Built St. Louis > > St. Louis Riverfront

Downtown riverfront
This stretch of road is what stands at the base of the Gateway Arch. To say it is aesthetically lacking is charitable.

For many decades, civic leaders and local residents (not to mention your humble narrator) have kvetched about it, and hatched grandiose schemes for transforming the city's meeting with the Mississippi River. The grandest by far was the Gateway National Expansion Memorial, with its iconic Arch which is now the emblem of the city. That same plan swept away hundreds of vintage buildings that once stood along the river's banks.

But little has changed down at the water's edge. Where steamboats and their cargo once jammed themselves up against the levee, today there stand a few floating barges with some flimsy-looking buildings on top. It seems like a huge letdown after the immaculately controlled landscape of the Gateway Arch.

The main reason is that the Mississippi River is a force that cannot be completely controlled or contained by man. The Mississippi is vast, muddy and turbulent, with unfathomable amounts of water passing by every second. Whatever conceptions of a river you might have before seeing the Mississippi, it will leave them all behind. Even at its lowest stages, its waters promise a swift demise to the unwarey who venture into them. When the spring thaws come and the river begins its yearly rise, humans may do battle with this unstoppable force, and sometimes win, and perhaps even persuade the river to do their bidding. But when the river wants to rise, it will rise. Ultimately, all that humans can do is get themselves and their constructs out of the way.

April 2010. Note the row of posts at bottom right, a chain-and-post fence.

August 1993. The chain-fence is surrounded by water in the wake of the Great Flood.

"The Captain's Return", a statue depicting Lewis and Clark returning from their two-year voyage to explore the Louisiana Territory. The statue is specifically designed to withstand being submerged in the Mississippi's variable waters.

Nobody seems to have considered that, once the spring waters arrive and innundate the statue, William Clark appears to be desparately calling for help.

November 2010 - near the river's annual low water level

April 2010 - swelled by spring rains and thaw, the river has nearly covered up the levee.

Because of the seasonal fluctuations in river depth, any built structure at the riverfront must be able to float, or withstand being innundated. It also must be anchored firmly, able to rise and fall with the water, and still be safely accessible at all water levels. It also has to be tough enough to not be destroyed if it gets hit by a runaway barge, or breaks away itself and hits a bridge pier, a boat, or the shore.

Needless to say, the difficulties of the requirements have not encouraged high design at the riverfront.

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