JOHN YDSTIE, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GREASE")
JOHN TRAVOLTA: (as Danny Zuko) The rules are there ain't no rules. To the second bridge and back and whoever makes it here first wins.
YDSTIE: The drag race from the movie "Grease." Danny Zuko, played by John Travolta, jumps into his hot rod, Greased Lightning.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)
YDSTIE: That scene has something in common with countless other movie car chases and races - from "Terminator 2" to "The Italian Job." They all zoomed along the concrete bed of the Los Angeles River, the perfect racetrack. Perfect because large stretches of it are essentially empty.
(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER FLOWING)
YDSTIE: The river's water, barely a trickle through downtown, isn't what stands out about it. It's everything else - vast, cemented and distinctly urban.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)
YDSTIE: It's surrounded by railways, overpasses, transmission towers and worn-out buildings.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
YDSTIE: It looks nothing like the river Los Angeles was founded on centuries ago. Stretching 51 miles, the L.A. River used to be bountiful but deadly with its unpredictable floods. To prevent spillage, the Army Corps of Engineers gave it its modern concrete look when it was channelized it in the 1930s. Since then, for most Angelinos, it's fallen out of sight and out of mind. And even from the nearby arts district, getting to the water is a challenge.
ANDREA STANG: Most rivers in the world you could just walk to the river. In L.A., you need a permit to get there.
YDSTIE: Andrea Stang is the senior education program manager with LA's Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA. Tonight, the museum is sending its guests on a tour of L.A.'s forgotten river. Their guides on this journey? The Urban Rangers.
STANG: What do we do?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You'll start off by leaving MOCA, crossing the intersection and taking a left on 1st street, follow the orange arrows through the canyons of downtown Los Angeles. There, you'll see some homo sapien street art.
YDSTIE: The Urban Rangers are hard to describe. First off, they look like, well, the folks who'd guide you around Yellowstone. They're even dressed in khaki park ranger uniforms and hats.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So, you want this outfit with the little patch on it?
YDSTIE: It's all part of an ironic, high concept art exhibit for them. But it's also a night out in downtown. Packs of, well, hikers follow orange arrows taped to the sidewalk, like Martin Hernandez, an L.A. native and architecture student.
MARTIN HERNANDEZ: I didn't really know a lot about L.A. River. I just that it existed somewhere here in L.A. You see it in movies, you know, "Biker Boyz," biking down on the bridge. So, it's like sometimes you're like, oh, I wonder what's going on with that and where does it go to, where does it lead, where does it start, you know, where does it end?
YDSTIE: Questions that might be answered by this guy.
JOE LINTON: Hi, my name is Ranger Joe and I'm here at the Ask a Ranger station answering questions about the Los Angeles River.
YDSTIE: Joe Linton is an author of a guidebook about the L.A. River. And he's a self-described Creek Freak.
LINTON: And I've been deputized to help tell the stories of the L.A. River tonight.
YDSTIE: I think most people from the movies believe that the Los Angeles River is basically a concrete ditch. Is that what it is here?
LINTON: A lot of the river is a concrete ditch but there are actually three sections of the river that have what we call soft bottom; they have earthen bottom. There's frogs and fish and egrets and herrings and ducks in these more natural spots.
YDSTIE: You think the future of it ought to change? It shouldn't be a concrete ditch anymore?
LINTON: Absolutely. I mean, I think that the trick is, like, people talk about restoration. We're not going to really restore it. The river used to flood and kill people and move around, you know, to different parts of city. And so we're not really going to restore it to this kind of undependable river that it was. But we can restore natural function. And I would say it'll be more like a garden. There will still be some concrete, it won't flood, but it'll be a lot more natural and it'll be lot more friendly for human access.
YDSTIE: Right now though, human access is monitored and limited.
MAN: For your safety, please keep to your right as much as possible.
YDSTIE: Public safety officers patrol the path down to the water as the Urban Rangers herd small groups of people toward the river. On any other night, this wouldn't exactly be the safest walk. Some of the buildings are abandoned, the windows knocked out. The streets aren't well lit. And actually reaching the canal means walking through an underpass, a dark and smelly tunnel.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)
YDSTIE: Flashlights bounce off the walls as a group gathers around Senior Ranger Jenny Price
JENNY PRICE: So, now we're set. Is everybody ready?
PRICE: Okay, let's go. And there are some potholes here.
YDSTIE: Not to mention, a wayward shopping cart, rubber gloves, cigarette packs, and all kinds of debris.
PRICE: Can everybody stay to the left, stay to the left while the other group passes.
YDSTIE: Then, the tunnel opens up and we get our first view of the river. If you were standing out in the thin stream of water, it probably wouldn't even top your sneakers. Concrete walls rise up about 30 feet at 45-degree angles on either side. Ranger Jenny stands on the steep embankment as cameras flash, illuminating the giant bridge above but also trash and thick swarms of gnats.
PRICE: What do you guys think of it? Awesome. Who thinks it's ugly, besides me? See? Everybody loves it, everybody loves it. Pardon me?
WOMAN: It's kind of smelly.
PRICE: It's a little smelly. We have the various odors, scent markings of the wildlife down here. That's true.
YDSTIE: It is smelly and it is trashy, but Ranger Jenny doesn't think the river is beyond repair. She thinks the city should create more bike trails, more green space. That already exists on some parts of the river. And, in fact, the city has approved a plan to revitalize this grittier, downtown section. But standing here, it's hard to imagine this concrete riverbed ever looking very green. Is it really worth the effort? I mean, this river is paved over for most of the way it goes through Los Angeles.
PRICE: It's absolutely worth the effort. I think that it's deeply implicated in most of the problems that Los Angeles is notorious for; social, environmental, and you're not going to solve all those problems by revitalizing the river but I don't think you can really address those problems without doing it. Revitalizing the L.A. River isn't primarily about the river. It's really about grappling with huge problems that we have in L.A.
YDSTIE: Beyond huge problems, the Urban Rangers also want visitors to grapple with huge concepts, about nature, humans and public space. But senior ranger Sara Daleiden is also in awe of a much simpler idea - people just being here.
SARA DALEIDEN: I mean, Los Angeles, in this neighborhood normally you just wouldn't see people out like this at night. And you definitely - we have a river that a lot of people don't even know exists. Some people might leave tonight and never understand that there's also these kind of conceptual or even political questions that we're asking inside of us. But I also think that if they just got out and hand an interesting experience exploring the river, we're happy with that too.
YDSTIE: For L.A. residents enchanted with their river after this night, there are opportunities to get more involved and even get in. City officials are offering supervised canoeing and kayaking expeditions along the L.A. River this summer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.