MAY 24, 2020
LARB PRESENTS AN EXCERPT from Julia Ingalls’s forthcoming book on the L.A. River revitalization, The 40 Year Artwork, featuring extensive conversations with Lewis MacAdams, who passed away on April 21.
BEING A POET
Lewis MacAdams waits until after the nurse has closed his door to snicker. Despite what he has just told her, he does know where the electronic monitoring bracelet he’s supposed to be wearing is stashed — and he’ll be damned if he’s going to put it back on. Instead, the 75-year-old poet and co-founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River wheels himself, with difficulty, to be closer to the microphone I’ve set up on the folding table. Directly opposite the folding table, a muted television scrolls chyrons detailing the disintegration of American democracy. Lewis, who has witnessed Hunter S. Thompson’s remains shoot out of a cannon, is momentarily appalled by the televised visage of the 45th occupant of the White House. He sighs and begins to speak.
“I had this vision of a piece called ‘The Friends of the Los Angeles River,’” Lewis says in his gravelly basso, taking me back to the razor-wire wasteland of downtown Los Angeles in the early 1980s, when the river was encased in 52 miles of concrete, most of it inaccessible to the public. “There was almost no water in the Los Angeles River. The water that was in the river at that time was basically urban slobber from the storm drains. FoLAR only existed as a concept that we spent all of our months and years turning into an actual organization.”
Lewis’s story is frequently interrupted by his involuntary tremors from Parkinson’s, and from the longer-lasting damage of a stroke. Sometimes, he drifts off to sleep while in conversation, only to awake with the startled energy of a man convinced he has missed his train. His urgency diminishes into reverie as he speaks of encountering Gregory Corso in a stairway, Joan Didion in a spare room in San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg in a bed. He smiles fondly as he remembers standing in front of bulldozers to prevent the removal of trees and plant life growing in the L.A. River, or shouting down the city bureaucrat who insisted on calling it a “flood control channel.” He is less enthusiastic when remembering his meeting with Frank Gehry.
“Oh, him,” Lewis says, and then closes his eyes and feigns sleep.
It would be fair to say that both Gehry and Lewis each possess his own vision of what makes for a thriving river. Gehry, whose years of designing the seemingly impossible while cashing actual checks have made him a celebrity, is in many ways a perfect fit for the complex river revitalization project. Indeed, Gehry’s team, headed by architect Tensho Takemori, is creating a master plan that aims to heighten the communal aspect of the river while bringing in elements that help meet the needs of an increasingly dense city. Gehry Partners has never been a firm that sucks adoringly on the developer teat, unless those developers have some creative inclinations themselves. But for Lewis, encountering Gehry’s initial vision for the river was a bit like meeting a beloved child’s significant other for the first time: an inevitable, but not necessarily savory, part of the process.
Lewis, for all his years spent in the 20th century’s elite cultural hothouses, is most comfortable in nature, or at least the parts of nature adjacent to civilization. He is still haunted by the sharp whistle of the train as it echoed across the prairie outside 1940s Dallas.
“One of the most important emotions for me as a child was in perceiving that distance, listening to the far-off sound of the trains going by,” Lewis says. “Our family lived close to the railroad tracks for quite a lot of years when I was a kid. We lived on the edge of the dry land cotton fields, next to the last generations of the cotton pickers and those who lived off the land. If you’ve ever been near cotton at all, it’s just extremely hard work. I did it one time for one or two hours. And I got the point: ‘Okay, can I go and be middle class now?’”
With great shame, Lewis recounts once complaining to his parents when he was an aspiring poet that his childhood had not been difficult enough. Instead, he spent his youth trawling Dallas’s Trinity River Bottoms for sex and R&B, both of which he found in ample supply. The neighboring Jacksboro Highway was home to a series of juke joints, including one called Lou Ann’s in which blues musician Jimmy Reed was playing, or at least attempting to play. “Jimmy Reed was so drunk his wife sat behind him and whispered into his ear the lyrics to their songs,” Lewis remembers. “So he never missed a beat. But he was barely standing up.”
