We were wandering around some Swiss city a while back. Our guide was giving us the tour and made an offhand remark about how the city developed along the river, much as, he was sure, our American cities did.
“Sure,” I reflexively thought. “Obviously.”
The more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became about our home city. Clearly, the Alabama River played an important role in the development of Montgomery. Why put the capital city here, on the banks of the river, instead of, say, somewhere else? Duh. Shipping. Transportation. Security. All of the same reasons that have led people to settle near water for the whole of human history.
But do we actually use the river? Is it a featured highlight of our city?
In almost any number of cities, rivers are amazing attractions, where the highest-priced real estate clusters. People want to see the water, or walk alongside it. You probably know about the Riverwalk in San Antonio, but you could fill a book with stories and photos about how major cities (and some not-so-major ones) utilize their rivers, making them a place for recreation and tourism and incalculable civic value.
Here in Montgomery? We spent a bunch of money fixing up our city’s “Riverwalk,” and we have some events down there like the Dragonboat Races and the Wine Festival and New Year’s Eve Countdown. But that’s just one tiny city-owned strip (and even that strip struggles to get people down to the weird accessible-by-pedestrian-tunnel promenade). You’d certainly be hard pressed to describe the real estate alongside the Alabama River as among the “highest priced.” If you drive back behind the Biscuits Stadium and down around the Capitol Oyster Bar? You’d think that you were in one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the states, a sort of abandoned industrial warehouse zone
What are your favorite places to get a view of the river? It’s a pretty short list and it probably involves driving and parking and getting out and walking. The river isn’t integrated into our lives, whether you are talking about the tiny bit that touches downtown, or the entire rest of the massive coastline where the mighty Tallapoosa merges with the majestic Coosa. The river mostly exists as a depressingly-polluted abstraction, hidden from nearly every view, featured in public conversation whenever somebody has a hare-brained scheme to hold a triathlon (click that link for an idea of how such river-based events are promoted).
So, confident that we must be missing something, we set out to discover the parts of our city’s river that we might be otherwise overlooking. We do not have a boat. So our idea was to jump in the car and use the magical power of Google maps to find all of the places in nearby driving distance where we might in some way interact with this neglected treasure.
If you thought that was a long intro, fasten your seatbelt. We’re about to take you on a 2,000-word tour of your city’s river … and the difficulty you can have trying to interact with it.
The Alabama River is like a giant “S” sitting due Northwest of the city. Using that letter as the metaphor and working backwards from how you’d draw an “S” on paper (and the flow of the river), the “bottom” of the “S” abuts federal property (Maxwell Air Force Base) and is largely inaccessible to those without security clearance. The first curve of the “S” is the part that touches downtown. It arcs away from the city northwest towards Prattville and Millbrook before boomeranging back almost to the Northern Boulevard.
Here’s the map:
So we started up at Overlook Park and, yeah, you can see the river from there, along with the “urban farm” and the Montgomery Advertiser headquarters with their cool giant globe sign. But we were interested in interacting with the river in some way, not in seeing it from afar way up the hill alongside a weird giant steel reproduction of a Wright Brothers airplane.
We went down Maxwell Boulevard and tried to go to Powder Magazine Park, which we wrote about way back in 2009. Not a lot has changed since then. The park still seems sort of closed. There’s no information telling you what to do or what features the park has. The only difference is that the giant abandoned housing projects (Riverside Heights) have now been torn down (with prison labor!)
We did manage to creep our car down an overgrown and winding road (which you can see on your Google map as “Riverside Drive”) and found a boat launch and a few pickup trucks down there. But this had the atmosphere of an amenity-free private club of some sort, a utilitarian spot for good ol’ boys to get on the water and that’s all. Park benches and informational plaques are for the weak (and the kudzu).
Nonplussed, we were disappointed not to be able to access the parts of the river that abut Maxwell. The base has been closed to the public since 9-11, so we are allowed to praise the Air Force, but not look at their museums and scenic river views. It’s not like our tax dollars pay for their private beaches or anything.
So we curled back down through downtown and went past Biscuits Stadium into the aforementioned semi-scary part of town where Capitol Oyster Bar lives (in the building that used to be The Marina). For more on our 2010 trip there, click here.
