The River Is Not The Enemy

My thoughts on this week’s focus on the 40th Anniversary of the Agnes Flood:

Much has been made of the 40th anniversary of the “Flood of ’72” that caused so much devastation to the East Coast including, of course, Elmira, Corning and New York’s Southern Tier Region. “Facing The Wall” spends a great deal of time discussing the flood and its impact on the region. But just as the movie is about the river and not the flood, it’s important to remember that the river, not the flood, is what defines our city.

I moved to Elmira in 1987. Iszard’s Department Store was still downtown, but it wouldn’t be for long. Most of the anchor stores were gone, the area was facing a struggling economy, and my first exposure to the city was driving up Clemens Center Parkway, where I witnessed what I saw as row after row of empty buildings and a post-industrial town that was clearly suffering. Later, I was told that I was taken down the “good route” in town. Little did I know.

The story of Elmira is not unique. It’s the story of downtowns across the Northeast and Midwest. Yes, we had a flood, but it was really just one (admittedly very large) nail in a coffin that was already being built. The river has become a convenient target for all the struggles that the city has endured since.

But the river is not the enemy.

In a very real sense, we are the enemy of the river. We have blocked it off with an ugly wall to “protect” us from its perceived danger. Until recently, no one could easily get to the river to enjoy its benefits, put in a kayak, go fishing, or just sit and enjoy the peace and quiet offered by the slow-moving waters. You can’t hike along a river you can’t access. As Jim Pfeiffer so aptly points out in the documentary, the river became a barrier from getting from one side of town to another. A nuisance, and a dangerous one at that.

Forty years after the horrific devastation of Agnes, the community is finally embracing the river. Last week saw the “Riverfest” Celebration, with dozens of kayakers and canoeists floating down the river and exiting on its banks at a new boat launch in the heart of downtown. People are looking at the river as an asset, not a liability. I say it’s about time.

I grew up in a town very much like Elmira. Port Huron, Michigan is located on the St. Clair River in the thumb region of Michigan. When I was young, the town had a vibrant downtown, with large department stores, movie theaters, great shops, and restaurants. Today, it’s a shadow of its former self. They didn’t have a flood….they had a mall. Lacking a convenient excuse for downtown’s woes, they have slowly crawled back, and now the river is the focus of development there.

I hope for the same here. Elmira is my adopted hometown. I have lived here longer than anywhere else. I have raised my family here, and I love this town. I’ve been one of its biggest cheerleaders. I love the people here and I love the river. I can’t wait to see what happens, and I can’t wait to be a part of it. My hope is that people reading this will feel the same, and view the river for what it is…a beautiful, powerful force of nature that defined who we are, and will be a big part of who we will become.

It’s going to be a great journey.

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