It was a cold, cloudy, wet, grey, miserable sort of afternoon and I was downtown with a couple of hours to piss away on nothing in particular. In other words, a perfect time to go larking about in alleys. Alleys are best photographed in rotten weather because there are fewer people working in them. I actually like the people who work in alleys, but they tend to be camera-shy. And suspicious. It’s just easier to do alley work in foul weather.
So I slipped the little X10 in my pocket and headed out to find a nice juicy alley. First, though, I thought I’d make a little detour to visit to the river.
I’m of the opinion that you can never go very wrong making a detour to visit the river. Any river. That said, I have to admit there are certain aspects of a river that make you better appreciate a good alley. Like the absence of walls and buildings to block the wind. Let’s face it, rivers suck at wind-blocking.
On the other hand, the absence of all those walls and buildings gives rivers the great advantage of meteorological drama. With rivers you get all that accompanying sky. And you get it twice — once overhead and once in reflection.
There really wasn’t anything particularly interesting going on at the river. There was the usual flock of pigeons morris-dancing around in the sky. Despite the cold and wet, there were a few intrepid bicyclists and runners tooling up and down the riverwalk and bike path. There were a couple of really bitchy Canada Geese fussing at each other.
It took me a while to figure out why it was so quiet. The construction that’s been taking place along the riverwalk for the last couple of years is largely finished. There were no generators coughing away, no backhoes, no bucket trucks or forklifts, no men with jackhammers. The riverwalk was…quiet.
For years the Des Moines city planners have been making a considerable effort to draw people back into the downtown area. It’s not just that developers have been building loft apartments and faux brownstones — the city has been adding a lot of public art and other quality of life amenities. There’s a new dog park, there’s a skating rink, there are bike trails and pedestrian bridges, there’s a botanical center and a science center and a historical building — all near the river.
Construction has just been completed on a small, two-level riverwalk pavilion. When it opens, it’ll include public restrooms (and trust me, that’s important in a city) and a small cafe or coffee shop.
And in front of the pavilion: five dango.
The dango are large ceramic sculptures by Japanese artist Jun Kaneko. A dango is a sort of Japanese steamed dumpling. These don’t look anything like dumplings, but I think there is something dumplingish about them. They’re not bland like dumplings, but they’re simple and strangely comforting. These are happy-making works of art.
There’s something very sweet and childlike about the dango. They were only installed a few weeks ago, but they seem to fit right in along the river. Seeing them, touching them, watching other folks look at them with a sort of bemused confusion — it makes me ridiculously happy.
Still, I hadn’t set out to look at the dango; I’d set out to wander idly through alleys. So I didn’t stay.
But before I ventured forth alleyward, I decided to check out the other structure that’s been under construction along the riverwalk.
Rivers flood. All of them, they all flood. If you look at the large version of the photo below (or almost any photo of the riverwalk) you’ll see several lines of flood levels. What you can’t see are the tree-trunk-sized logs jammed up in the infrastructure beneath those bridges. When the Des Moines River has once-in-a-century floods (which we seem to have every five years or so now, thanks to climate change and the short-term planning of the old Army Corps of Engineers), it really floods. It’s not uncommon for those balustrades to be under water.
I’m mentioning that because the other structure that’s been under construction is a storm pump station. It’s designed to keep those pesky once-in-a-century flood waters under control. Both the pump station and the new pavilion have exceedingly cool flood doors that can be closed during high water. They look a lot like the doors you see protecting the island lairs of James Bond villains.
I spent an absurd amount of time looking at those doors. I don’t really want to see the river flood, but at the same time I can’t wait until the river floods.
I was just getting ready to head out and find a friendly alley when my cell phone chirped. I discovered I’d spent about two hours walking a grand total of about three and a half blocks. I had to hurry to meet my friend, so I took a shortcut through an alley.
I did manage to shoot a photo in the alley. But it was blurry.