River des Peres is a remnant.

Its craggy banks, its turbid brown water post-storm, the unadorned concrete bridges that span it, the high speed street (River des Peres Blvd.) that led straight to both grandmas’ houses…

River des Peres is etched in my memory.

The river fathered a settlement in 1700. This settlement predates the historic city of St. Louis, itself founded in 1764.

The river’s waters are historic. Yes, even the sorry sludge that passes through it today. And yes, even that melding of concrete and limestone and mortar and riprap that lines the channel–all of that stands in for the true banks of the river–banks that cry to be restored.

As the innumerable examples of St. Louis’s red brick Creole town houses and Second Empires regain their luster by the visionary efforts of rehabbers, why should we not allow our forgotten river to shine once more as well?

Naysayers said the City of St. Louis was cooked. A city declared dead. Now the city’s pulse is audible–the thumping resounds in new coffeeshops, restaurants, and neighborhood hangouts opening weekly; it blares like a trumpet at an urban farm established on the disinvested North Side, distributing healthy foods grown in the literal backyard of some of the nation’s worst poverty; it echoes throughout the rows of long abandoned garment manufacturing buildings in the city’s downtown, where residents of all incomes and races collide in a finally resumed celebration of urbanity; the sound whips through the leaves of the hickory trees and the giant oaks inside renovated city parks. I could go on.

But it’s painfully obvious.

Who would have returned to a town of no buildings, all false prairies, all of its rectangular blocks turned to gardens of grass and weeds?

Who would have given a damn enough to save this city if its splendid grittiness did not simply overflow with character and the indelible, didactic, spiritual, life-affirming scars that only come with age?

Who would have given this city a second look if its remnants, its holdouts from destruction and decay, did not contain that elusive and secret code to successfully harboring a sense of place?

At present, our cities, like many of our ecosystems across the nation, are tattered and reduced. To some, they are pathetic and fallen elders, assumed to pass soon.

But it is precisely by weaving these elders’ stories together that we can inherit their wisdom, can dodge their oversights, can imbibe their joys, and mourn their losses.

River des Peres is one such remnant. Somewhere, underneath south St. Louis, the river meekly peers in its own pools to catch a glimpse at its reflection. Behind it, it sees a portrait of a city that never stopped to ask what exactly was progress and whom was it progress for.

It sees, from a distance, the founding of the city that usurped it. It sees the village that the Kaskaskia crafted at its banks. It sees the Cahokia culture fall, then rise again in some humorous rewind where earthen mounds disintegrate in fast motion. It sees to its birth, a child of the Ice Age, its mother the Mississippi, its father an obstinate glacier.

The river is a link to several pasts, many heritages, voluminous stories.

It is time to honor its voice, barely breathing as it may be.

Advertisements