Down by the River

Between 1997 and 2000, I lived across the river, and on the other side of the tracks, in grocery store-less North Lawrence. It was all right, and I enjoyed cheap rent and relative solitude there until neighborhood kids busted out most of the windows in my house, and took to lighting fires in my garage. Before I was driven out, one of the good things about living over there was that my commute (on foot or bike), to my studio in East Lawrence, took me through one of the city's most unique public parks. Riverfront Park, as it's officially known (I usually just call the area 'down by the river'), sits adjacent to the Bowerstock dam and across the Kaw from city hall. Its close proximity to downtown and rough undeveloped character make it a place like few others in town. A haven for eagles and Sunday thinkers, it's a popular spot to begin and end relationships, and occasionally the place where missing persons are found with all the life soaked out of them. The park and the bike trail began as offshoots of the levee, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-1970's. Before the levee, flooding devastated North Lawrence. Nowadays when floods threaten, the turbulent muddy water pushes over the dam and tumbles into bowl shaped area contained by the levee's clay and rock embankment. The swirling action of the current, filled with all matter of debris, tends to redraw the shape of the shoreline and deposits whatever it has captured from upstream. The area's instability and unpredictability make it nearly impossible to develop, and thus free of the amenities found in most parks. There are no picnic tables, playground equipment surrounded by rubberized crash zones, or ball fields. There's no grass to spread out on or gazebo, you'd have to be a fool or really drunk to ever try swimming there, and eating fish you might catch is strongly discouraged due to pollution. So, it makes sense that most people who use the park are just passing through, usually on bikes, jogging, or walking a dog. Some people fish there despite the warnings. A few, the type (I include myself here) who get a thrill watching disaster re-runs on the Weather Channel, gather to watch the river rise and rage in the aftermath of a good Kansas thunderstorm. And, once a year, the whole town descends on the levee in a haze of bug spray and gun powder smoke to see the 4th of July fireworks. But for me, in a world where nearly all of our time is scheduled and all of our space designed, programmed, and interpreted, the disarray of this ramshackle park is welcome. ![][1] Sticks and Stones Marginal places that lie between nature and human development, like the area down by the river, have always been the favored meeting places for teenagers. When I was growing up on the north side of Chicago, it was the shore of Lake Michigan, where kids from my neighborhood would go to do anything they'd get in trouble for doing at home. Needless to say, we spent A LOT of time down by the lakeshore. It was along that shore that I created my first public artwork, on a breakwater rock near the Northwestern University observatory. Under the title "Friends Forever, 1984" ,in hastily applied orange and blue brushstrokes, my brother Tim and I painted twenty or so names of high school friends. Those names have long since worn away, but in their place hundreds of other rocks along the shore have been painted with heartfelt declarations of love, poetry, and even a few marriage proposals (they're worth a visit if you're in the area). Long after I painted that rock, but before I started making murals, my art consisted mostly of somber landscapes of abandoned and forlorn places. My subjects included boardedup small towns, industrial ruins, and the spaces underneath bridges to name a few. In other words, places not unlike Riverfront Park. It's no surprise then that when I moved to Lawrence in 1991, for grad school, I was immediately drawn to the area around the dam and have occasionally made art relating to it ever since. ![][2] I'm not the only one. Many people, inspired perhaps by the abundance of raw materials and open space, have made cool stuff along the river front. Look closely and you'll find, scatterd throughout the area, the evidence of humans fiddling around with rocks, sticks, and found objects to fashion remarkable totems, altars, and improvised constructions. Other visiting artists have embellished the built areas with markers, spraypaint, and even mosaic. At times, the whole area takes on the look of a big environmental art installation, continually being added to and altered by natural forces and human hands. ![][3] Night and Day When the sun goes down, Riverfront Park takes on a decidedly spookier feel. Lit up by small fires that crackle with the echoes of illicit sex and drunken despair, it can be more than a little foreboding at night. It's also the only place I've seen a dead person outside of a casket. Every year or so you here about a body being found along the banks of the river. Sometimes they say it's an accident, sometimes suicide , and sometimes the mystery is never solved. Because of these stories, I've always kept an eye out for odd things when I'm down there. There's no telling what you might find amongst the rocks and branches. A few times, I could have sworn I saw a person-shaped heap floating near the bank, but it always turned out to be some odd arrangement of colorful garbage and smooth driftwood. That is, it always turned out that way until one day it didn't... That was in June of 2004 when, while walking over the bridge, I looked down and saw a group of emergency workers pull a man's lifeless body out of the shallow water near the shore. The [newspaper][4] said that the man had been fishing the night before, but didn't return home. There was no evidence of an accident or foul play, only footprints, from what appeared to be the dead man's shoes, leading into the river. Reading this story reminded me of the college student who [disappeared][5] near the river, after a long night of drinking at a nearby bar, more then ten years ago. Friends said that he had talked about taking a swim before he left the bar by himself. His footprints were also discovered at the shore, but his body has never been found. Strange. In both of these incidents, footprints were found leading into the water, as if these men had been compelled by something to walk right in. Off the Path Riverfront Park is a kind of no man's / everybody's land - unpolished, semi-wild, and at times dangerous. It's a place where nature can flex its muscles, and fish stories are born, only to grow larger with each retelling. Unlike a generic playground made of molded yellow plastic or a ball field hemmed in by foul lines, down by the river you make up your own games. Sticks become wands or swords, rocks the building blocks of fantastic sculptures, and the river a home to man-eating beasts or a ticket to the Gulf of Mexico. It's all up to you and your imagination. It's a dynamic place always in motion and populated by a neighborhood of creative creatures. It's where I go to think things out, and where some go to live, when there's no where else to go. Most people stick to the trail, though the coolest stuff requires getting off the path. So, the next time you're headed down to the river ,go without expectations, and explore not looking for anything but what you find. Raccoons and kids know this instinctively, grown-ups tend to forget it. ![][6] [1]: [2]: [3]: [4]: [5]: [6]:


