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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.

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In 1904, St. Louis bested Chicago to host the World’s Fair. For the location of the Fair, St. Louis civic and political leaders chose Forest Park–a quarter-century old park on the city’s western edge that was always destined to be the city’s chief park.

Of course, the city could not stand for a smelly bog of a river greeting hundreds of thousands of international guests in Forest Park, through which River des Peres winded. A quickfire plan was drafted that covered the river beneath a wooden lid. It was the only cost effective way to disperse the odor and unsightliness of the River des Peres. After the Fair, in 1910, then Mayor Fredrick Kreissman proposed a $4 million project to permanently reroute a section of the river underground. It was denounced as preposterously expensive.

In 1915, everything changed. Read below, again from Michael Allen’s succinct and informative essay on the River:

In August 1915, the river dramatically asserted itself after a chance tropical gulf storm hit the city, overflowing the river’s banks throughout St. Louis. The impact was felt widely, as 400 local and 15 long distance telephone lines went dead, three Forest Park bridges were swept away, houses in suburban Maplewood were flooded to the second floor, and sewers backed up everywhere. Eleven people died, about 1,025 homes were destroyed, and the city experienced an additional $1 million worth of property damage (MSD 4). Kreismann’s plan would have prevented much of this damage, as his successor realized: “Mayor Henry Kiel stated that the only way to prevent similar disasters was to expend about $10 million to implement the plans which had been drafted in 1910” (MSD 4). Of course, no plan other than completely filling in the river’s channel would offer complete security against large-scale floods. Even after engineers completed their work on the river, it twice overflowed its banks.

The city now had to act. It didn’t take voters much convincing this time around. A proposal by W.W. Horner, chief of the Board of Public Service, called for completely realigning the 18 miles of the River des Peres channel. Most of the channel would be covered, away from public view forever. The $11 million project was approved by voters in 1923. At that time, Horner divided the river into 10 sections, labeled A through J, roughly running north from closer to the headwaters to south near the mouth of the river. The “J” section was completed in 1933. The massive civil engineering project drained and diverted the entire river, including the section through Forest Park [Allen]. The project morphed gentle S-curves of the natural river into straight, riverine highways that carried the water much more quickly to the mouth. It would not make sense to have a drainage ditch that was so windy and indirect. The misfit stream was now deformed and mangled, fitting of its now-ironic ecological designation.

An unidentified scene during the 1915 Flood. Here, the River des Peres has topped its banks and has flooded surrounding vegetation.

An unidentified scene during the 1915 Flood. Here, the River des Peres has topped its banks and has flooded surrounding vegetation.

Another Flood of 1915 scene. Here, volunteers attempt to rescue a bridge from the engorged River des Peres at Broadway, just blocks from the confluence with the Mississippi.

Another Flood of 1915 scene. Here, volunteers attempt to rescue a bridge from the engorged River des Peres at Broadway, just blocks from the confluence with the Mississippi.

River des Peres was designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1988.

The mood was just as celebratory after the completion of Horner’s ambitious task in the early 1930s. The subjugation of River des Peres garnered national attention. City Beautiful Magazine ran an article entitled “St. Louis Puts the River des Peres in its Place” in 1929 [Allen]. The channelized river was now a storm drain. Pipes separated storm runoff from sewage–except during large storm events, when the pipes overflowed into the oversized drainage ditch. On the surface, the problem of sewage containment in St. Louis seemed solved.

But the River rather quickly developed a rightful reputation as an unwanted neighbor. Its sewage-infested waters and Depression-era concrete and limestone lining concealed the river’s original and true identity. Most St. Louisans would forget that River des Peres was even a real, potentially functioning stream.

In the 1970s, then-Mayor Alphonso Cervantes planned to re-harness the river, flooding it in a three mile portion between Lansdowne and Morganford and opening the river to recreational use, including a marina. Just as in 1910, citizens balked at the price tag–$14 million. Some residents nearby feared noise pollution from boaters. Others worried flooding would be a major concern once more. The proposal was subsequently shelved [Allen].

[Explain Forest Park Forever]

[Explain the beautification study with MSD in 2002]

The River des Peres lives. This artificially reconstructed river running through Forest Park is not the original river, and does not use the waters of the RDP still channelized underground. Nevertheless, planners traced the course of the natural river in their redesign scheme. The manmade river shows, in a cleaner form, what the River des Peres might have once looked like as it rambles lazily through Forest Park.

