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Take Me to the River

After centuries of neglect, St. Louis is slowly coming around to the Mississippi

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Italgrani USA mills semolina flour for pasta at its riverfront headquarters in south St. Louis' Patch neighborhood. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Italgrani USA mills semolina flour for pasta at its riverfront headquarters in south St. Louis' Patch neighborhood.

Night and day, barges chug along the Mississippi. The metro region still has one of the busiest inland ports in the country, and miles of the riverfront are occupied by industry.

"It truly is a working river down here," says Jim Meyer, president of Italgrani USA.

Headquartered along the water in deep south city's Patch neighborhood, the grain-milling operation blends a variety of specialty flours to ship to pasta makers across the country. The nearly century-old elevator was once among the tallest structures in St. Louis, and steelworkers are busy on the south end, building an addition that will increase Italgrani's storage capacity by 40 percent.

In years past, long lines of trucks hauled grain from farmers to the site where it could be milled, transported on a conveyor over to the river and poured onto barges bound for the gulf. Today, Italgrani is more likely to ship its products on rail cars, but it keeps its conveyors in working order for the occasional barge loading.

All along this strip of waterfront are commercial work yards, a nearly unbroken stretch until you reach Sister Marie Charles Park and Bellerive Park on the north end of Carondelet. Some of the businesses are like Italgrani and want or need access to the Mississippi, while others have taken advantage of affordable real estate in an industrial zone. Sarah Wood Martin, alderwoman of the Eleventh Ward, says fewer of her constituents make a living at the river than previous generations. A few of the big employers, including shipbuilders, have folded up, and automation has claimed other jobs.

"It's sad, because a lot of my constituents, their families were blue-collar and were able to make a living," Martin says. "But they're fourth generation, and it's almost like it's passed them by."

In the vacuum left behind, the stretch of south St. Louis along the river from Patch to Carondelet has begun to look for new ways to reinvent itself. The neighborhoods have attracted a growing arts scene, lured by affordable real estate and laid-back residents who, after living next to plants with 24-hour truck traffic, aren't likely to get too upset if a newcomer colors outside the lines a bit. The result is a mostly harmonious, free-wheeling mixture of factories, bars, community gardens, antique shops and murals.

"You have more leeway and more creativity because it's a lot of industry," Martin says. "I would like to see a nice entertainment district here."

A series of full-wall murals commissioned by the Carondelet Community Betterment Federation are part of that effort to rebrand. Fred Hessel, the federation's executive director, sees a lot of potential as real estate prices rise in trendier neighborhoods.

"This is a place where you can still buy an affordable house — not like Tower Grove South or Shaw," he says.

Martin agrees, though she says it is a place sometimes overlooked by the rest of the city, despite its charms.

"This is kind of this pocket," Martin says of her ward. "They really don't know it's there."

Paul Gruber, left, and Tanner Aljets of Big Muddy Adventures haul a canoe up a ten-foot embankment. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Paul Gruber, left, and Tanner Aljets of Big Muddy Adventures haul a canoe up a ten-foot embankment.

The Mississippi is not an easy river.

It is not, for example, a place for a mindless, boozy float trip. Clark from Big Muddy Adventures cautions novices against paddling out without a guide and the right gear. What might look like a single flow is really a patchwork of currents, ricocheting downstream as they slide over and under one another with boat-flipping power. Low waters that suck away from the banks one week might surge the next and cover previously dry land in wide pools. This is true even as engineers have tried to restrain the Mississippi's wilder tendencies. But usually, we do not get that close.

The abundance of fenced-in factories can make even getting to the water difficult. And while it is not the toxic sludge some might imagine, the idea of accidentally catching a mouthful of the Big Muddy is not exactly appetizing.

"Access to the river is really difficult," says Susan Trautman, CEO of Great Rivers Greenway. "I think that's why you don't see as many people on the trail."

Great Rivers has built about fourteen miles of trails along the St. Louis riverfront to the north, with plans for more connections and additional park areas in hopes of improving access. Part of the challenge is logistics, and part is perception, the not-completely unwarranted idea that isolated stretches along the river can be dangerous.

As part of its campaign to attract more people to the trails, the public agency has hired private security to patrol it from Wednesday through Sunday so that people feel safe, Trautman says. It seems to have begun to work. In 2015, the agency set out a counter and recorded more than 38,000 people on the trail. Trautman says it is a rewarding ride. "I've seen wild turkeys and deer and all types of wildflowers," she says.

Eddie 'River King' Price is a regular among anglers at North Riverfront Park. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Eddie 'River King' Price is a regular among anglers at North Riverfront Park.

The route runs north from Chouteau all the way to Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, weaving along both sides of the flood wall. Toward the north end, 71-year-old Eddie Price has cut across the trail to the banks of the Mississippi and anchored three fishing poles in the ground. He once pulled a 76-pound catfish out of these waters, he says.

"Man that sucker came good," he says. "I had about twenty people come to the house for a fish fry."

On this day, the retired Florida sheriff's deputy has only hooked a couple of sturgeon, which he threw back. Still, there's something nice about sitting on the side of the mighty Mississippi on a sunny day.

"I love watching the river going down, down, down," Price says.

"There is a fascination with it — I will say that," Trautman says. "People love to look at it."

A small homeless camp has been erected in an alcove of the flood wall. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • A small homeless camp has been erected in an alcove of the flood wall.

A few miles south, tucked away in an alcove of the flood wall, a 57-year-old man who gives his name only as Jeff has spent weeks doing just that. He lives in a tent next to a couple who six months before built the campsite floor out of scavenged cobblestones and driftwood. They have gone out for the day, but Jeff has stayed behind.

In a few days, he plans to go to a rehab facility in Springfield, Illinois. He says he was kicked out of a St. Louis homeless shelter months before for arguing with the staff. He has a black eye, and a finger on his right hand is purple.

"It's peaceful down here, man," he says. The water will inevitably rise up someday and overtake this spot, but it soothes the man for now. Barges glide past all day long as one of the most storied rivers in the world stretches out before him. "It's peaceful just to sit down here. I've had people who come down here from the streets and just want to sit down here. Not get drunk. Just sit here."