Nearly a century ago, 15 inches of rain fell in South Texas, leading to a devastating flood that surged through San Antonio, killing 50 people and wiping out great swaths of the city. In response, local leaders resolved to do what a lot of cities — including Hagers-town — did with problematic waterways: turn them into subterranean storm sewers.
But, as San Antonio discovered, there is a better way.
Just as it was about to bury the San Antonio River and pave over top of it, along came the San Antonio Conservation Society and the City Federation of Women Club, who were pretty much horrified at the thought of hiding such a valuable resource.
However, no immediate alternatives came to light, until architect Robert Hugman foresaw a promenade of shops and restaurants along a controlled watercourse flowing through an attractive hardscape.
At least Hugman thought it was attractive; others weren’t so sure, thinking the stonework was unnatural and too manipulative. The populace also distrusted Hugman’s floodgates, complaining that the nascent Riverwalk — which was cut out a full story beneath street level — was little more than a watery death trap.
Hugman responded by locating his offices a couple of feet above the water level, where it stands today, unscathed and dry as a bone.
Critics and the Depression initially foiled Hugman’s grand design, but a decade later it was rescued by an economic stimulus program remembered today as the WPA, which by 1941 completed three miles of walkways, along with decorative bridges and plantings that have literally become the stuff of movies.
Two years later, the first restaurant opened, and the Riverwalk has been expanding and improving ever since. Today, it is a world-acclaimed marriage of commerce and nature, with soaring cyprus trees, flowering shrubs, waterfalls, malls, hotels, fine restaurants, and elegant statuary and artwork.
Such is the power of water.
So when Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts talks of “unburying” Hagerstown’s watercourses, it’s worth listening. Same applies when Kristin Aleshire talks about the Antietam Creek playing a prominent role in East End development.
There is an obvious caveat. As a society, we’ve come to like things that are fast, easy and cheap, and water projects are none of the above. But at this point, if anyone is thinking that a cheap fix will turn around the city in a year or two, he is probably beyond being reasoned with.
Successful small cities generally have one or more of the following assets going for them: 1. A college or university; 2. Some combination of art, history and recreation; 3. Water.
Small cities don’t thrive anymore because they have a downtown machine shop or some killer office space. Things that made cities strong in 1960 just don’t work today, because the wage-earners have moved out to the suburbs.
Worse for Hagerstown, it has over the years chosen to give haven to people with fixed incomes, or no income at all. It is difficult to see how we reverse this, either in the short or long run.
Pretty much our only way out is to create in-city destinations that will at least bring people with disposable incomes into town on a temporary basis.
And that might very well mean building in the East End from scratch. Because that’s where the water is. If boats and fishing poles, beer gardens and outdoor music stages replace MELP and other industrial has-beens, and if a new ballpark is added to the mix, then it might be an area in which people would want to live.
Gradually, upgraded housing could stretch down Antietam and Baltimore streets and reach the new library and the arts district. It’s attacking the problem from the outside, not from within.
To be sure, we would be talking about a better Hagerstown 10, 20 years into the future. But we can at least begin to build the foundation, and that’s why we should allow Gysberts and Aleshire to expand on their thoughts about how we can use water to grease the wheels of development.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is email@example.com.
City should work from the outside in
Tim Rowland (November 30, 2010)