The River des Peres lives. This artificially reconstructed river running through Forest Park is not the original river, and does not use the waters of the RDP still channelized underground. Nevertheless, planners traced the course of the natural river in their redesign scheme. The manmade river shows, in a cleaner form, what the River des Peres might have once looked like as it rambles lazily through Forest Park.

Another RDP reconstruction. Although not seen in this photograph, one may rent a boat and traverse a large section of the new river.

Another RDP reconstruction. Although not evidenced in this photograph, one may rent a boat and traverse a large section of the new river.

A map of Forest Park. The blue trail on the map is the new River des Peres.

A map of Forest Park. The blue trail on the map is the new River des Peres.

This satirical postcard from Big Small Town designs sums up St. Louisans’ current views of the River des Peres.

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Sixty-four years prior to the founding of the city of St. Louis, the River des Peres, then a “common country brook, clear and attractive,” became the site of a town that was never to be. As the story goes, a group of Kaskaskia Native Americans established a post at the mouth of the river near its confluence with the great Mississippi River. Two French priests later joined them, and the Kaskaskia named the river in their honor: La Riviere des Peres, or the River of the Fathers. Across the river from this settlement was the largest pre-European North American city–Cahokia, Illinois–the onetime home of a great Mississippian mound-building culture. The region remained sparsely populated after the mysterious downfall of Cahokia, and these few settlers made their way over to the west bank of the Mississippi River at the newly named River des Peres. The ramshackle town was slow to grow, but never really had a chance to take off anyway. Just three years after its founding, hostile Souix Native Americans claimed that the village was encroaching on their territory. The town willingly disbanded in the face of threatened violence [River des Peres Watershed Coalition – Timeline]. Another theory states that the mouth of the river, as one might expect, was simply an inhospitable environment for residences pre-engineered-levee days. The area was, quite simply, a floodplain, a “swamp” to many observers [Ecology of Absence’s “The Harnessed Channel”].

This was the last human activity that the mouth of the River des Peres would see for some time. Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau, native New Orleanians, would establish a small fur trading post upriver some six miles named St. Louis in 1764. Though this Creole town would remain small for quite a while itself, it nevertheless was intended for permanent settlement and thus attracted some early speculative development. One of the first satellites of the miniscule town of St. Louis was 1767’s Carondelet, a tiny Creole village just north of the site that once housed the Kaskaskia Native Americans [River des Peres Watershed Coalition – Timeline]. Human eyes once again spied the waters of the River des Peres.

Hereafter, the fate of the River des Peres grew tied to the fate of the expanding city of St. Louis. In 1766, a year before the founding of Carondelet, St. Louis could claim 300 residents. By 1840, this number reached 16,469. By 1850, 77,860 people thrust St. Louis into the top ten of large American cities, at number eight. At the break of the Civil War, St. Louis boasted 160,733 souls [St. Louis CIN – History of Physical Development]. The steamboat and railroad combined to create a verifiable boom town. Once a backwater in the unconscionably isolated territory west of the Mississippi, the city had ballooned haphazardly into an uneasy metropolis. In 1870, St. Louis annexed Carondelet, much to that city’s residents’ dismay. Just after that, city leaders thought it wise to break from the county that housed it, all over an argument with Missouri’s rural-dominated legislature’s taxation policies. St. Louis, which could scarcely maintain its own urban streets, was footing the bill for road maintenance and paving for rural St. Louis Countians who lived whole days’ travel from the built-up city. At this time in the city’s history, the extent of urban development rarely touched Grand Avenue–about two miles west of the original city (downtown). The streetcar arrived on the scene in the 1880s and authored a smorgasbord of suburban growths on the periphery of the city. The Divorce effectively annexed these “suburbs”–and eliminated any chance that the city would be able to stave off stigmatizing population decline by annexing further outgrowths than the established city limits.

This is an important point to make in the discussion of River des Peres, for the expansion of the city westward put the river in its path. Michael Allen of Ecology of Absence explains in his essay “The Harnessed Channel” that it was at about the time of the Great Divorce and the city’s seemingly endless swelling of population that city fathers began eyeing the banks of the River des Peres as a resource for the financially strapped city.

An 1865 view of Lucas Place. This scene is entirely unrecognizable today. Just one structure from this period remains.

An 1865 view of Lucas Place. This scene is entirely unrecognizable today. Just one structure from this period remains today. the Mississippi River is the blue body of water in the background.

