Mississippi Keen: Three river cities reimagine their waterfronts, and themselves
It was dark when we first crossed the Mississippi, and we caught only a glimpse of its swirling mass beneath us. The next day was gray and windy, and the dark mass had turned into a steely, uninviting barrier. The day after that was cloudless and blue — and the suddenly friendly river was too.
Sarah van Schagen and I had only just begun our weeklong reporting trip, but already we’d learned a key lesson: there is no such thing as the Mississippi River. There are many Mississippis.
From its source at Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, the legendary waterway wends about 2,300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it narrows and widens, rises and falls; it passes farming communities and major metropolitan areas; it is swimmable and decidedly unswimmable; it is controlled by locks and dams, levees, and channels that change its character from one mile to the next. They say you can never step in the same river twice, and nowhere do those words ring more true than along the Mississippi.
Yet despite all this ceaseless variation, there is a common current that runs deep in these muddy waters, tying riverfront communities together north and south. It’s a shared history that goes something like this: abundant river draws settlers; settlers create communities along its banks; industry comes to town, damaging the land and water but boosting the economy; river becomes unloved, mistreated, ignored. Then, part two: that damaged land and water starts damaging the economy; community realizes river is an untapped asset for tourists, new residents, and lifelong citizens; and community springs into action.
It’s that last part that has begun happening in recent years — in many places and taking many forms. We visited three communities where change is occurring, albeit in very different ways: in Dubuque, Iowa, city leaders and citizens have come together to revitalize their riverfront, investing in a bustling mixed-use complex; in St. Louis, Mo., several organizations are partnering to help a regional greenway take shape; and in Memphis, Tenn., proponents of two different riverfront visions are duking it out.
Their stories vary, but they — along with many other communities undertaking hug-your-Mississippi projects — share similar goals: giving residents a place to recreate; attracting young professionals and tourists who can give the economy a shot in the arm; appreciating and protecting this magnificent natural resource. And maybe, just maybe, floating a small apology onto those age-old waters.
“You can’t help but be impressed just by the sheer size of this river, the power of the river, and what it’s capable of doing,” said Brad Winn, a historian in the St. Louis area.
“It’s something to be respected,” echoed Teri Goodmann of the National Mississippi Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, “but it’s not our enemy — it’s really vital for our life.”
Without the Mississippi, we’d be a country poorer in many ways: history, exploration, shipping, trading, literature, music. And without a legacy of turning their backs on the river, these communities wouldn’t know what it feels like to re-embrace what many consider to be their most valuable feature — whatever its color, shape, or form.
Read more about:
- Dubuque, Iowa: The little city that could (with audio slideshow/video)
- St. Louis, Missouri: Where the new way is a greenway (with audio slideshow/video)
- Memphis, Tennessee: Riverfront activists are singing the blues (with audio slideshow/video)
- Other Mississippi communities that are reshaping their riverfronts
- The depth of the river’s role in U.S. commerce, recreation, and transportation — by the numbers
- The road-trip adventures of Sarah van Schagen and Katharine Wroth
Get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the trip:
Special funding for this project was provided by the McKnight Foundation.
Stories in this series:
A recap of our week on the river
Huckleberry Wroth and I survived our travels down the Mississippi last week, and we’ve now returned to our respective coasts to reflect on everything we learned. I must say, visiting three cities in seven days is no lazy float down the river — we covered a lot of ground. Here’s a recap: In Dubuque, we: Chatted with the charming mayor, Roy D. Buol. Lunched with city leaders at a conference led by the American Institute of Architects’ Sustainable Design Assessment Team. Found some interesting bathroom reading material. Talked with the city’s planning services manager about re-embracing the Mississippi. Drove the …
Up and down the Mississippi, communities are reinventing their riverfronts
Gone are the days when the Mississippi River was just a shipping route and flood risk that happened to run through a city’s back yard. Increasingly, the legendary waterway is becoming recognized as a prized attraction, worthy of front-yard status. Here’s how a few communities are drawing attention to a natural feature they once shunned. St. Paul, Minn. The “mighty city on the Mississippi” is working toward a connected, thriving National Great River Park along its 17-mile riverfront, with residential areas, businesses, parkland, a public plaza, biking and walking trails, a light-rail line, and an interpretive center. La Crosse, Wisc. …
An Iowa river town develops a real relationship with the Mississippi
“The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.” — Tanaka Shozo Arriving in Dubuque, Iowa, is a bit disorienting. After passing acres and acres of the heartland’s flat soybean and cornfields, you suddenly come upon a small city (pop. 60,000) with a surprising landscape. Gazing east to west, you see the muddy Mississippi meandering south toward New Orleans, a historic Main Street lined with 150-year-old brick buildings, and a wall of limestone bluffs covered in trees displaying the season’s majestic colors. It’s an idyllic setting for sure — but you begin to wonder …
St. Louisans turn a working river into a river that works for them
“The fifth night we passed St. Louis, and it was like the whole world lit up.” — Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn As the sun rises over the city of St. Louis, an arch-shaped shadow moves eastward over the city’s bustling downtown and toward the Mississippi River, where it will leave its invisible mark until early evening. The 630-foot steel structure casting this iconic shadow over the city’s riverfront serves as a visual reminder of St. Louis’ role as a gateway for early American explorers, and of the river’s past (and no doubt future) as an invaluable means …
The riverfront in Memphis needs help — but what kind?
May God bless Memphis, the noblest city on the face of the earth. — Mark Twain To visit Memphis, Tenn., is to visit a place that is slowly waking from a decades-long stupor. The things that define this city in the popular imagination — the glamorous life of Elvis Presley, the shocking assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — happened decades ago. Some of the young professionals the city would like to attract weren’t even born when Dr. King and The King ended their respective reigns. But in many ways, the city still lives through that past, both economically and …
The depth of the Mississippi River’s influence, in numbers
Fifty-eight semi-truck trailer loads traveling over 9 feet of water. Photo: Sarah van Schagen 10 — states that border the Mississippi River 31 — states drained by the Mississippi River watershed 1 2 — Canadian provinces drained by the Mississippi River watershed 1 50 — cities that rely on the river for their water supply 1 40 — percentage of U.S. that’s part of the Mississippi River basin 1 2,300 — length of the river, in miles 1 326 — species of birds that migrate along the Mississippi corridor 1 260 — species of fish that call the Mississippi …