Monday, August 24, 2009

Jenny Price: Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.

by Jenny Price
The Believer


L.A. is notoriously short on parks and other public spaces. It is a stronghold of the gated neighborhood. L.A. ranks first among U.S. cities for the number of millionaires and forty-first in philanthropy. Forty-first. Here, you can so clearly observe the tendency—magnified in my adopted town but hardly unique to it—to confuse ideals of personal liberty with an ideal of being free to accumulate capital and use it to do whatever you want. You can watch the failure to ballast the quest for individual freedom with other, long-standing American-dream ideals of equality and community. This is the land of Prop. 13 and Prop. 187, where affluent Angelenos want the cheapest labor but no social services for the illegal immigrants who do it; and want the economic as well as cultural benefits of an ethnically and racially diverse city, but don’t want the diversity in their own neighborhoods; and want private canyons and beaches but expect the public to pay for the inevitable fires and mudslides; and want to commute in fabulously fuel-inefficient cars from enormous houses with forty-three-inch TVs and five bathrooms in remote canyons, but object to smog and traffic and pollution and, above all, to living anywhere near the industry and manufacture that bathroom fixtures, SUVs, and forty-three-inch TVs require. The point is that here you can watch the denial so intrinsic to the great American nature story play out as part of the larger desire to benefit from the innumerable ties to people and nature that sustain one’s life in the city, and yet refuse to make good on those connections.


None of which is to let Boulder off the hook. In fact, very much the opposite. We may wish away connections in L.A., but we can hardly wish away culpability for the ensuing troubles (and even affluent Angelenos encounter serious daily havoc). Boulder bills itself as the anti-L.A.: it’s the green place, the socially just haven, the great right town. But how much easier is it to keep your air clean when the factories that manufacture your SUVs and Gore-Tex jackets lie in other, distant towns? And you can minimize racial and class confrontations when your own population is white and affluent, while the poor and nonwhite labor force that sustains your city’s material life resides safely far away. Nature writers have documented how cities mine the hinterlands ruthlessly for raw natural resources. But they’ve declined to tell us almost anything about how the largest urban regions, and especially the poorer areas within them, disproportionately shoulder the burden of transforming nature to create all our lovely wondrous stuff.

Boulder couldn’t begin to be the town that Boulder adores without L.A. (and an abundance of other places globally like L.A.)—just as Bel Air and Malibu couldn’t be Bel Air and Malibu in their undeniable glory without their essential connections to the nature and labor throughout L.A. County. Think of a defining difference between Boulder and L.A. as the difference between Malibu and Southeast L.A. but writ nationally. Boulderites benefit proportionately more and suffer far less from how they use nature—which I suspect is one reason why Boulder never claimed my head or heart. L.A. may be a land of troubles, but also gets so unfairly maligned, because being the great right place is much too easy when you don’t have to live with a lot of the problems you create.

Which is oddly heartening, because the City of Angels feels like a distinctly honest place to seek and write about nature. And it’s a thunderously consequential place to do something about the troubles.


You almost need special glasses to see the L.A. River as the healthy, verdant river that the hundreds of people who are revitalizing it are aiming for. The project will take at least several decades to realize entirely—you also need great reserves of faith and patience—but it will happen if the political will and economic resources continue to flow.

In the mid-1980s, the first calls to revitalize the river, by the artist and writer Lewis MacAdams and his fledgling Friends of the L.A. River, were met with “River? What river?” FoLAR made Willy Wonka’s schemes and hopes for his chocolate factory sound practical. At the time, proposals to paint the concrete blue and to use the channel as a dry-season freeway for trucks received far more serious consideration than FoLAR’s ideas. After a decade of persuasion, their vision would prove to have been superb common sense before its time. And in the last five years, the river’s revival has emerged as a major policy priority, as every imaginably relevant public and private interest—from Heal the Bay, neighborhood associations, and Latino social activists to the mayor’s office, L.A. City Council, and the L.A. County Department of Public Works (our quondam Sun Gods of the river as infrastructure)—has concluded that revitalizing L.A.’s major river will help them ameliorate the city’s worst troubles.

How do you resurrect the river? You have to green the banks. You have to clean the water. And you have to dynamite out some of the concrete. And each of these goals, it turns out, quickly becomes an act of thinking big.

To green the banks, this loose coalition of players has set out to turn the cement scar through the heart of this fragmented, park-starved metropolis into a fifty-one-mile greenway and bikeway, which ideally would serve as the backbone for a countywide greenway network. The Los Angeles River Greenway now consists of two dozen new parks on the ground and many more on paper, and will green and connect many of L.A.’s poorest, and most park-poor, neighborhoods.

To clean up this outsize sewer—which by law (after the NRDC lawsuit) the EPA must now ensure happens by 2013—you can’t just extract the kilotons of pollutants after they enter the river. You have to think about where all the pollutants come from: the weed killers, insecticides, fertilizers, paints, detergents, gasoline, motor oil, car waxes, and countless more toxic everyday products in the basic city-America-2006 street stew that washes into our soil, our water, and eventually our bodies. Alas, the city has spent more time fighting the legal ruling than the pollutants. But to clean the river, L.A. will absolutely have to mandate cleaner industrial processes to manufacture products that are themselves less toxic, more recyclable, more biodegradable.

You have to blow up some of the concrete, if not every last ton: the Seine, after all, runs through Paris in a cement channel. Blast it today, however, and the next heavy winter rains could submerge the Staples Center and Union Station. Rather, before you enjoy the thought of dynamite, you have to dramatically reduce the amount of water that flows down the river during storms. To do that, the river revitalizers propose to divert floodwaters into large basins that can double as parks and wetlands. Even more important, though, they aim to capture as much rain as possible where it falls, rather than rush it into the river to water the Pacific. To do that, Public Works has launched pilot projects to use porous paving, to unpave schoolyards, and to retrofit gutters, freeway medians, and parking lots to pitch water into the ground instead of the storm sewers. You can store the water in underground cisterns and use it on-site—say, to water your lawn—or you can let it drain into the ground and replenish the aquifer (where it’ll clean itself up as minerals in the soil bind up toxic chemicals).

Altogether, restoring the river to health would improve water quality, control flooding, and restore wildlife habitat. Neighborhoods throughout L.A. would acquire much-needed park and green space. It would enhance local water supplies dramatically, and so would potentially change how water moves through the West. All the new greenery would help clean the air. The project has pushed L.A. to the national forefront of urban watershed management. It’s made the river a meeting ground for Angelenos’ broader efforts to enhance the equity and environmental quality of life in Los Angeles. And by reviving a premier symbol of urban destruction, it could make just about anything imaginable in urban transformation. A healthy L.A. River wouldn’t be quite as wondrous as the chocolate factory, but it would be close.


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