The city crawled west from the start. Reliably, the “pioneers” that migrated were actually the only ones able to do so–the wealthy. First it was Lucas Place, a neighborhood of stately Greek Revival row houses west of–and considered far from–the city’s Central Business District. Lucas Place has been wholly leveled as of today, save for one building (the Campbell House) that is now a house museum and contains period furniture. Next, the nouveau riche hopped over Lucas Place to Midtown. This neighborhood, today’s Theater District, was one of the most bustling areas the city has ever known. Located on a strategic piece of high ground about three miles from the CBD, Midtown’s Grand and Olive intersection was at one time among the busiest (as measured by traffic counts) in the entire country. Midtown, though, became a mixed-use neighborhood of all types of denizens. St. Louis’s rich preferred exclusive enclaves, safe from the auspices of dirty industry and noisy commerce.

Grand and Olive intersection around 1960 -- the beginning of the decline. This street scene was once so thick with foot traffic that streetcars had difficulty navigating the streets.

Grand and Olive intersection around 1960 -- the beginning of the decline. This street scene was once so thick with foot traffic that streetcars had difficulty navigating the streets.

Thus, just north of Midtown rose Vandeventer Place. This neighborhood of opulent mansions saw a short but brilliant heyday. Its homes soon touched the industry it sought to insulate itself from, and the wealthy left the buildings first to boarders, then to bulldozers. By the end of World War II, there would be no trace of the neighborhood.

A luxurious home in the now-gone Vandeventer Place.

A luxurious home in the now-gone Vandeventer Place.

Next, monied St. Louisans established the Central West End. Streetcar technology made this enclave possible. Scores of spacious manses lined Lindell Boulevard until nearly mid-20th century, when civic leaders of the time deemed the Victorian era outmoded. Beyond Lindell, homes and apartments of all sizes and shapes arose. The neighborhood boomed until World War II, when it began to deteriorate due to aging of its housing stock and the availability of land and new homes in burgeoning suburbs. Unlike the other neighborhoods mentioned so far, not only does the Central West End remain in a respectable degree of intactness; it was the center of a rehab boom in the 1970s. The Central West End, or “CWE” to locals, remains an incredibly desirable neighborhood with an impressive architectural acumen. From the CWE, though, residents moved even farther west, establishing the city’s “West End” neighborhoods. The game of hopscotch never quite ended. St. Louisans with the means to do so continued to empty out of onetime popular and prestigious neighborhoods like the West End. Of course, due to locked boundaries, most of the upper middle class and the wealthy that contribute heavily to urban tax bases everywhere abandoned the City of St. Louis rather early on in its history.

(Here are some modern views of the Central West End) :

Lindell Boulevard. Gone are the turn-of-the-century mansions. They have been replaced with both classicist and modern mid-rises.

Lindell Boulevard. Gone are the turn-of-the-century mansions. They have been replaced with both classicist and modern mid-rises.

There are, however, plenty of Central West End mansions left. These, on Maryland Plaza, have been recently renovated afer an ill-fated attempt to rezone them into commercial buildings in the 1970s.

There are, however, plenty of Central West End mansions left. These, on Maryland Plaza, have been recently renovated after an ill-fated attempt to rezone them into commercial buildings in the 1970s.

A CWE apartment building from the Worlds Fair era.

A CWE apartment building from the World's Fair era.

For more CWE photography, click here

Why the long-winded history of St. Louis development in a post about the River des Peres?

Two reasons.

1) The fleeing of the middle class had major ramifications on the City of St. Louis. Since it developed in an east-to-west pattern, and since the middle class and upper class continued to move west, the relatively small and skinny city quickly lost its tax base. This meant deferred maintenance on roads, bridges, vacant lots, schools, hospitals, parks, and all other infrastructure. These things’ decline only furthered the spiraling motion downward, placing restoration of the natural environment among the last things on the city’s agenda, if ever considered.

2) It was the Central West End, which had spawned in the 1880s, that began to pollute the River des Peres. The residents of the tony section of the city found it more expedient to dump chamberpots into the RDP than to rely on a more localized sewer system that was wont to fail.

St. Louis Circa 1880 was an unstoppable urban force. Its population had exploded to 350,000 and the borders it had set for itself just four years prior now seemed claustrophobia-inducing. The old city had previously used another natural stream as a sewer–the Mill Creek Valley, located just southwest of downtown. Due to population growth, this aging sewer system had hit capacity, and the River des Peres seemed the next logical sewage depository to many. Still, a massive cholera epidemic in 1848, which was blamed on the placid waters of the Mill Creek, remained burnt into the minds of city leaders, and the city had already earned the reputation of being a shabby, unhealthful city for one of its size.

