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Lewis MacAdams: Poetic Politics on the Los Angeles River

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Photo: KCET Departures

A godfather of the Los Angeles River, Lewis MacAdams is like the revered steelhead trout of the Los Angeles River, which swims to and fro freshwater rivers to saltwater oceans and back. A creature of multiple worlds, MacAdams is both poet and politician, but never quite one or the other.

"I've always struggled with being on the cusp of poetry and politics," says MacAdams, who just celebrated his seventh decade in this world this month, on October 12.

Born in San Angelo, Texas, in 1944, MacAdams came to this world in a time of great upheaval, perhaps one of the last times when good and evil were clearly demarcated during the last World War. Born nine months after his parents married, MacAdams would always find himself pulled between the worlds of artistry and strategy.

"Both my parents were political people," says MacAdams, as if to explain his dueling sides. Though he was involved in the civil rights movement, he would also be in New York "sleeping on people's couches, following poets around" in the hopes of nurturing his own career in the arts. His English degree from Princeton may sound impressive, but MacAdams readily admits, "I barely graduated. I was teaching myself how to be a poet."

While living in a town north of San Francisco called Bolinas, MacAdams was elected to the Water Board, where one of his early tasks was to oversee the rebuilding of the road that went up to the town's water source, the Arroyo Hondo. There, he learned to wield a wrench and actually participated in public works. All the while, he made his living giving poetry readings for a $100 each appearance and taught poetry in San Francisco State University.

As we sat in the gardens of the Los Angeles River Center, MacAdams paints a picture of a young brash youth with a vigor for life. Words like arrogant, ruthless, and ambitious float in the air. With them come flashes of insight into the man who helped change the course of the Los Angeles River.

At 35, MacAdams glimpsed the river that would also in turn change the course of his life. By then, he was an editor of WET magazine, a short-lived but influential magazine whose tagline (The magazine for gourmet bathing) still intrigues today. At the time, MacAdams "didn't have money for gas." He would take the bus from the downtown Arts District, where he lived, to Venice, the magazine's offices. The bus stop where he got off incidentally offered a view of the Los Angeles River. "When I saw it from that stop, I knew I would get involved in it for the rest of my life," says the poet.

In the video below MacAdams reads from his poetry book, "The River: Book One" Watch our interview with MacAdams here.

It wasn't until five years later that MacAdams followed up that inclination, aided by a confluence of events. First, a local alt weekly called the Reader asked him to contribute a piece on the problems of Los Angeles. Then, the Museum of Contemporary Art asked him to participate in a series of performance art shows it was planning. Thus combining prose and performance began MacAdams' Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), his by-now infamous "40-year performance art."

"FoLAR started as my own metaphor," says MacAdams. In those days, it wasn't the strong voice for the river community it is today. It was a scrappy experiment. In its first appearance, FoLAR (by then just composed of MacAdams, sculptor Pat Patterson, gallery owner Roger Wong, and architect Fred Fischer) used wire cutters to open a hole on the fence along the river.

There, according to MacAdams' writings captured in Blake Gumprecht's "The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth," he wrote: "The air around us was in an unholy din. A Southern Pacfic freight train rumbled up the tracks on one bank. A Santa Fe freight rumbled down the tracks on the other. Traffic on two freeway bridges and the Riverside Drive bridge roared by. The odor was industrial. The scene was a latter-day urban hell. We asked the river if we could speak for it in the human realm. We didn't hear it say no, and that's how Friends of the Los Angeles River began."

FoLAR was mostly an artistic affair. "The early people involved were most artists," says MacAdams. "They were the only people I knew in L.A." It wasn't until state assemblyman Richard Katz proposed turning the riverway into a roadway to ease Los Angeles traffic propelled FoLAR to a new dimension.

"I've often said Katz was the best friend the Los Angeles River ever had," joked MacAdams. It was the Katz highway, as it was called, that became a lightning rod for Angelenos. "It started to make people feel again, that anger gathered energy." It was energy that made people look twice at the river again.

According to Gumprecht, that same period saw then-L.A. mayor Tom Bradley pledging to make the river one of his five priorities. Bradley created the Los Angeles River task force, which recommended restoring the river's natural ecosystem "wherever possible."

Other organizations also got involved including: the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (NHM), names which we still see involved in the river today.

It was then that FoLAR also experienced a growth as an organization. It was no longer just the realm of artists, but also of residents of Los Angeles. In the decades of its existence, it has fought to improve man's relations with water, especially the river in Los Angeles. Apart from organizing yearly river clean-ups, it has gone to war. Lawsuits brought to bear by FoLAR and a rainbow of allies have given us the Los Angeles River Masterplan and the soon to be overhauled State Historic Park. Its exploits can now be found at the University of California Los Angeles library archives.

Lewis MacAdams Riverwalk' was dedicated in 2013 at Sunnynook River Park | Photo: KCET Departures

MacAdams makes no claims that FoLAR was a deliberate masterpiece. By his own admission, he says "Most things I'm not good at, but I have this insight or skill that brought together poetry and politics" and as humans are apt to do, we make do with what we've got.

Unlike most people MacAdams admits "I really love politics." While most of us see machinations and underlying motives, the poet sees the centuries-old ways humans have always interacted. "I think it's how humans relate. That's really how we are." Perhaps it's this acceptance of a certain kind of system that enables MacAdams to swim from one realm to another, to combine both art and politics in one go. Nowhere is this most evident than in the workings of FoLAR, an organization that makes frequent appearances at city meetings, but can also come up with something as compelling as the Frog Spot or the River Rover.

A young man when his journey with the river began, he saw himself "a desperado, totally on the outside." He says in those days there was an element of "self-disgust." He adds, "I'm probably overstating it, but not by much." The frank admission leads me to wonder, "Does this man see the Los Angeles River in himself?"

The Los Angeles River as it was then was derelict, forgotten, literally down in the dumps. MacAdams, as many struggling artists are, was also the same. In uplifting the river from its neglected state, is he also saving a part of himself? As I broach the question, he turns to me in surprise and says, "I've never thought of that." I've never either.

Perhaps the Los Angeles River is a useful metaphor for all of us, which is what makes its story poetry. Decades ago in its nadir, the Los Angeles River is finally climbing toward its apex. Once deserted and dismissed, it is now finding its way again into our collective consciousness. It is a tale of redemption worthy of an epic. Isn't it any wonder a poet is the appointed bard of this legend?

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