Kudos to Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat and the Star Tribune for opening a serious discussion of how this marvelous gorge on the mighty Mississippi can again serve to awe and humble and thrill and inspire the masses (“A bold vision for the mighty Mississippi,” editorial, Jan. 17).
Opat’s proposal is nothing if not opportune — it is definitely time to restore the magnificent natural amphitheater of St. Anthony Falls to a portion of its original splendor. (Imagine yourself hand-checking the perfumed spray generated by a crystalline curtain of water downward flying shrouded in heavy mist and giant acoustics.)
But enduring this sacred property in touristy roles — trinket shops, marriage backdrop, fast-food outlets — does a major disservice to its laudatory status as a unique source of spiritual power and aesthetic brilliance. Furthermore, the gargantuan concrete “Wishbone” violently outscales the sincere beauty of the river and its foamy ribbons bubbling through a flat, gray metropolis.
As a Minneapolis resident for 50 years, I am too often reminded how timid the local vision can become — how inadequate to the opportunity for a truly significant public initiative. As much as $100 million for this? How sad — why isn’t this sacred spot worth as much as a football stadium filled with Vike-carious athletes?
I call it the “Minneapolis syndrome.” Psychologists argue among themselves that the syndrome is the conscious acceptance of the inferior in the presence of the superior, because as dwellers in this mysterious settlement, if we do one, and only one thing, to please our neighbors, it’s surrendering to their opacity.
The real problem with a “splashy” vision should be readily apparent to all with vision: This mammoth intrusion into the narrow gorge lacks a key ingredient for those pondering change — the falls. If I were writing for a left-wing environmental magazine, I would call it a hoax — an attempt to distract from the real issue: Where are the falls? There are none! There is only a spillway, a fabrication of an actual drop in elevation between the precipice and the pool below.
We all know the sad story of the Minneapolis falls that existed for 12,000 years before imploding in 1869 when unregulated exploitation by wheat and timber milling sluiced through the last thin layer of limestone which had created the phenomenon. To be sure, when last seen, the falls boasted a modest elevation of 15 feet. It doesn’t sound like a lot compared to centuries ago when the falls were in Bloomington — the entirety of Bloomington. The early falls were impressive: 200 feet tall and a mile long.
At the rate of 2 feet a year, the falls worked their way to their final destination — a spillway — just a grade above a sandy rivulet. We lost the falls, but their spirit speaks to us still, Unktehi (god of waters who lived beneath the falls) wants to be heard singing above the congestion and debris of a large small town that demands to be called a great city. The full potential of the vertical drop of the falls of the Mississippi is between 35 and 70 feet, offering another chance to raise the falls to epic scale.
The plan as offered doesn’t address the elephant under the spillway — the once-worldwide celebrity of the cataracts that now slumber beneath a concrete apron. No plan is real until it addresses the restoration of the famous falls of the Mississippi which has gathered us here. The falls of the Mississippi call upon us in our generation’s strength to summon their ancient majesty to bond the people again to their Mother.
If we can’t restore the falls that built a city, we don’t deserve to be called visionary. Without the falls, the coordinates of Minneapolis are just that, numbers on a map. Let’s really give the people their money’s worth. Let’s win the Super Bowl of natural restorations. Let us raise the falls on the longest river of the continent to its thunderous glory. I guarantee a marvelous crystalline trophy soaring in triumph to those who give 110% to recreate the majesty the planet once set here.
I’ll bend my slender talents to begging for cash, stuffing envelopes or internet collusion in order to rebuild the falls and realize its mighty spirit. But I won’t give even one racist Thomas Jefferson nickel to profane the river and its hidden roar with a Coney Island distraction of rebar and Pepsi-Cola.
Yes, Mr. Opat, “great cities have great public spaces.” It’s all too true. And until the designers and shakers decide to free Unktehi, no hip bone, thigh bone or chicken wing will do.
William Boudreau is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. He headed a citizens committee promoting cleaner water for the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes and advocated for the name change of Bde Maka Ska.