Lewis’s early introduction to the river as not just an ecological but a cultural gathering place would inform the arc of his life’s work. The Trinity River Bottoms had always been a place for mass gatherings, whether it was hosting barbecue-infused political rallies for the mostly right-wing townsfolk, or serving as mud-flecked stomping grounds for teenagers in lust. Decades later, Lewis and FoLAR funded weekly pizza nights and family fishing expeditions on the L.A. River, echoing what had taken place in Dallas decades before. Starting in 1986, FoLAR would also manage to inspire thousands of volunteers to regularly descend on the L.A. River to help clean it up as a way not only to aid the ecology, but to take part in a genuine communal activity.
In a city where, as the Missing Persons sang, “nobody walks,” it remains a spectacular accomplishment.
Unlike any other city on earth, Los Angeles is defined by concepts. Consider the Hollywood Sign, one of the most recognizable emblems of the city for visitors, and arguably one of the most elastic labels in the world. Hollywood is a place the same way that youth is a place: inhabitable, certainly, but defined less by geography than by hope. Unlike the spires of the Burj Khalifa or the Chrysler Building, Los Angeles’s signature landmark is a cheap 45-foot tall placeholder, an invitation to dream. That an entire metropolis could thrive around a loosely defined concept is part of the joy and terror of Los Angeles; for as long as it has been incorporated, the city has celebrated the ephemeral and shunned the concrete. In a way, it is the ideal city for intellectuals and visionaries alike. No real boundaries exist, except for the ones people choose to adopt.
It is suitable then that from many points along the concrete bed of the L.A. River, the Hollywood Sign is easily legible against the drought-ravaged landscape and smog-dusted infrastructure. When the river was initially channelized by the Army Corp of Engineers in the 1930s as a flood control measure, it began decades of a shadow existence. It was no longer thought of as a river by the majority of those living near it but rather as an interstitial thread, a negative space suitable only for those on society’s fringe.
During heavy rains, the river swells and the tide picks up. In recent years, considerate city officials have posted temporary warning signs on the strands of cable wire that separate the elevated walkways from the incline that leads directly to the river: “Flooding expected. For those in need of shelter, contact local authorities.” The river is also the unacknowledged last resort for the homeless, a segment of L.A. County’s population that only continues to grow each year. Tents occasionally pop up on the edges, or in the bushes near the iron gates. Upended shopping carts are almost as common as ducks. During the craze for motorized scooters, it was not unusual to see an overturned neon minibike inching its way down the gully. The river is inherently an expression of the city around it; whatever is going on the larger metropolis will eventually make its way here.
This is partly why, over the last 40 years, a surge of optimism, progressivism, artistry, architectural inventiveness, and the sheer draw of a Big Concept have manifested into one of the most anticipated civic renewal projects in the nation. The other part is, of course, due to a stubborn poet from Texas.
“Lewis has been the L.A. River’s spirit animal,” Mayor Eric Garcetti tells me. The still-boyish-looking Garcetti, who attended Lewis’s creative writing course when he was a student at the private Los Angeles school Harvard-Westlake in the 1980s, has since worked with Lewis and FoLAR on initiatives pertaining to the river. Garcetti, and his short-lived rock band, also played at Lewis’s 50th birthday party. “Don’t tell him how much I love him, okay?” Garcetti says. “His head will get too big.”
I ask Garcetti to describe Lewis’s role in Los Angeles.
“In the Bible, everybody is either a prophet or a pastor, so to be a visionary and somebody who gets involved in dealing with warehouses, transforming spaces into parks, you have to be a little bit of both,” Garcetti explains. “You have to be the pastor who can administer to the people what they need, but you also have to be the prophet to set the vision of maybe, more industrial space north of Chinatown isn’t what the city needs. The river’s soul needs to be set free in the geographic places the city was born, and the life-line back to it, to its original source of life, the water, has to be reestablished.”
