A Reflection About River Towns

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Do you have a favorite body of water? Mine is the river. I love rivers especially because of what they do to cities…that is, they authenticate them, give them resiliency, knowledge, history, life.

Let me explain. For the most part, I hate cities, especially big ones. The ones I do like (Nashville, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Birmingham, to name a few) are located on or very near rivers. So are Paris and London, two of the most well-loved cities in the world.

This river-city connection isn’t something I discovered until I moved from the big (non-river) city of Houston to the river town of Tuscaloosa for college. The first time I visited Tuscaloosa, I was fascinated by the Black Warrior River, and to this day my favorite places in town are the River Walk and the all-wooden trestle bridge that crosses the river and connects Tuscaloosa to its sister city Northport. My favorite street is Jack Warner Parkway, the only street in town that follows the river from city limit to city limit. My favorite thing about the city (and other cities with rivers) is the people who seem to care not about money or prestige, but about community, the environment, art, history, and, most importantly, other people.

These aren’t typical characteristics of cities, which tend to isolate and seclude rather than bring together. No, the citizens of river towns are the ones who seem most attentive to the passage of time and the importance of people. The citizens of river towns seem most aware of the fact that every human being is fallible, but precious. The citizens of river towns are the ones who understand that nothing is ever created in isolation.

It’s almost as if the river—whose waters change every second of every hour of every day, carving new shorelines with every flood of its banks and revealing in stages tree roots that have previously been buried for centuries—reminds its city that nothing is stagnant. Even today, an age when motor vehicles have taken over and rivers transport less than they used to, I can look at the river every day and see barges pushing cargo across miles and miles of land, just like travelers, goods, and ideas were pushed down rivers decades before now. How can we not be reminded that history is made in the present?

One month ago today, a half-mile-wide tornado ravaged this river town where I’ve lived the last three years, the place I’ve come to call “home.” It left 41 residents dead, including six University of Alabama students. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, including the homes of at least four of my former professors, as well as my own.

Since April 27, Tuscaloosa has received steady amounts of praise for pulling together and for helping neighbors who need help. But this praise comes as no surprise to me—it’s the river town in us. We don’t need a tornado to tell us what’s important. We already know that wallowing in self-pity does nothing. We already know that what is destroyed can always be rebuilt. We already know that what is bad can always be worse. We already know that there are things more powerful than us.

In this case, we know that more students and residents could have and probably should have died when we survey the damage, and we thank God they didn’t. Personally, I know that my house is gone, but I also know that my favorite parts of this city, both tangible and intangible, are still here. We still have the river, its huge trees, the Historic District, and downtown. We still have our community, our parks, our art, and our history. We still have our spirit.

As I start my fourth and final year at The University of Alabama, I’m living in a town that many people have said is unrecognizable. I say it’s perfectly recognizable, at least in spirit. Physically, it’s only a matter of time before it will be recognizable again. New Orleans overcame Katrina. Nashville overcame its floods. Tuscaloosa will overcome its tornado.

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