TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

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SKIPPING STONES

How do you connect to the Mississippi River? Not in the hippy-dippy “feeling the power and history flow through me” sense but in the actual, physical, how do you get to the River?

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Maybe we should start by quantifying “connecting.” There are less than a handful of places within the City of Memphis where one can go and sit on the banks and take part in that lifelong past-time of throwing rocks into a body of water and pondering things. (I’ve realized through several trips to rivers and streams in the region with my 2 year old son that this action is encoded into our DNA) So where are those places? Tom Lee Park, Mississippi River Park, and Greenbelt Park and, unless there’s a secret spot that I don’t know about, that’s all.

WHERE’S YOUR INVITATION?

Getting to those places present their own challenges. Let’s start at the North end and work our way down. These are the ways to connect to the Mississippi:

  • N. Mud Island Rd: This two-lane road is on the land bridge that connects Mud Island (which technically negates the island classification) to the mainland. It’s an easy drive in your car and sees it’s share of bicycle traffic but has no sidewalks so if you’re walking or in a wheelchair this is a very scary route. And those bicycles that ARE there – lycra clad groups coming through early on weekend mornings.
  • A.W. Willis Bridge: Hooray, sidewalks! Up and down steep inclines that bring grumbles to all but the most sadistic cyclists (me). Again, easy for a car but what about everyone else? Once you cross onto Mud Island, Island Drive is treated more or less like a residential road and the residents of Harbor Town in their apartments, condos, and zero-lot homes tend to think of Greenbelt Park as their front yard. This has created a culture of pedestrian awareness that is hard to find even in Overton Square.

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  • The Street With No Name: Did you even know that you can connect to the River here? This little street leads you behind the retaining wall of the Pyramid, underneath the Interstate, and around to the Welcome Center. In addition to no wayfinding signage, it’s also not paved. The message, intentional or not, to people walking or riding bicycles is, “You are not welcome here.” But imagine how much nicer and safer it would be for residents of Harbor Town and Uptown to use this walkway instead of Front Street or Main Street (with it’s trolley tracks and cobbles in disrepair).

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  • Riverside Drive: Fed by Interstates from each side this street is plagued by vehicles traveling faster than the posted speed limit. Combine that with the natural barrier of the bluff and it’s no wonder people have issues with connecting to the River here. It’s not for lack of parking, either. There are plenty of parking spaces at the Welcome Center, at Tom Lee Park, and even on the Cobblestones. What about other modes? Steep streets or stairs, four wide lanes of traffic (wide lanes promote higher speeds, by the way), and barely visible crosswalks make connecting to the River less than inviting.

And that’s all. Unfortunately that is the crux of why we don’t connect to the Mississippi River. As a City, we have not done enough to make the River inviting. It’s as if we let the one natural barrier dictate the rest of our relationships; as if we said, “This bluff is steep,” collectively sighed and said, “Oh well. Nobody wants to come down this hill so we might as well run a de facto Interstate between us and the River.” Turned our backs on it (how many downtown buildings have a River facing entrance or patio?) and have tried our hardest to ignore our natural born need to go stand on the bank and throw a rock into the river.

We might as well change our nickname to “The (we don’t walk down the) Bluff City”. The Grizzlies can towel along with “We Don’t (walk down the) Bluff”.

CONNECT MORE

As we eye the completion of the Big River Crossing (Harahan Bridge) – a wonderful project that puts us OVER the Mississippi River – we need to ask, “How do we connect those users TO the River?” There’s a great path that leads from the bridge and into the South Main area, but how inviting is it to get onto the street and navigate your way to yet another street with no name and connect to the Riverwalk in Martyr’s Park? I hope the folks at DCA, the firm branding the Big River Crossing, are also tackling the larger issue of “place” that is presented with such a big piece of infrastructure (and they’re smart people and I trust that they are doing that). However, making a sign and making a path are two very different jobs.

So if we’re going to leave Riverside Drive an Interstate we should be doing everything we can to make sure everyone can safely connect to the Mississippi River. That means paving the northern path that leads from A.W. Willis to the Welcome Center. That means paving a path from the Big River Crossing to the Riverwalk in Martyr’s Park. That means fixing the lights in the crosswalks and making them more visible. That means adding bike lanes and/or other traffic calming measures. And those are basic. If you want to think big, let’s put a bike/ped bridge over Riverside Drive from Wagner Place to Beale Street Landing with a corkscrew that mimics the boat ramp. Then you’ll have a better connection, events in Tom Lee Park are not effected, and you’ll have a fun corkscrew bridge that you can actually use (ever tried to walk or ride onto the boat ramp? You’re not invited.)

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