Early on in our sessions, I ask Lewis, “What’s the hardest thing about being a poet?”
“Being a poet,” he responds.
This is not the koan it seems. Unlike architects, or politicians, or even journalists, poets are bound by their own truth. Being a poet is fundamentally about an unwavering commitment to one’s own passion, which paradoxically is always evolving. Depending on what one is passionate about, a poet can therefore be an unexpected ally, a genius, or a decades-long pain in the ass. The more people I speak to about Lewis, the more it seems he is a combination of all three.
“I made my living as a poet, for a while,” Lewis explains. “This was when the National Endowment of the Arts had money. There was a time when every little college town had a bookstore. Every town had a poetry groupie that would take down her panties in the name of art. Poetry became a kind of national heartbeat: it was an era when poetry meant something in the world. You would get $200 a night or something, enough to live on really. It was a reality, a way to have a life.”
Lewis showed early promise as a poet in the eighth grade at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, and his studies at Princeton University would help him land a post-graduate gig teaching a course called “Disrespect for the King’s English Means Disrespect for the King” at the State University of New York in Buffalo. But he was never far from the fringe. While teaching, Lewis briefly had a sideline in dealing heroin and other drugs, and generally had little to no interest in established norms. This disregard for hierarchy and traditional thinking has always kept him on the verge of disaster, a place in which it seems he thrives.
Shortly after they were married in 1967, Lewis and his first wife Phoebe hitchhiked across North Africa in hopes of finding the activist Eldridge Cleaver. Their journey to Algiers was undertaken for a piece commissioned by a relatively new magazine called Rolling Stone. Cleaver’s collection of essays, Soul on Ice, details his transformation from a serial rapist into a follower of Malcolm X, as well as his ultimate rejection of both violence against women and racism. After his release from prison in 1966, he became the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. In the 1980s, he was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and became a conservative Republican. Lewis describes Cleaver as “a kind of dark poet. Phoebe and I didn’t really know what we were getting into. Cleaver had his sublime side, too: he was also a very attractive guy and was very conventionally hungering for success. He wasn’t a revolutionary in the way you or I might think of a revolutionary.”
However, neither Lewis nor Phoebe had any specific idea about where Cleaver was, and openly asking about his whereabouts tended to cause more problems than it solved. Algiers during this time served as a kind of unofficial lounge for cultural exiles, revolutionaries, and anyone who preferred hijacking a plane to conventionally boarding one. Lewis and Phoebe wandered in and out of various cafés populated by men with long beards and dark sunglasses, their earnestness as radiant as a bad sunburn. By pure chance, while riding the bus around the city one day, Phoebe looked up from reading the International Herald Tribune, and saw Cleaver leaning out the window of a seaside mansion.
“After we managed to get on the bus going the other way,” Lewis tells me, “we returned to the mansion and waited until Cleaver pulled up in his sports car into a dirt driveway overlooking the ocean. He got out of his car, and we were just sort of standing there, maybe 20 feet away. He came toward us, and that’s when I said, ‘You’re a hard man to find.’ And he said, ‘Well, I hope so.’”
Cleaver refused to be officially interviewed for Rolling Stone, but invited Lewis in on the condition that Phoebe would cook a meal for Cleaver and his associates. Drinks and conversation flowed liberally, until Cleaver stood up and went back into his bedroom, returning with an AK-47.
As Lewis recounts, “Now, I hate guns. I grew up hating guns because I grew up in Texas and everybody had guns and people were shooting at each other all of the time which I abhorred, and somehow now I found myself with an AK-47 in my hands.
“We were talking about getting back to America, and Cleaver said, ‘This is the only thing that will ever get me home.’
“I said, ‘This gun will never get you home, Eldridge.’ And we agreed to disagree on that subject. At that point, dinner was about to be served. Phoebe was a pretty good cook: it could have been like a Better Homes and Gardens magazine spread, except with guns.”