And so, the city developed a plan. The Upper River des Peres would collect sewage and channel into the Mill Creek sewer, which would undergo expensive upgrading. But the plans fell awry. Quoting Allen:

Yet developers in the western part of the city did not wait for the city to implement its costly plans and instead continued to use the River Des Peres to drain their new, affluent subdivisions. As historian Katherine Corbett writes, “in 1887, [Sewer Commissioner] Robert McMath realized that until he extended the main public sewers into the fashionable West End, developers would continue to pipe sewage into the natural water courses, particularly the River Des Peres.

The city did develop another plan. They constructed the “Pine Street Sewer” specifically for Central West End residents. But since the Mill Creek sewer never saw its necessary expansion, the 12-year Pine Street Sewer project was a waste of money; it caused the Mill Creek to overflow, which sent waste water back into the River des Peres watershed.

On the southwest side of the city, the River remained mostly free-flowing, even if it was extensively polluted by the chamberpots of the West End. This section of the city would be the last to develop. The middle class and then-considered-suburban St. Louis Hills subdivision was finally built out in the 1930s and 1940s, absorbing the last available chunk of land in the city open for development. Therefore, prior to the 1930s, most of Southwest St. Louis–some of which was within River des Peres’s natural flood plain–was rural and sparsely populated.

The news that the city would host the 1904 World’s Fair, intended to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase even though it was a year late (the LP was in 1803), changed the course of the RDP forever–literally.

More on that in the next installment of River des Peres history.

In our Environmental Planning class, we speak of the need to utilize the “watershed approach”–recognizing that, despite differing political and cultural boundaries, our environmental uses and abuses affect everyone within the same drainage basin.

My awakening to the fact that River des Peres was a real river did not include an accompanying realization that it would have its own watershed.

But, of course, it does.

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And it’s large! If you recall my previous post explicating St. Louis geography, you might notice that the RDP watershed covers almost the entire City of St. Louis and a sizeable chunk of its suburbs as well.

Watershed planning often complicates matters. The City of St. Louis is wholly separate from St. Louis County (remember?), where the headwaters of the River des Peres are located. Planning for the River des Peres includes not just the City of St. Louis and the County, but also the many municipalities covered in the watershed.

There are 92 cities within St. Louis County–some of the highest levels of governmental fragmentation you’ll find anywhere in the country. Large and suburban Jefferson Parish (a very rough metropolitan equivalent to St. Louis County) has just six, for comparison purposes. At least 20 of those towns and cities are touched by the RDP watershed. Many are home rule cities that cannot be coerced into adopting a watershed-wide planning process.

The problems ahead for a full-scale restoration for the River are plenty. More on that in the upcoming history post.

I got a bit ahead of myself. Not all of my readers (in fact, probably very few) know much about St. Louis at all, and especially not the scattered sites I speak of, such as the topic of this post: River des Peres.

First, St. Louis. St. Louis is the center of a 16-county Metropolitan Area.

The overly large St. Louis Metropolitan Region. The darker shade of blue is Missouri counties; the lighter Illinois. It is a region of extreme fragmentation and governmental overlap.

The overly large St. Louis Metropolitan Region. The darker shade of blue is Missouri counties; the lighter Illinois. It is a region of extreme fragmentation and governmental overlap. The Mississippi River divides Missouri from Illinois.

St. Louis is in the extreme eastern portion of Missouri, in an ecological zone known as the Interior River Valley and Hills–prime agricultural soil, in other words. Click here for a map of Missouri and Iowa’s ecoregions.

The city was surveyed and founded in 1764 by New Orleanian Pierre Laclede (and his young companion, Auguste Chouteau). It was laid out in a strikingly similar fashion as its parent city–as a couple of neat, square blocks on a relative bluff along the Mississippi River.

Let’s take a look at a map of the City. First, I suppose, I should say that, in furtherance to my previous post, St. Louis is a very rare example of municipal governance. In 1876, St. Louis voters narrowly approved a measure that allowed the City of St. Louis to break from its parent county (Parish to Louisianans), named St. Louis County. Prior to 1876, St. Louis was the county seat of St. Louis County. After the “Great Divorce” as it became known (a squabble over taxation procedures by the State of Missouri inspired the action in the first place), the City was classified as an “Independent City”, in no county at all. Only Baltimore, whose split occured prior to St. Louis’s, is as major and notable a case of this extremely rare phenomenon.

