“If you go to the parking lot of the Ix building, you can hear the creek under you,” said Matthew Slaats. “It sounds like someone’s left their water running, but there’s actually a creek right there. There’s a ton of other underground creek spaces throughout the city. It’s something you never think about.”
Slaats is referring to Pollock’s Branch, one of Charlottesville’s two dozen underground waterways. They’re in every city. Natural creeks or drainage ditches that get covered up, built over, and integrated into a city’s maintenance system as urban areas grow.
Did you ever wonder where all that rainwater goes, once it runs down that grate in the street? In Charlottesville, it’s mostly a small network of underground tunnels ranging from a half-dozen blocks to a few miles in length, draining water and run-off from the city’s urban areas. In larger cities these are often vast tunnels, an arcane and idiosyncratic series of interconnected waterways vital to a city’s daily functions, but invisible and forgotten by its citizens, save for a handful of construction and maintenance workers.
Slaats is the newly-appointed director of The Bridge Progressive Arts Intiative, profiled in last issue. (Full disclosure: this writer was an employee of The Bridge from 2006-2009.) On Wednesday, August 28, The Bridge will screen Lost Rivers, a recent documentary about urban underground waterways around the world. After the screening, Slaats will lead a candlelight walk tracing the path of the nearest underground waterway, Pollock’s Creek. “It’s actually just across the street,” he said. “It goes down along Sixth Street southeast. It runs down through Friendship Court, through the Ix [building], and then pops out just south of Elliott [Avenue]. It drains most of Downtown. All of Downtown basically drains to a point just south of the train tracks.”
“The film is interesting,” he said. “It looks at a group of high school and college kids that started exploring these underground rivers in Russia and Italy. When they first started they were doing it illegally. But over time they got to know these things so well, and the cities started to recognize that, so they made them a kind of organization, and now they lead tours underground. So you’re seeing these kind of Roman structures that have other things built on top of them and then you have these rivers flowing underneath.”
“[The documentary] looks at Seoul and they look at Yonkers, both of which did these ‘daylighting’ projects of a river that had just gotten so bad that they just covered them up in the 20th century. And now they’re uncovering them. Like Yonkers—now all of a sudden they have this beautiful space in the middle of town and people want to be there, and so developers are coming in and developing it. It’s totally the same conversation as [the High Line in New York].”
“In the past I had done some projects about waterways,” Slaats said. “So I thought this film was interesting, and I’d been wanting to show it for a while. I just hadn’t had the opportunity. And it just so happens that there’s an underground creek right across the street from us, so it was an easy thing to make a connection to. But also there’s this whole conversation about the strategic investment area, which is this big development where [the city] has brought all of these consultants in. They’ve been doing this big study of the area south of Downtown to look at how it could be redeveloped. So they’ve been working on this for a while and it just so happens that one of the designs at the preliminary design competition is to ‘daylight’ that creek and make it a centerpiece of this plan.”
“So, the hope is to show this film, which brings up some questions, and then go for this walk,” he said. Slaats has invited several representatives of the city, as well as UVA architecture student James Moore (who has researched Pollock’s Branch), members of the strategic investment steering committee, and the PLACE design task force, among others, with the goal of facilitating further dialogue. He hopes to involve environmental activists, as well.
This kind of communication and transparency to the community seem crucial at a time when development in Charlottesville is expanding at an ambitious and exponential rate. “So many people see it as an either/or, like you’re either pro-development, or you’re against it,” Slaats said. “Development’s going to happen no matter what. But you hope you can do it in such a way that it’s thoughtful. So that people have a say in it.”
Slaats hopes the event will be both informative and interactive, perhaps drawing the sort of audience members that might not ordinarily attend a City Council meeting. “I like the idea of a bunch of people walking down the creek with candles, and marking it out and making it present for a little while,” he said. “It’s kind of performative and I really like that idea of creating opportunities for performance in some way.”
“My big push for the arts, here at The Bridge is that the arts shouldn’t be here ‘just because,’” he said. “I want to ask ‘what use, really, is art, in a community like Charlottesville?’ And so I want to try to push this idea of connection, bringing up questions, talking about art being a catalyst for new ways of seeing the city. So it has a big, more of a functional, mode to it, rather than just kind of being a visual experience. I want to play between those two things. Present the avant-garde film or music thing, but then also [ask], ‘how can music and images be used to facilitate a conversation?’”
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