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Sunday, February 1, 2004

How Do You Get to the River?

It's late in January and I find myself slipping on the ice. I am walking down a deserted city street that runs near an abandoned industrial complex. Few cars travel this street, but luckily one has driven here recently, or I wouldn't have the fortune of walking in the tire tracks that save me from a fall. Still, I can't avoid slipping every few minutes.

Why am I enduring this desolate and dangerous walk on one of the coldest winter days of this season? I am looking for access to the Mississippi River in the city of Saint Louis. Such a search requires patience even when one knows where to go, as I do. Beyond the public and dirty river access provided at the levee parking lot at the foot of the Arch grounds, all other access points require a little bit of walking.

There is an almost-inaccessible short promenade at the foot of Bellerive Park, but the last time that I tried to go there I found construction equipment in my way. Technically, that promenade is the only park in the city that offers access to Old Man River. It's odd that the city doesn't even post any signs in upper Bellerive Park pointing out how to get to the riverside.

Yet its even more odd that a city with a riverboat on its city seal, that was a pivotal seat in the river-based exploration of the Western United States and that was once a prosperous inland port does almost nothing to point out that the Mississippi River is more than just an iconic legend around here. Even Downtown Now's new signs, which readily point out places where people can spend money, do not point out how to get to a place where one can sit by the peaceful flow of muddy water that was so important to the city's founding and commercial development.

Signs really wouldn't help much, though, because they could only point to access that doesn't exist. Much of the riverfront in the city consists of concrete floor walls or industrial tracts such as my favorite river-watching spot. And the ostensibly grand civic riverfront of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial has been host to burger barges and a shabby surface parking lot in the last twenty years. City planners have gradually cleared the riverfront of moored vessels, but they have never studies moving the parking lot.

South of the Arch grounds, one can walk though the usually-open gates on the flood wall and get to the river, but then the whole sense of the urban world disappears as one stands between a tall wall and a river. This is a bit more intimate spot than the access offered in front of the Arch grounds and Laclede's Landing. There are no cars. But then again, there aren't likely to be any people and hence the experience is rather cold. Engineering thwarts the potential for an urban river outlook.

Elsewhere in the city, people don't have many choices. The north riverfront trail offers many good vantage points and in a few places provides points of access. These points, however, entail walking down banks and trespassing. They aren't public in any sense at all. Around the Chain of Rocks Bridge, once can get fairly close to the thicket of trees and foliage growing near the riverbank, but without a machete won't get too far.

Then there is my favorite place, which I want to keep a secret. This place is not easy to get to, but it provides a clear vantage point far from automobiles and flood walls. I can see the city behind me and the river in front of me, and I can sit down and listen to the river. I don't feel good about having to keep this place private, but it's not my choice. Like 96% of the rest of the city's riverfront, it is not a public space in the eyes of the law. Of course, all of the riverfront is natural public space. The Mississippi is the city's greatest natural resource, despite its forces removal from the lives of Saint Louisans.

We have turned our backs on the Mississippi River because it no longer is the backbone of our commerce. Like the railroads, the river is a commercial casualty of the interstate highway. But that's fine, because the river is a natural force that would much rather beckon weary city dwellers to its peaceful banks on a cold January day than be clogged with steamboats and barges. It's time for us to cooperate.