A River Runs Through It

June 11, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Rivers, I think, are an essential part of great cities. Centuries ago, I suppose, they provided water and fish to primitive settlements. Then they became arteries of commerce around which cities grew. In the 21st Century, I think, they play a different role in the most fortunate of the world's cities. They're still a bit involved in commerce. But they're more about ambience. They're like parks--they make cities pleasant to live in. Or, at least, they can.

I wish I could say that the picture above was taken in my home town, Washington. It wasn't. I made it in Melbourne, Australia a few months ago, on a lovely summer evening. The Yarra is Melbourne's river, and the city has taken pains to make it its heart as well. There are walker-biker paths on both banks; automobile traffic is shunted away for the most part. There is lots to do along the Yarra. You can watch tennis at Rod Laver Arena or see a match at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, then amble downstream a bit to a museum and theater quarter. Along the way, you'll find dozens of restaurants and cafes, including a few floating on moored barges and one on the support for a footbridge. The city's downtown business district is just a short walk away along the right bank, and the left bank, once a worn industrial neighborhood, has been revitalized with the now-standard "mixed use" redevelopment palette of apartments, condos, stores, hotels and cafes. And you can watch rowing crews practice.

The Potomac is Washington's river, and like a lot of American rivers, it was long abused. Before Washington was created, there were two Potomac ports, Alexandria in Virginia and Georgetown on the Maryland side, established because big boats couldn't go any further upstream because of rapids and waterfalls. They were incorporated into the original District of Columbia. (The city gave Alexandria and Arlington back to Virginia in 1846.) The Potomac was fortunate in one sense. The major industry of Washington was government, which creates pollution of many kinds, but not the kind of effluent created in river cities that were built around, say, steel or chemicals. But Washington lined the river's banks with what manufacturing it had, and then compounded the offense by using the riverbank as a site for highways to carry bureaucrats in and out of the suburbs. 

When I moved to Washington in 1976, the only attractive part of the river was the one that flowed past the monuments on the Mall. The rest was highways and old and abandoned industrial sites. Much of the Georgetown waterfront was an impoundment lot for illegally parked cars. In the past ten or twenty years, much has changed, thanks to planning by the city and a generally thriving real estate market that has made investors eager to buy and redevelop almost any property within the city limits. 

The Georgetown waterfront got a makeover that includes a riverside park that is a favorite of nannies walking their charges in perambulators. There are some good restaurants and a Swedish embassy building.  A few miles downstream, the city guided Nats Park to a site on the derelict southeast waterfront where the Potomac's biggest tributary, the Anacostia, merges with the main stream. It created a couple of attractive parks on vacated land, like the one four men are strolling through at right.  The ballpark didn't immediately become the redevelopment catalyst the city envisioned, because it opened just as the 2008 economic collapse affected real estate. But in the last few years, vacant lots and abandoned gas stations have started to be replaced by--of course--mixed use. People watching the 2018 All-Star game at Nats Park will see a skyline bursting with building cranes.

This year has seen the opening of the first phase of The Wharf, a multi-billion dollar development on the southwest waterfront, between the Tidal Basin and the Nats Park area. (It's pictured above left.) I don't know quite how I feel about it. I certainly don't miss what it replaced--a row of mediocre restaurants with big parking lots which catered to tourists on bus trips. But I don't know how well the city managed to get the developer to make some of the condos and apartments affordable for people who are being squeezed out of the District by gentrification. There's a lot I like at The Wharf. There are moorings for passenger boats, like the water taxi at left, that hold the promise of someday making it possible to rely less on automobiles to get around the city. It has an eclectic mix of upscale and casual dining options. But, perhaps inevitably, it has an artificial, corporate feel, as if a talented planner had been told to make people think they were in an interesting waterfront neighborhood that had developed organically. Maybe that feeling will wear away. I don't know.

I am fairly certain that the Potomac will never again be a shipping river like the Thames (below right), which I photographed during the 2012 Olympics, looking toward Tower Bridge. And D.C. will never have a unified riverfront like Melbourne's, or Paris's, or London's. The geography won't allow it. There are too many gaps. After the Potomac flows past Georgetown, it drifts for a mile or so past the Mall and the monuments, where there's no place to get a drink or a bite to eat, or to set up a shop. There's a long, triangular piece of parkland called Hains Point, that has some beloved amenities like a golf course and a running and biking track, but also serves as a barrier. Then there's The Wharf area, but the mile or so between it and the riverfront by Nats Park contains a military reservation that prevents a walk along the riverside. 

It seems likely to me that rather than have a single riverfront area, D.C. will have several. The Wharf and Georgetown will serve both neighborhood residents and  visitors. The area around Nats Park is also getting a new soccer stadium, and I suspect Washington sports fans will soon develop the habit of arriving early, having a good meal, and then watching their teams. It's conceivable that as water taxis and bike trails add more travel options, destinations like National Harbor in Prince Georges County and attractions like the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on the eastern short of the Anacostia will be woven more closely into the fabric of the city.

I am still worried that Washington's new riversides will do nothing to solve the biggest downside of gentrification--the displacement of people of modest means, usually African-American, from places that once were affordable and welcoming to them.

Nevertheless, I was dining a couple of days ago with my wife and brother a couple of blocks from Nats Park prior to seeing the home team take on San Francisco. We were at an outdoor section of a restaurant called Osteria Morini on the edge of the city's new Yards Park. We watched people walk by dressed for a formal event, maybe a wedding rehearsal dinner. We watched kayakers paddle by on the Anacostia. Nearby, a family picnicked. Children frolicked in a fountain. Girls kicked a soccer ball along a boardwalk.

I saw Anthony Williams strolling by. He was the mayor of Washington when the city decided to build Nats Park, gambling that it would be a catalyst for redevelopment that would justify the investment of $600 million in taxpayer money. I disagreed with the mayor and his decision at the time, thinking that millionaire ballplayers and billionaire owners did not need public subsidies. 

I just waved at Mayor Williams. I could have gotten up and approached him to tell him that he was right and I was wrong. I wish I had.

 


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