Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Urban Rivers

The river flows, and it’s hard to tell quite what it was in the past, or even what it is today. As usual, the disgusting possibilities occur to me first: open sewer, carcass-dumping zone, industrial waste disposal, unregulated water taxi and barge thoroughfare.

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

Rivers at Pittsburgh: Monongahela and the Allegheny. I wish I could time-travel and experience Pittsburgh when it was a Faustian “Witches’ Kitchen” – with forges emulating rounds of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatory – it just seems really ironic these days that the same locations are now graced by genteel baseball stadiums, running (aka “wellness” trails), open-air restaurants featuring “nouvelle cuisine,” and barge-ride history tours…

I suppose it’s all a good thing, and contributes to Pittsburgh being widely touted as America’s “most livable city” but I have to say that I shudder at the de-industrialization because to me it means that we have found a way to sugar-coat underemployment and exploitation of the “brain drain” enticed newly-arrived immigrants, and point out that everyone’s happy if they know where their next paycheck is coming from, and if it’s skimpy, well, then, they can go panhandle on a bridge as sports aficionados file across to watch a Pirates baseball game, or football with the Steelers, or hockey with the Penguins.

Aren’t they somehow ashamed? I long for the muscularity of foundries and vats of molten metal, along with bargeloads of finest-in-the-world hot-burning anthracite coal.

What does having an industrial-level river going through your town actually mean? How does it affect the sense of identity of those who live on the river’s edge? One initial impact is to make you aware of water and the need to cross it. I know that’s shallow – but it’s not just about the flow and the power of the water to transport; it’s also about the way the water can be a barrier, and when in flood, an intruder.

There is a walkway that extends from the Monongahela River to the entrance of the Pittsburgh Convention Center. At first, it seems like a nice stream that flows down from street level to the river where you can walk down the paved pedestrian river trail that parallels the river. In the evening, the stream fountain is no longer merely a rippling, babbling brook that flows over the artificial rocks in the artificial stream. Instead, it’s an intensely and technically choreographed play of lights and “wall of water” fountains.

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.

Oklahoma City's "Manufactured River," the Oklahoma River: I think there’s a certain charm in the “manufactured” rivers – the San Antonio Riverwalk, and the body of water that was once thought of as the North Canadian River, but now is known as something else as it flows through Oklahoma City’s “Bricktown” – I’d say they are both the river equivalents of an HO-scale model train railroad.

Bricktown, Oklahoma City -- the Oklahoma River
Before the careful grooming and sculpting of the river channel, the North Canadian River (now known as the “Oklahoma River”) was just a click away from being an ephemeral stream, with water in it just part of the year.

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.