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Coughed Up by the LA River

Some of the stuff found in the Los Angeles River sounds like props in a B-horror movie: a human skull, a hot tub, and a bloody sword linked to a Santeria religious sacrifice.

Photos courtesy of Friends of the LA River

Some of the stuff found in the Los Angeles River sounds like props from a B-horror movie: a human skull, a hot tub, a bloody sword linked to a Santeria religious sacrifice. Throw in a dead dog and a Cup Noodles brimming with maggots… done! Totally normal waterway paraphernalia, right?

The story of the LA River is pretty legendary, and so is the story of a group of its caretakers, the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). Poet Lewis MacAdams cofounded the group in the mid-80s—which launched with a performance art piece that involved fence-cutting, green face paint, and a trash totem pole—and became the river’s Dr. Frankenstein, cleaning it up and bringing it back to life. After a 1938 flood that killed more than a hundred people, most of the river was paved to become a 52-mile rainwater funnel leading into the ocean. This paving axed the ecosystem and wildlife. The concrete channel—which is pretty empty in most parts, except when it rains—has attracted skateboarders and big-screen Hollywood car races and chases (Grease, Terminator 2, etc.), but also a lot of dumping, from Freon-leaking freezers to the occasional dead body.

Things are slowly changing though. The birds are coming back, bike and walking paths are getting longer, and the US Army Corps of Engineers is doing a study to see if they could pull out some of the concrete without causing another gigantor flood. They're expected to complete the study by next spring, which will include recommendations to keep boosting the ecosystem, like planting more vegetation in the soft-bottom sections of the river. In the meantime, we talked to MacAdams and FoLAR executive director Shelly Backlar about the gems the river has coughed up.

VICE: What’s the story with the Santeria sword? How did you know it was used in a sacrificial ceremony?
Lewis MacAdams: Somebody handed me the sword. It had dried blood on it and was attached to a pair of handcuffs by green and red ribbons. I've always heard Santeria ceremonies and sacrifices are connected with rivers. I just put two and two together. That's my job.

What else sticks out in your head when you think of all the things you’ve pulled out of the river over the years?
Shelly Backlar: Eight years ago was my first clean-up, and we pulled out couches and computers and television sets—some of that stuff gets in the system from homeless campsites, but a lot of it was just dumped—we found a hot water heater slightly buried in one of the soft-bottom sections, so it’d probably been there a long time. We’re used to shopping carts, we’re used to tires, but we were shocked because this wasn’t right off the walking path, it was one of the places you’d have to specially go down to and drag it.

Ha, maybe they needed a hot water heater for the hot tub?
Right?! I found a Taser once. It wasn’t working, and I was threatening everyone—“Come on, what you got!” There was a Barbie that had long hair that was kind of matted and we called her Dreadlock Barbie. At the [Los Angeles River School] one day, with all the kids, we found these ruby slippers that were still in the package; it was really sad. In the past there have been phone booths… we’ve also found knives, and we just collect them and have the sanitation department pick that up. There was a spot once where we found a bunch of wallets and we called the police, but there wasn’t much they could do at that point.

How does trash even get into the river? Are we still so ignorant as a society that people will go down to the river and say, “Hmm, this might be a nice place for my Fritos bag and Styrofoam cup”?
Most of what we pull out during river clean-ups nowadays are food packaging items that have floated off the streets and through the system— the LA River watershed is over 800 square miles, it’s huge. Think of an 800 square-foot funnel and when it rains, it picks up any kind of trash, like cigarette butts—even copper from brake pads—stuff that you don’t even see. And it gets washed through the storm drains, through the river and down to the ocean. It’s like a water freeway, because of the gravity and the slope of the river and the force of the water—and especially now that about 80 percent of our city is paved.

In his new book of collected poems, Dear Oxygen, Lewis mentions a story about a burnt-out VW van with a mattress inside. I also read a news story that mentioned a burnt car half?
Yeah, it was the remains of a car that had been set on fire, under the 2 freeway, it wasn’t burning while we were there, but you could tell. And volunteers tried to get the front end out and there was a lot of commotion, and it was like, "Don’t hurt yourself!" When we’re down there in the river cleaning, there’s always a group that’s really into getting those big things out, and feeling almost tribal about it, like, “Look what we got!”

Like they’re going to go home and hang the burnt car half on their wall or something?
Yeah, like a big trophy!

I was just down on the river and saw a homeless plot with a couch-cushion bed surrounded by an unopened salad, and a book about President John Adams in a soaked Corona beer box. What do you do when you come upon encampments on your clean-ups?
We always recommend to just leave that alone. That might be everything that person owns.

What’s the story with the human skull that was found years ago?
How I heard the story was that they found it, debated for an hour about what to do with it, and decided they would leave it where it was.

Friends of the Los Angeles River recently posted an article on their Facebook about a body that was found in the LA River, a murder victim killed from a gunshot to the head?
That happened on the lower part of the river where it’s basically concrete for 20 miles…it shows that there’s still places on the river that are isolated. In terms of access and recreation, like the summer kayaking program, we’re really focusing on the natural-bottom areas that have more standing water, like the Glendale Narrows, as places where people will say, “Oh, this really is a river!” Over the years, the river has been portrayed as a place of isolation, desolation, and in many respects it can evoke that, but there are people who are changing things, slowly.

Lewis, when you helped christen the Friends of the Los Angeles River, you and the co-founders cut through a fence and asked the river if you could speak for it. And then at a theater performance, you painted yourself green, with a totem pole made out of river trash. What was that all about?
Lewis McAdams:
The trash used to build the totem was big woody stuff, like two-by-fours and pallets…the kind of big refuse that we don't find so much in the river anymore. We wanted it to dominate the stage while I turned into a rattlesnake, frog, and the other river denizens at its feet. We were calling the creatures home. We still do that on our t-shirts—for this year’s t-shirt it’s the red-legged frog with the slogan "Bring 'em home by 2020." These kinds of calls—you can think of them as just silly fake magic if you want to, but it’s calling the creatures back, telling them that it’s safe to return. I think they have to be convinced, you might say…it’s a better home now. When we cut the fence and declared the river open, the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Valley had not yet come on line so there was far less water. Completion of Tillman meant 60 million gallons of freshwater added to the mix, a lot of habitat quickly followed. Friends of the Los Angeles River is a 40-year artwork. We're only 24 years in.

Lewis wrote a poem that cited such river denizens as a dead dog and maggots in a Cup Noodles—which reminded me of The Lost Boys when Jason Patric’s eating Chinese takeout rice that turns into maggots. What are some species that live on the river now, and have returned to the river?
Lewis McAdams: Since we started, osprey, herons, hawks—almost 200 species of birds—have returned as residents.

Shelly Backlar: Way back when, there were grizzly bears on the LA River, but no more. Now you have the kind of urban wildlife that LA has, skunk, raccoons…coyotes get down into the system sometimes, and we get calls that one is stranded in there. Near Griffith Park there have been big cat sightings. The fish in the river, like carp, are all non-native species; steelhead trout used to be in the river, but the last recording of someone catching one was in 1940. Bringing them back would be like the Holy Grail.

The Friends of the Los Angeles River’s 23rd annual big clean-up is Saturday, April 28, and you can .