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En route to a meeting with co-founder and President of Friends of the Los Angeles River, Lewis MacAdams, at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens, I am overrun by stampeding children. The herd demonstrates an apparently unbridled enthusiasm for spouting water as they gleefully prance from the parking lot directly toward the mission-style fountain located in the common area of the miraculous urban oasis located near the confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo-Seco (570 West Avenue 26). The grounds are so charming that on more than one occasion I forget for a brief second exactly where I am. Though I am not qualified to dispense relationship advice, I can’t help but imagine this being an ideal romantic locale for a date if one’s intent is to “score.” 1
The River Center and Gardens host numerous community events and is also the headquarters for a variety of non-profit organizations dedicated to preserving and restoring the river, including: Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR); Los Angeles Conservation Corps, National Park Service: Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance; and Northeast Trees. In short, the place is fervent with positivity and, at the risk of sounding silly, good vibes.
One child notices a caterpillar and a collective, elongated coooool is overheard. An appropriate expression, I think to myself, given that the man I’m about to interview quite literally wrote the book on cool.2
First, before we get to Lewis MacAdams and FoLAR, a quick word on steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). While its close relative, the rainbow trout, is content living out the course of its meager existence in the same riparian environment in which it is born, the ambitious steelhead soon grows tired of life in the boring river and thus sets course for the great Pacific expanse.
As the sea-faring steelhead ages, the biological impetus to procreate will prompt the fish to make a prodigious return to the river––the trout’s ancestral spawning grounds.3
Braving all manner of calamity and misfortune the steelhead will swim marathon distances upstream, jumping over rocks and leaping over waterfalls and so forth along the way.4 In this perilous quest they are stalwart, unrelenting.
Like the anadromous steelhead trout that once populated the L.A. River, Lewis MacAdams is himself no stranger to fighting against head currents. His was the only liberal family on the block in his north Dallas neighborhood and as a teenager MacAdams was passionately involved in the Civil Rights movement.
“When I was sixteen I was being dragged out of the Dallas school board because the schools were still segregated,” says the soft-spoken MacAdams, who, despite a considerable length of time spent living outside Texas, has somewhat maintained his charismatic drawl. “I was the PR guy to the chapter of the Dallas Congress of Racial Equality; which is kind of appalling to think of a sixteen-year-old white kid from the suburbs, but that’s what I’ve always been.”
Yet, from as early as fourteen, MacAdams was captivated by New York City. As he recounts in The Birth of Cool, “On one of the first occasions that I borrowed the car, I drove it downtown, just so that I could stand at the only corner in Big D—probably the only such corner within five hundred miles—where the buildings were tall enough to form a canyon, and imagined how cool it would be to be in New York.”
When MacAdams reached college age, he decisively abandoned the small river of his youth for the metropolitan ocean of The Big Apple.5 Well, actually New Jersey.
College did not hold the interest of the young MacAdams who desperately wanted to take a year off from his studies to explore the nascent poetry scene of New York. However, with mounting pressures, both parental and societal, to attend college, MacAdams set his sights on Princeton in a brilliantly crafted ruse that would ensure his desires were not wholly neglected.
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