So when I say “the City” and “the County”, you know that I mean two very distinct entities. The fragmentation between these two bodies has caused severe problems. Back in 1876, St. Louis thought it would never expand beyond its self-delimited boundaries. Many citizens laughed that the city was so bold as to claim an extra 30-something square miles of hinterlands when the Divorce happened. But right after the decision, the streetcar arrived on the St. Louis scene and carried thousands of St. Louisans farther west, south, and north. By 1920, the city had already filled out to nearly all of its edges. Early suburbs captured most of the growth from then on out–that is, until the new wave of suburbs leapfrogged them.

The result is a metropolitan environment a bit different from New Orleans, whose later-growth suburbs were actually absorbed into the city (think Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East, etc.). But to be a bit more germane to this post, city fathers placed that 1876 boundary just beyond River des Peres on the southwest side of the city. I guess they imagined that the brook would be of use to the growing city early on.

Now let’s take a look at a couple maps of the city.

This is an aerial of the City. The most dominant portion of the image is the neat course of the Mississippi River, which, although blue-looking on the map, is never that hue when viewed from the ground. The bands of gray along the river represent areas of visible and heavy industrial presence. That is the sad state of todays riverfront. Industry has claimed most of the space on the South Side, limiting (legal) access to views of the river to a scant few points. Luckily, a bike trail runs along the industrial corridor to the north. It provides expansion views of a scarred industrial landscape as well as the might river that helped father the City of St. Louis.

This is an aerial of the City. The most dominant portion of the image is the neat course of the Mississippi River, which, although blue-looking on the map, is never that hue when viewed from the ground. The bands of gray along the river represent areas of visible and heavy industrial presence. That is the sad state of today's riverfront. Industry has claimed most of the space on the South Side, limiting (legal) access to views of the river to a scant few points. Luckily, a bike trail runs along the industrial corridor to the north. It provides expansive views of a scarred industrial landscape as well as the mighty river that helped father the City of St. Louis.

Now it’s time for the political map:

The deep orange is St. Louis City; the other colors are incorporated municipalities (suburbs) outside the city limits. The city is 61 square miles, almost the exact same size as Washington D.C. However, this makes it a very smaller city when comparing its size to other nearby urban centers, such as Chicago (227 square miles) and Kansas City (318). That means that, even with a severely diminished population (about 856,000 in 1950, down to about 356,000 as of 2007), the city is still somewhat dense.

The deep orange is St. Louis City; the other colors are incorporated municipalities (suburbs) outside the city limits. The city is 61 square miles, almost the exact same size as Washington D.C. However, this makes it a very small city when comparing its size to other nearby urban centers, such as Chicago (227 square miles) and Kansas City (318). That means that, even with a severely diminished population (about 856,000 in 1950, down to about 356,000 as of 2007), the city is still somewhat dense.

And a map of neighborhoods: [Click the underlined link to visit the larger image.]
There are 79 official neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis. Some are quite large and have up to 18,000 residents; others are tiny and have less than 1,000. The River des Peres begins at the extreme bottom (south) of this picture, in a neighborhood known as the Patch. I say it begins here only because its easier to trace from its confluence with the Mississippi than the reverse; this is actually the end of the river. Anyhow, the river divides the Boulevard Heights, St. Louis Hills, and Lindenwood Park neighborhoods into an eastern section and a western sliver. It then continues northward to Ellendale, which it practically bisects, before dumping into the Italian neighborhood known as the Hill. From there on, it runs underground and into the large green rectangle on the map--Forest Park--before heading into the St. Louis suburb of University City.

There are 79 "official" neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis. Some are quite large and have up to 18,000 residents; others are tiny and have less than 1,000. The River des Peres begins at the extreme bottom (south) of this picture, in a neighborhood known as the Patch. I say it "begins" here only because it's easier to trace from its confluence with the Mississippi than the reverse; this is actually the "end" of the river. Anyhow, the river divides the Boulevard Heights, St. Louis Hills, and Lindenwood Park neighborhoods into an eastern section and a western sliver. It then continues northward to Ellendale, which it practically bisects, before dumping into the Italian neighborhood known as the Hill. From there on, it runs underground and into the large green rectangle on the map--Forest Park--before heading into the St. Louis suburb of University City.

