Outside the city, the graffiti-lined concrete channel has become one of the best-known symbols of Los Angeles. Cutting a 51-mile swath through dozens of communities, the ominously abandoned flood-control ditch has often played the apocalyptic backdrop in major sci-fi films. (Who can forget that full-throttle semitruck skimming cement walls in pursuit of leather-clad über-hunk Arnold Schwarzenegger on a Harley hog in "Terminator II"?)
Now, city officials are looking into revitalizing major stretches of the channel - which, after all, was once a real river - into a world-class waterfront. The idea is to return some lost soul to the city's most neglected individual neighborhoods. It's also hoped that a vibrant waterway could provide an identity makeover to a city stuck with the image of being merely a cement-and-steel, desert boomtown.
"When I was growing up we played in the woods down here, caught frogs [and] catfish and went swimming," says City Councilman Ed Reyes, who is heading a committee looking into the project.
Major floods in 1914 and the 1930s had led to a section-by-section channelization of that once-natural river, finished by the time Mr. Reyes graduated from high school. Now he laments the cost to aesthetics, native animals, and plants; the absence of green space.
The centerpiece of plans to reclaim some of that loss would be a 1-mile-long lake in the shadow of the downtown skyline, just a stone's throw from Dodger Stadium. The body of water would be the hub of a new waterfront with parks, trees, ball fields, houses, and retail stores where industrial warehouses stand now.
"Over the last few decades we have turned this natural wonder into a backyard lined with junk," says Reyes. "Now, we are trying to turn the whole city around by considering what could happen if it were our front yard."
On a recent Friday, Reyes gladly left the City Council floor to explain his vision of a project that will create healthier neighborhoods for kids and natural diversion for adults, and attract major investments to decaying communities.
"At the same time we have been letting this go, the highest numbers of people and poverty have followed, with the least amount of green space and a long list of social ills: from drug dealing to dropouts to air pollution," he says.
For successful models of how to proceed, he points to projects in Denver, San Antonio, Texas, and Tempe, Ariz., where city planners created successful, aquatic-based revitalization projects in desolate warehouse and train-track districts in downtown areas.
In Tempe, for instance, officials turned a dry wash similar to L.A.'s river into a town lake. It attracts 2 million visitors a year, among them anglers fishing for trout and music lovers attending waterside concerts.
In Denver, at the confluence of the Cherry and Platte Rivers, the city has created 80 acres of public parkland and recreation facilities where dusty train tracks once stood.
Reyes wants to mimic the Tempe idea by installing inflatable rubber dams at two ends of downtown - creating a semi-permanent lake. And he wants to replicate the Denver model by placing so-called "aquatic architecture" in its midst - concrete amphitheaters that can withstand submersion when the river channel is called upon to act as a flood-control mechanism.
Critics say the idea will be costly and time-consuming - involving years of community planning, permit changes, and rezoning. Public-private partnerships will have to be nurtured over decades, they say. In Denver, for instance, the project took 25 years.
But others are more optimistic. Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district abuts Reyes's, is confident that Reyes's background as a city planner will allow him to navigate the bureaucratic mazes that lie ahead.
"Every year there can be a big improvement while the entire project gathers steam," says Mr. LaBonge. "It's just the type of project that happens when people begin to think in a new way about an old problem."