Poetry as a Tool for Organizing Communities (On Lewis MacAdams’s Birthday)

By | October 12, 2020

Guest post by Nate Mickelson

Born October 12, 1944, the poet and activist Lewis MacAdams passed away in Los Angeles in April 2020 after a long illness. He was a champion of everyday people and an advocate for forging connections between the built and natural environments of the city. MacAdams served for thirty years as the director of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), a community organization he co-founded in 1986 to restore public access to a waterway that had languished as a concrete drainage canal. He documented his efforts in three volumes of poems collected in The River (Blue Press, 2007). I wrote about MacAdams’s poetry and advocacy in the concluding chapter of my book, City Poems and American Urban Crisis. His work shows how poetry can gather communities together and transform their sense of what’s possible and how the acts of reading and writing poetry can open out into activism.

Before MacAdams started advocating for the river, it was a neglected resource cut off from neighborhoods along its banks by chain link fencing. It was used as a set for the drag race scene in the movie Grease, when Danny’s skill driving “Greased Lightning” wins Sandy’s heart, and for a fiery chase scene in Terminator 2, when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Edward Furlong’s John Connor escape the T-1000. These scenes and their overtones of urban transgression and apocalypse were all I knew about the river before I read MacAdams’s work. His poems helped me realize the drainage canal was actually a river and could be one again. 

These lines from “The Founding of the Friends of the Los Angeles River,” for example, project a riparian environment over the river’s concrete:

​This must have been
one of the most beautiful places

around here, once—
a thicket, a confluence,
an Avalon at the meeting
of year-round streams.

Deer quiver at the edge of memory.
Night herons splash.
There are steelhead.

​(The River, Book 1, #16)

Reading MacAdams’s poetry led me to visit the river myself. I found Rattlesnake Park and walked along the Los Angeles River Greenway, green spaces FoLAR and partner organizations had built to bring everyday people into closer contact with the water. 

The City of Los Angeles intervened in 2015 in MacAdams’s mission to make the river a public resource. They rebranded the Los Angeles River as an opportunity for real estate developmentand recruited celebrity architect Frank Gehry to design a master plan. Public response has been mixed, and the controversy surrounding his appointment seems to have resolved toward more intentional involvement of community groups like FoLAR. Exciting work is underway at the river’s edge, including the possibility that the steelhead trout MacAdams’s imagined when he began his advocacy might soon return to the river’s waters! It is unclear how the financial pressures of the coronavirus pandemic will affect these projects. MacAdams reminds us that the river will persist in some form, however the work proceeds: 

​Whether it’s ugly or beautiful,
poisoned and imprisoned,
or flooding fresh and free,
the Los Angeles River
will always flow

(The River, Book 1, #25)

MacAdams’s poetry and activism made re-engagement with the river possible when a majority of Los Angeles residents thought of it as an eyesore, if they thought of it at all. His three-volume collection The River serves as a powerful reminder—and an encouragement to poets, readers, and critics alike—that poetry can make things happen in the world when it invites its audiences to imagine themselves as active contributors to communities that are working to create alternatives to the status quo.

Nate Mickelson is Clinical Associate Professor of Expository Writing, New York University, New York, USA. City Poems and American Urban Crisis is part of Bloomsbury Studies in Critical Poetics.

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