Also, if we can, a more zoomed in section that will show only the neighborhoods adjacent to the River des Peres. Below, the River snakes through south St. Louis. The bottom right is the river’s confluence with the Mississippi in extreme south St. Louis:
I hope this post has helped to give a slightly better picture of where River des Peres is. If not, click here and check out this Google Map for yourself.

Summer of 1993. Hundreds clad in sweat-drenched t-shirts, beads weighing against earnest eyebrows, stacked sandbag after sandbag on the shores of the River des Peres near its junction with the Mississippi River in a typically quiet lower middle class area of south St. Louis. The small tributary of the Mighty Mississippi, once a free flowing natural stream, was, in the 1930s, harnessed and channelized into little more than a drainage ditch by the city that enveloped it. In large storm events, a rush of storm runoff and sewage would swell the artificial concrete and limestone walls of the river. The noxious odors from the forlorn stream would lend it a formidably poor reputation—in local vernacular, it became “River Despair” or “River des Pew“. Yet now, the sewer-river that, to generations far removed from the Army Corps of Engineers’ riparian surgery in the 1930s, was simply always there was now approaching backyards and basements. Its usual face—little more than a series of boggy puddles inexplicably accompanied by some unenvied flora—had transformed from putrid pond to raging river alarmingly quickly.

To those of us St. Louisans who lived well beyond the river’s onetime floodplain, the Flood of 1993 was unnerving for a different and more subtle reason than concern for property. River des Peres was a river after all! With its long and open channel roughly demarcating suburban St. Louis County from the city of St. Louis, it seemed more a landmarker than a real hydrologic feature of the metropolitan area. Throughout that wet summer, the embittered River des Peres boldly reasserted its long built-on wetlands. The surface of the muddy soup in its spacious channel nearly licked the railings of bridges that dared to pass over. 
 

River des Peres, in south St. Louis

River des Peres, in south St. Louis

Even to my eight year old’s mind, the full-to-the-brim-and-then-some river impressed and frightened me. My father had taken us for walks and playground visits in an adjacent park named Willmore. Of course, my older brother and I wanted to climb into the deep ditch. We would be subterranean explorers with a veritable road, paved in weeds and some unnamed white rocks, all to ourselves. We could drive pretend cars, or turn over stones to find the occasional frog, or bring a dollar-store-bought kid’s fishing net down to snatch some crawdads lingering near a drainage pipe (just like in Wilmore Park). My dad chided our wishes, always wont to tease. “Sure, I’ll take you down there. If you want to play in poop water,” he’d say, with a pitch-perfect level of exaggerated incredulity just out of range of children’s sarcasm sensors. As this scene played out several times, each time I wondered if he could be telling the truth. Yes, even my young mind seemed attuned to a world steeped in caution and concern for legal liability. Surely they wouldn’t let anyone down here if this were an open sewer, I imagined (in dressed-down child vernacular language, though). But the smell attested to something awful, and so my nearly empty sewer-road would have to remain a playground in imagination alone. Later, the river would represent a geographic boundary—a transition from the somber orange phosphorescence of the nighttime City’s streetlights to the suburbs (the County), where the roads were as dark and as smooth as the unlit night.

Willmore Park, Southwest Side of St. Louis

It’s a stream whose valley is much too large for the size of the stream.

St. Louis’s own River des Peres is an example of a “misfit stream”–in more ways than one. Subjugated at the hands of engineers around the Great Depression, the once free-flowing stream now more clearly resembles a manmade drainage ditch.

St. Louis residents don’t exactly hold it in high esteem. The most common nickname for the rank-smelling river is the “River Despair”.

In this blog, I hope to present a side of St. Louis that the casual St. Louisan–and those far removed from the city altogether–do not often see. Too many times, St. Louis captures a spotlight for how devastated it is; how un-whole years of decline and disinvestment have made it.

“Whole sections of the city have reverted to nature,” a journalist covering Rustbelt outcasts such as Detroit and St. Louis might remark.

But St. Louis is a city of remarkable resilience. Long abandoned late 1800s row houses have sprung back to the unlikeliest vitality. So too has the city’s notable park system, including its crown jewel, 1,200 acre Forest Park.

Now, several projects to restore the natural environment compete for a spotlight with remarkable transformation of the built environment–including a beautification of the long maligned River des Peres.

On this blogging adventure, I’ll explore the “misfit stream” (and other eco-projects) that present a window into the city’s far, far distant past–before its founding, even.

On these pages, misfits–remnants surviving in the unforgivable and nebulous face of change and “progress”–yes, misfits will have their day.

–Matt M.