Aufbrezeln Eschaton 11 years, 8 months ago

Oh, wow. Thank you for this kick-ass blog. Fantastic.

Terry Bush 11 years, 8 months ago

Do more of these and you'll easily become a favorite!!!! Great stuff!

Marcy McGuffie 11 years, 8 months ago

Great read. Also makes me sad to realize after living in Lawrence for 18 years...North Lawrence is a huge mystery to me.

Eric Beightel 11 years, 8 months ago

I grew up and lived for the first 18 years of my life north of North Lawrence but always passed through on my way into town to see my "city" friends.

Your entry was excellent as it helped me remember much of the experiences of my youth. Even in high school we would sometimes come down to the river after school and play on the sand bars and get away from everything. Down by the river, the sound of the rushing water drowns out what minimal traffic there is on Elm Street and it is easy for one to imagine that he is somewhere else.

I built forts with the stones under the northern most end of the bridge. I ate shrooms and laid on the sand watching the water rush by one afternoon as a teenager. I have started 5ks at the top of the levee as an adult. The area is a hidden gem - and one that I had forgotten.

Thank you for reminding me.

leslie 11 years, 8 months ago

The riverfront is probably in our top 5 reasons for staying in Lawrence. I love it. Don't miss the eagles, everyone--they're practically swarming this winter. Another great blog, Dave.

lazz 11 years, 8 months ago

Somebody give me a mapquest assist here? I guess I'm a bit confused about nomenclature ... From what I can tell, Dave is talking about the rocky shoreline and levee east of the bridge and north of the river? Is that actually a "park"? Isn't it just sorta, well, rocky shoreline? I always thought Riverfront Park was south of the river and west of the bridge ... either that, or the park up about a mile from the bridge, accessed by that little road up there by TeePee Junction?

Bill Woodard 11 years, 8 months ago

Lazz: Actually, the parks on the south bank, west of the bridge, are Burcham and Constant parks (Burcham is the larger one, with more amenities, and is a training area for the KU rowing team; Constant is the smaller one that abuts Sixth Street.) Riverfront is on the north bank of the Kaw, stretching along the levy.

MyName 11 years, 8 months ago

I like to go down there several times a year, but I don't usually stick around for the "park" part. One of my favorite things to do is to just walk along the levee until you hit the barrier at the end and then walk back. It's kind of eerie at night because you can see all of South Lawrence, but once you're out of earshot of the dam it's as quiet as the countryside. And you can see all the stars too.

Dave Loewenstein 11 years, 8 months ago

So, which way do people like to go on the levee? East and downstream or west towards I-70? I do both. Going east you see all those great N. Lawrence gardens and then bam you're out in the country. West, on the other hand, takes you behind the N. 2nd Street strip of businesses, a trailer park, and an auto junkyard before you get outta town.

leslie 11 years, 8 months ago

I prefer east--I like to envy the blue & steel house & garden, see the bamboo, and the sheep are fun. Sometimes west is a nice change of pace, though.

lori 11 years, 8 months ago

I prefer to ride or, more commonly drive out west to the dog park. It's great to walk the drails while the dog chases leaves, runs around like a maniac, and in general enjoys being a leash-free puppy. Just remember, people with dogs to the north, lookin' for love to the south.

It's alsofun to bring a couple of discs and play frisbee golf while the dog chases the frisbees. it's a nice walk, and beautiful in every season.

Ram 11 years, 8 months ago

A splendid piece of commentary on a unique spot in Lawrence. I have spent time in this area recreationally through parts of 5 decades and it is constantly changing. Anyone remember when the whole north shore jutted out into the river maybe another 25-100 feet depending on placement and had sand laid to a height of 15-20 feet over the river? Before the rains of 93, it was that way for years. In the late 80s and early 90s there was actually a little riverfront willow jungle with it's own little 'ponds' and all manner of fascinating 'drift objects'. I remember one winter where we had ice floes stacked on top of each other all along the north side almost to the 8th st. access and you could walk all the way on top of the ice. Sometimes when the water got really low you could almost walk out to the island in the middle and one summer we did and took pictures to prove it. An amazing, intensely magical place!

Dave Loewenstein 11 years, 8 months ago

Yeah, I remember how the northern bank would spring to life with trees and grasses creating a dense little micro-habitat. It had a much wilder feel back then. I also recall seeing lots of people fishing from the concrete ledge at the base of the dam. I'm sure it wasn't safe, but seeing them there with their radios and styrofoam coolers, fishing all day and often into the night, made the area more lively .

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