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When a river runs through it

Former Fort Dodger responds to unjustified critcism of river towns

January 22, 2012
Messenger News

By now most Messenger readers are probably familiar with University of Iowa Professor Stephen Bloom's 9000-word, fightin'-words diatribe on Iowa for the Atlantic, and the resulting flap it has caused.

No reason to waste time debating his points or his motivation; the guy writes what they pay him for writing - which in this instance is fodder for the rest of the country to further view Iowans as meth-snorting, toothless, gun-nut bumpkins who should be stripped of the first-in-the-nation status toward helping to select presidential candidates.

We could point out the fact the Bloom is rather foolishly biting the hand that has fed him for 20 years - as a quite well-paid professor at a public university. He has his right to his opinions, but then again, the taxpayers and parents of the state he likes to insult have a right not to pay him, too.

But, no. Our purpose here today is to examine one particular Bloom comment, taking aim at Iowa "river towns": "... they're some of the skuzziest cities I've ever been to, and that's saying something."

Of course, Bloom is referring to the Mississippi River waterfront he believes he is familiar with, but as a native Dodger, I felt a bit of a sting at those words, too. Fort Dodge is a river town, for better and worse. (I know this well, because the scenic Des Moines River used to make a brackishly personal appearance knee deep in my parents' basement about once a year).

Just why is it that river towns have such a "scuzzy" (this guy is a teacher of communication and this is the best he can do?) reputation?

Easy enough. Communities historically developed first along rivers, which provided avenues of transportation and shipping long before decent roads were cut - river towns are old towns.

River towns also tend to be labor towns. Mills and factories developed there to take advantage of water and the easy power it afforded. Meatpackers and more followed, with accompanying smells and smokestacks, and in many cases, river cities stayed just that - blue collar, beer-joint, workingman towns, with plenty of old metal and broken brick sitting around like rusty tattoos on the scarred knuckles of their society.

And, let's be honest, people haven't always been kind to their natural resources. At times the very rivers that gave their communities lifeblood have been treated as sewers and dumps. I've pulled my share of old Model T tires out of the lakes and rivers of this part of the state in various excursions in recent years.

The great expose "The Jungle" described urban waters where "the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava."

The riverfronts had gotten dirty, and rather than cleaning them, it was easier to leave them to low income, aging neighborhoods as those who could afford to, moved to cookie-cutter, suburban-style neighborhoods on the opposite side of the cities. To a big-shot professor, those who were left behind in the economic shift are perhaps just part of the "scuzz."

What Bloom may fail to realize, however, is that Upton Sinclair's time was a while ago. Things are changing, and water is the new gold. Fort Dodge, and other Iowa river and lake towns, have what no architect and developer can provide and no money can buy. What used to be a liability, is now an incredible advantage. Karma. "The Circle of Life," or some other Disney movie theme. What goes around comes around. It just is.

It will take continued work and environmental attention to make the most of the Des Moines River and Lizard Creek, but industrial junk can be replaced with waterfront home lots. Depressing flood plains can be replaced with recreation trails, dog runs, parkland or quaint shops and cafes with decks overlooking water. Think Okoboji's funky old Emporium.

The waters where people once dumped their garbage can and are being transformed into wildlife preserves, marinas, fisheries with tourism appeal, and increasingly, paddling corridors that add something to a community's lifestyle and health.

I rather doubt if San Antonio with its famed River Walk, Memphis where the symphony finishes every sunset pop concert on the shore playing "Old Man River" while the crowd goes bonkers, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Charleston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Las Vegas - heck, an old dump by the names of Paris - consider themselves "scuzzy" due to river proximity.

You don't have to go too far to find amazing urban riverfronts, too - Dubuque, Omaha, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Sioux City all have capitalized on their resource. I think of a tiny northwest Iowa town called Linn Grove, which has become a charming little community of artists, paddlers, bird watchers, campers and anglers huddled around a loverly stretch of Little Sioux River. No river, and a great little place would have become another of those Iowa ghost towns.

Fort Dodge has work to do; perhaps starting with reclaiming Loomis Park and its great riverfront opportunities. (Not sure about the porn theater across from the public library, but that's a discussion for another day.) It needs a river group, one that can plan some outdoor events, mobilize people for cleanup, and appeal to environmentally clean businesses.

As a society we are becoming more and more attuned to the environment, and realizing there is more to life than money. View matters to our well-being, and fresh air, and places we can walk, jog and bike with some pride.

We all have our priorities - for a particular writer, surrounding oneself with judgmental, self-important people in order to imagine oneself to be superior to the others in his state's "hamlets" may be an enjoyable way of life.

Others of us see water as part of a community's soul. We feel it, and enjoy the sights, sounds, wildlife and play of the natural resources around us.

"River town" used to be an insult. Now, it's starting to be a status symbol. Fort Dodge is a river town, and always will be, and there are great things to be found in embracing it.

Given the choice, I'd rather live next to a meandering river than a blathering college professor, but hey, that's just me.

Don't be mad, just go with the flow.

Dana Larsen is a former member of the Messenger staff and current editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune. He can be reached at dlarsen@stormlakepilottribune.com.

 
 

 

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