Water under the bridge

Beat icon prevails in debate over creek's name

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

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Richard Gwin / lawrence.com

Longtime Burroughs friend and estate executor James Grauerholz sits in front of the newly named Burroughs Creek. Burroughs' former home is in the background.

Depending on whom you ask, it's either a ditch, a tributary, a creek or a concrete tunnel.

Now, it's officially a creek -- Burroughs Creek, that is.

The Washington D.C.-based U.S. Geological Survey Board on Geographic Names voted unanimously to approve the proposal submitted last fall by the Lawrence City Commission on behalf of the Brook Creek Neighborhood Association. The much-publicized stream flows through East Lawrence and past the former residence of its new namesake, controversial "Beat Generation" author William S. Burroughs.

Formerly named the 'Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Tributary,' Burroughs Creek will appear on the USGS's National Map within a couple weeks.

Roger Payne, executive secretary for the USGS Board on Geographic Names, said the 7-0 vote came after "surprisingly little" debate.

"I suspect that because of the nature of Mr. Burroughs and the high-profile nature of the case, the board members probably had thought about it many times well before the meeting," said Payne, who added that the case received special attention due to its controversial nature. "Apparently there was no need to have much in the way of discussion regarding his character."

The vote marked a victory for the Brook Creek Neighborhood Association, which had been pushing the name change in conjunction with a $3.9 million city project to rebuild the stream to alleviate flooding problems. That stretch of creek, which runs between 12th and Haskell streets and 15th and Maryland streets, is being converted from drainage pipe to a natural open stream in an ongoing project that is scheduled to finish by January.

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The ATSF Tributary will soon be renamed Burroughs Creek following a recent decision by the U.S. Geological Survey Board on Geographic Names.

Though the proposal drew support from the Lawrence City Commission and the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department, the Douglas County Commission chose not to endorse the proposal, instead choosing to remain silent on the matter.

Douglas County Commissioner Jere McElhaney emerged as the most vocal opponent of the proposal, calling Burroughs a drug addict and promoter of a "revolutionary lifestyle." McElhaney, who contacted Payne to express his opinions on the proposal, said he was disappointed to hear the proposal had passed.

"(Burroughs) had a certain group of followers ... which is fine, that's their choice," McElhaney said. "But not everybody liked his books and not everybody liked his writing and not everybody liked his lifestyle ... to me, somebody's trying to put Burroughs up on a pedestal that he should not be on."

But for longtime Burroughs friend and estate executor James Grauerholz, the naming of the creek was not so much about celebrating Burroughs' lifestyle as it was about his literary contributions and importance to Lawrence's history.

"This doesn't mean like, 'The victory of the hippies' or something," said Grauerholz, who wrote a letter to the city commission in support of the proposal. "Burroughs is not actually famous for accidentally killing his wife or being a narcotics addict or being homosexual ... he's famous for being a great writer, and because of that we know about these other things."

Kirsten Roussel, the former president of the Brook Creek Neighborhood Association, has been following the progress of the proposal since its inception two years ago.

"I'm very glad," she said. "I do recognize that Mr. Burroughs was a colorful character, to say the least, but he is part of the history of Lawrence and this seemed a fitting way to memorialize that."