But, even though the water is not very clean, there are other happier purposes: drinking water source (for animals), fish hatchery, fishing pool, flood control, crew team training course, houseboat pier, in-stream fountains, cooling towers for power plants, reflecting pools, and flower garden irrigation.
I always think of an urban river as an “industrial river.” I like the big rivers that have navigable depths and which eventually achieve an almost mystical confluence with larger, continental rivers such as the Mississippi. They flow, and the moving waters suggest infinity.
They also suggest power: power that can be harnessed, directed, and shaped into various Industrial Revolutions and superhighways of manufactured goods and raw materials that make their way downstream. The rivers can also snap their flimsy harnesses, too, when the rain gods (or HAARP, if you believe conspiracy theories) cause super-collisions of hot, wet Gulf air and the crisp, dry jetstream, and it rains 11 inches in a day.
There may no longer be a need for urban centers to be located near navigable rivers, but they can still be centers of commerce for the post-industrial urban center, which succeeds when it manages calm and provide a sense of a future to its seething, change-addled masses.
River at Tulsa: The Arkansas, flows into the Red River, a tributary of the Mississippi. It reveals its industrial origins with two refineries within several miles of each other, electricity generation, gravel pits, and flood control that results in water levels that verge on the surreal. One day, the stream flows high on the banks. The next day, the water practically disappears and its pools are jammed with ducks and geese, and wide expanses of stinking fetid mud. When I look at this, I remember it’s not the Arkansas River that is navigable. It’s the Verdigris River at the Port of Catoosa. There’s a big ammonium nitrate plant at the edge of it, which makes me think simultaneously of the Murrah Building (Oklahoma City bombing) and of algal blooms, “red tide” and noxious bio-activity…
|Arkansas River: Tulsa, Oklahoma|
|Steel Foundries on the Monongahela River, Pittsburgh|
I felt I was in Cecil DeMille’s production of The Ten Commandments, and the part where the testosterone hero of the age, Charlton Heston, assuming the role of Moses, parted the waters of the Red Sea, and walked through, leading his people. Previously, my drought-jaundiced view was that Moses simply found a place that had dried up due to drought, and he took advantage of an ephemeral meteorological phenomenon. Now, however, I wonder if it was a grand metaphor for the way it feels to walk through corridors of the most intense imaginable white noise and it’s something that makes you feel joy, spunk, and an odd devil-may-care abandon.
|Bricktown, Oklahoma City -- the Oklahoma River|
With trenching, damming, dozing, and more construction of urban storm water drainage, the “Oklahoma River” is now an urban pressure valve; situated as it is in what used to be an urban war zone, with detox center, half-collapsed boarded-up crack houses, and semi-abandoned old brick warehouses and spurious junkyard-esque shopfronts. There were more Dobermans and pit bulls than people. There was also a lot of crime, and the brick streets were just one vote away from being asphalted over when the idea of turning blight into a species of theme park was born.
Now, the post-industrial urban river, the “Oklahoma River,” sports water taxi rides, outdoor dining, and clusters of colorful, locally-owned restaurants. It is the core of a new collective consciousness; the city reinventing itself, while also giving itself a small place to get away, eat, drink, laugh, bond, embarrass oneself, strike business deals, and dream of connections.
The new urban river may not be harnessed into generating electricity or transporting bargeloads of heavy industry, but it still accommodates (and even transforms) the often very heavy, even overloaded, psychological cargo of the times.