A Sewer Runs Through It

The River des Peres tells the history of St. Louis -- our relationship to nature, to this place, to our own waste. Now there's talk of "beautifying" the river we never got around to cleaning.

"Somehow," observes Rosen, "St. Louis got to be a place where ideas and visions didn't grab people; they didn't have confidence in them, they kind of made fun of them." Kelly Butler knows this all too well: Two years ago, when she organized neighborhood groups into a River des Peres Beautification Alliance, everybody laughed at the Charlie Brown saplings they planted along the channel. They kept going, planting shrubs and flowers, putting up white corner fences and Victorian neighborhood signs at the intersections, even offering to landscape in front of the car wash at Alabama Street. "The owner was afraid that if he let us landscape it, we'd eventually own it," sighs Butler. "People have a lot of fears." (Just ask St. Louis Hills, where the Home Owners Association rejected a proposed bike trail along the River des Peres because they thought it would tempt drug dealers and muggers.)

Fear is universal, but it's cast out by strong leadership. When LA planners began their push to restore the Los Angeles River, they had poet Lewis MacAdams paint his hands and face green and then slither like a rattlesnake and howl like a coyote, summoning the banished spirits of the wilderness. In Seattle, Archbishop Alex Brunett wrote a somber pastoral letter about the Columbia River, urging the community to reclaim the river as a "sacramental commons." In Denver, the chair of the Platte River Greenway Foundation was appointed to the Water Board, and the Rocky Mountain News announced, "Yesterday's impossibilities suddenly seem less impossible." Boston's so pumped that city government is planning to spend $70 million restoring the Muddy River, and the Boston parks-and-recreation commissioner believes his generation will be remembered for it.

St. Louis 2004 gave the River des Peres Beautification Alliance $1,900 to hang "Imagine the possibilities" banners along the channel's edge.

A stretch of the "natural" River des Peres in University City, free of concrete but corrupted by runoff, junk and the occasional corpse.
A stretch of the "natural" River des Peres in University City, free of concrete but corrupted by runoff, junk and the occasional corpse.
A stretch of the "natural" River des Peres in University City, free of concrete but corrupted by runoff, junk and the occasional corpse.
Jennifer Silverberg
A stretch of the "natural" River des Peres in University City, free of concrete but corrupted by runoff, junk and the occasional corpse.

Ah, well. It's a start. And imagination will indeed play the crucial role. But so far, all people are being told to imagine is the beautification of a sewage channel. The real river's long gone, the channel's public stewards are resigned to its degradation and only the hired planners see much hope for a compromise: not the old, wild river but a clear, healthy urban waterway that could revitalize neighborhoods and businesses, make room for nature to breathe and redeem the shame-laden relationship between St. Louis and its waste.

The River des Peres has come a long way since Frank Janson first signed on with MSD, back when the "floatables" and "sinkables" of household waste flowed into the Mississippi River unchecked, overflows weren't controlled and the channel's fumes gagged surrounding neighborhoods. When Janson compiled a history of the River des Peres in 1988, he says, the pattern came clear: "You never got a civic or public improvement without a crisis. It always had to get rotten bad before people would do something new, something to their benefit."

Janson doesn't criticize caution; he's as conservative as the city itself, he says. But if there were funds available, and the public will to support the project? Prodded at length, he finally admits he'd love to see the River des Peres enhanced.

"Make it look like a stream," he says, warming to the topic. "Make a community parkway out of the 10 miles of open channel. A lot of towns have done a lot of things. Sometimes I'm accused of being a pooh-pooh guy, but I really like the idea. It'd be something to be proud of -- you'd take people for a drive along "the parkway'; you'd hear "River des Peres' on the traffic report and get a pleasant image. It'd be subtle, but over time people would begin to recognize it as an attraction, not a detriment, and you'd get a different perception."

Back in the channel, behind MSD headquarters, he squints again at the puddle where he first saw the turtle. "Yeah, he is alive," he says in surprise. "There's his eyes flickin' around." Long pause. "If you call that livin'."

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
8
 
All
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...