What Do You Want On Your Riverwalk?

The year was 1907, and Jamestown had a park problem.

Rapid growth had nearly doubled the city’s population in the preceding 20 years and its physical footprint had more than doubled, with streetcar lines and automobiles allowing development to spread beyond the downtown and riverfront core.

Parks, however, had not been part of this general expansion. Few efforts had been made to set aside parkland and no plan for a citywide park system existed. So, as land was swallowed up for homes and factories, the number of viable locations for new parks was dwindling.

Civic leaders recognized this problem and understood that the quality of life for future generations of city residents would be limited if action wasn’t taken soon. As a result, a Board of Park Commissioners was formed that year to oversee the city’s few existing parks and to put plans in place for park expansion.

To assist with planning, the board brought Charles Mulford Robinson to town. Robinson was a noted journalist and planner and one of the leading figures of the City Beautiful, a national movement to bring parks and the arts into America’s increasingly crowded and bleak industrial cities.

After examining Jamestown closely, Robinson issued a report with simple recommendations. The city should plan for the distant future by acquiring sites for park development as soon as possible, especially sites along the river and on hillsides with limited development potential.

The city took his advice to heart. Plans were soon finalized for Allen Park on land that had been donated for park use. Within a few decades, land was acquired for what would become Bergman Park, Willard Heights Park, the Hundred Acre Lot, and other, smaller parks.

Land along the Chadakoin River, however, was more difficult to assemble. Due to the railroad’s proximity to the river and the Chadakoin’s usefulness as an industrial sewer and a source of water for steam generation, manufacturers had long controlled much of the city’s riparian land. Buying-out industrialists and displacing their factories was not something the city had the money or the desire to undertake.

Instead, decades would have to pass for riverfront park opportunities to arise. As technologies and the economy changed, manufactures became less and less reliant on the railroad and the river. As utilization of riverfront factories declined, the river became cleaner, and cities around the country became more focused on public access to lakes and rivers, the demand for riverfront parks and the availability of riverfront land converged.

The Brooklyn Square urban renewal project in the late 1960s and early 1970s provided the biggest opening for riverfront progress. Using federal and state dollars, the city was able to acquire and demolish several industrial properties that had long covered or hidden the river from public view. Although aspects of the Brooklyn Square project were, and remain, controversial, the establishment of publicly-controlled land along the river has been its greatest legacy.

Making that space a desirable place to visit has also taken some time, with the Riverwalk coming together piece by piece since the late 1970s, including the most recent extension along the north shore from the Warner Dam to land behind the train station that was purchased by the Gebbie Foundation. Funding for additional paths is now being sought.

For those who currently use the Riverwalk, it’s a pleasant to place to fish, to visit during a lunch break, to walk the dog, or to view the city from captivating angles. A counting device installed by the Chautauqua County Health Network’s Creating Healthy Place program this year found that the segment next to JAMA’s parking lot averaged 165 users per day in August, 122 in September, 110 in October, and 50 in November.

Expanding use of the Riverwalk, especially by local residents, is a goal of the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation and its partners. Raising awareness through attractive signage, interpretive displays, updated fixtures, and clearly marked parking locations are some ways to boost usage. But so is programming that brings music, the arts, nature tours, history walks, and other activities.

What would make you a regular user of the Riverwalk in 2014? Find a link to our Riverwalk survey at www.jamestownrenaissance.org, or on JRC’s Facebook page (jrc14701), to provide ideas and suggestions. Or mail your ideas to the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation at 119 W. Third St. in Jamestown.

Renaissance Reflections is a biweekly feature with news from the front lines of Jamestown’s revitalization.