cold in nature.

It is the heart of Los Angeles, the reason for its founding.

It is an artist's canvas because of its wildness. Here, artists feel free to find their voice, as evidenced by the many art projects that have spawned on the river.

It is a burgeoning stretch of Los Angeles that holds the promise of a greener, more naturally integrated city.

Its banks are prime real estate for speculative investors and developers.

It is a transportation corridor crisscrossed with train tracks and freeways.

Finally, it is simply home to Angelenos living along their piece of the gurgling river, a place where they could rest their weary bodies through the years. These residents hope that with the burgeoning interest in the river, they won't find themselves pushed out of the places they call home.

Isn't it a wonder that the choice of Gehry has not achieved the blessing its instigators clearly hoped for? As Gizmodo's Alissa Walker points out, "Gehry is polarizing." His abstract, technologically adept work holds his signature. When you pass by a Gehry, you will know it. Is a flashy, look-at-me kind of river what we want to see in decades to come? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

"Frank Gehry brings male bravado to LA River revitalization efforts. His attitude is 'I am here to save the day' and this pooh-poohs the ongoing community efforts," said urban planner, James Rojas, who has consistently worked to add inclusivity in the planning process. "Politicians love to show off his work with out being critical of it, and others will be intimidated by him to participate," he adds.

What is more troubling, by narrowing his focus, Gehry has revealed what his vision of the river isn't. "The idea that we shouldn't take out concrete, it's pretty clear there are two sides. We certainly don't want it to be that way, but his answer represents two stark visions of the future of the river," said Friends of Los Angeles River (FoLAR) Founder Lewis MacAdams. He points out that the $1.3 billion plan, which the Mayor has championed all the way to Washington D.C. and partly funded by a $1 million grant through FoLAR's intercession, is a habitat restoration project. Gehry's eagerness to work within the set bounds of the river's concrete seems to endanger that vision, which has garnered support from the amalgam of river advocates that have formed over the decades.

In choosing Gehry's distinct voice, the city has missed out on so many other perspectives and voices on the river. "The river is a living breathing ecosystem home to thousands of species of plants, birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects--our local scientists must be involved in planning efforts," said Lila Higgins, a collaborator with Play the L.A. River. "If we don't involve local scientists we face the danger of creating pretty parks that don't work for wildlife, or worse yet, encourage rampant growth of invasive species that can continue to degrade our already fragile LA nature. In the perfect world, the revitalization effort will be collaborative so that the human needs and the wildlife needs are both met."

Many fear Gehry's lack of involvement in the river makes him a virtual outsider, ignorant of the river's multifaceted role in the city. Damian Robledo, founder of River Wild LLC comments, "Gehry is going to be very far removed in my opinion except for the big grand gesture that he will design somewhere as 'the Jewel of the River' or something as grandiose. The tech team is very capable. I'd like to hear that they are roaming the streets, the neighborhoods, the paths, wading in the water, not just designing a 3-D model of the River. They literally need to get their feet wet to understand the LA River."

Given the river's complex role in the city, any choice would have been met with criticism, which is perhaps why the Mayor's office and the LARRC decided to be discrete. No choice would have been good enough.

As Jenny Price, whose many endeavors like Play the LA River, LA Urban Rangers and LA River tours have brought many to the waterway, comments "I can't evaluate a plan I haven't seen, and I hope it will be brilliant." Without any clear plans to comment on, the revelation of Gehry's appointment is a chiffon of a news item, much ado about perhaps nothing. What one hopes is that his plan has enough room not just for reclaiming precious water resources, but for the many constituents that look to the river and see a possibility for something better.

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