We looked at where the COB touches the river and, well, um, they’ve got a stage and a marina where some people are docking boats. And there’s a big muddy patch where the COB’s riverboat sank and leaked oil into the river and had to be pulled out over the course of a multi-month fiasco. So, to put it politely, it’s not the kind of place you probably want to hang out near the river … and it may also be private property. Unclear. It’s probably pretty decent if you have a boat, but otherwise you kind of feel like you are trespassing in someone’s parking lot.
Next, we cruised along Parallel Street, which you can see if you are following along our adventure on the map (and we hope you are). It is so crazy back here. We always thought it was funny that the street on the way to the Capitol Oyster Bar was called Shady Street, because it is a little bit sketchy. But really, it’s more depressing than fear-inducing.
From Parallel Street, we went down to the very end of State Dock Road and wandered around down there.
If you find yourself driving around in these semi-industrial areas, you can see some amazing things. These things may not make you think “this is a beautiful use of riverfront real estate,” but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Who owns these buildings that are within a stone’s throw of our beautiful river?
We accidentally ended up amid the railyard that you can see on the map. So, we got an up close look at how pine trees are exported from our state and turned into paper (or whatever). But not much of a look at the Alabama River. We wanted boats, not trains.
Still, it was fun to feel like we had ended up somewhere that we weren’t supposed to be. We went connected with the Northern Boulevard and went north up Jackson’s Ferry road. What better way to learn about the Alabama River than to drive on the Alabama River Parkway?
We ended up out near the Montgomery Expressway, which is a racetrack. It does not feel like you are still in Montgomery.
We first saw an island in the river with a road leading to it. It turns out that this is a private island and there is a gate across the road. As the photo notes, you have to be a member. We are not members. Alabama River access denied.
By this point, we were getting hungry. Since we were cruising around with eyes glued to Google maps (well, the passenger was … the driver was keeping his eyes squarely on the road and hands at 10 and 2 o’clock), we noticed something called “One More Lounge.” Located at 4330 Riveroaks Road in Millbrook, this place turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.
This place is right on the river. When we were there, it was incredibly chilled out, although you get the impression that it could get rowdy when it fills up with “the right people.” The bartender was super friendly and the beer was super cheap. It was perfect.
They have a patio that overlooks the river, and a boat dock so that you can pull your boat up, grab a round of drinks or some ice or whatever and keep on truckin’. While we were admiring the view, a seriously sunburned party dude stumbled off his boat to check in on the happenings at the “One More.” He probably had a few more.
What did we learn?
Our city sits on one of the state’s largest rivers. It was a life-sustaining engine of everything for native peoples that settled here. It has been a key piece of the economy and commerce. And it’s being promoted by the city as some kind of stage for water ski contests and country music fireworks extravaganzas. Yet, there is not (as far as we can tell) a single restaurant in Montgomery that has an outdoor patio that overlooks the river. There is no beautiful tree-lined space where you can sit and watch the water roll by. The best thing we could find was a bar attached to an RV park in Millbrook where folks go to play pool and sing karaoke.
This is no way to treat a river. It was fun to drive around and have a day-long adventure looking for access points, but we didn’t come any closer to being able to answer our European friend’s questions about the Alabama River.
“Why is everything so far away from the river? Are you scared of it? What’s wrong with your river?”
I have no idea. If the river is too polluted for swimming, we shouldn’t be having triathlons in it (or jet ski contests or Dragon Boat races or anything else). And if it’s got too much freight and cargo traffic, can we have a public conversation about that? And why hasn’t that stopped other cities from developing the properties around their rivers? Is part of the river a flood plain? Aren’t there engineering solutions to such issues? If we are going to leave so much of the riverside undeveloped and poverty-stricken, can’t we just make it undeveloped and a nature preserve?
I have no answers to these questions, and it’s possible that we missed some prime spots. It’s possible and we’d love to be corrected if we’re wrong. But I get the feeling that we gave it a fair shot. And I sure do wish the river named after our state, the one that runs through our capital city, was a bit more of a revered centerpiece instead of an afterthought. Until someone steps forward with ambitious ideas for integrating our city into the nature that it was built on top of, visitors to Montgomery are going to remain like the Alabama River — just passing through.
Here are some more pics from our adventure: