Yes, L.A., there is a waterway in the shadows of all those skyscrapers.G eorge Wolfe sets a dramatic stage when he talks about his plan to transform Los Angeles into a river city. At the edge of an industrial section of town, not far from Dodger Stadium, there’s a tiny park no bigger than an average backyard. As he steps off the grass and across a narrow cement bike path, Wolfe points out the railroad tracks on the opposite bank as he explains how he kayaked the water below. Stroking his goatee as if he were meditating on an enduring problem, Wolfe looks south. Around the bend is a dry, cement-covered section of the river familiar to film audiences. The movies — think Grease or The Italian Job — depict a waterless concrete trench with high bridges overhead. It’s the classic Los Angeles River shot, and over the decades, the idea that L.A. doesn’t really have a true river has become ingrained in the city’s psyche. But Wolfe, a kayaker turned activist, doesn’t hate the movies that have perpetuated the myth. In fact, one of those movies inspires him.
Early in Terminator 2, John Connor (Edward Furlong) takes to the dry L.A. River on his dirt bike while trying to outrun an evil Terminator in a truck. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played a good Terminator in the second installment of the franchise, gives chase on a Harley, all the while using a shotgun to blast locks off chain-link access gates designed to keep L.A.’s residents away. A professional copy editor with a self-described “weird sense of humor,” Wolfe chuckles while talking about T2 and one of his “weird ideas” for getting Angelenos to notice their river. “I’d love to get Arnold in a kayak,” Wolfe jokes. “Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”
But right now, nobody is kayaking the L.A. River. To do so is illegal. An access policy is still being hammered out between City Hall, the County Board of Supervisors and the Army Corps of Engineers, which first concreted the river after a calamitous 1938 flood that claimed more than 100 lives. Back then, the river provided the city’s drinking water and — typical of most waterways in the West — it could go from a mud puddle in the summer to a raging beast during the winter. In the decades following, Angelenos had mostly forgotten about the 50-plus-mile stretch of water that runs from the northwest San Fernando Valley to the city’s port in Long Beach. But perhaps that oversight can be forgiven. After all, it wasn’t until last summer that the federal government relented and finally declared the L.A. River a real river.
“That moment,” Wolfe says, delighting in the pun to come, “may have been my high-water mark.”