Walking the West Bottoms

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Something draws us to the West Bottoms. People come here to commemorate important life events, weddings and graduations. They use its tall brick walls as a backdrop. Maybe they want something solid and unchanging to frame a fleeting moment. Maybe they don’t realize that change is the very definition of the West Bottoms, the only constant in its turbulent history.

The Bottoms have seen native tribes and displaced Indians, traders and fur trappers, immigrants and escaped slaves, cattle and livestock on trains, merchants and travellers on steamboats. From the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, steel workers sent the tanks floating downstream that would eventually land on foreign beaches and defeat the Axis powers. And, oh, the cattle. You could once look in one direction and hardly see anything else, while a whole city of houses and churches, bridges and elevated rails, flour mills, schools, hotels and train depots stretched to the foot of the bluffs behind your back. Most of this was washed away by fast-rising water. The water is a constant too. After every flood some things are repaired or built again. Others are forever lost or abandoned.

We come here now for other reasons. Back-alley bars with live jazz slinking through port hole windows. Fugue-inducing 3 AM concerts with ten drummers and all manner of electronic instruments.  Burnt ends slow cooked and drenched in a sauce of tomato and molasses. Grown men riding angry geldings. Giant pork tenderloins between crappy wood laminate walls. Framed photographs and vibrant paintings in stark white rooms. Moscow mules in a copper mug. People live in old flour mills, work in grain warehouses with charred beams and open elevator shafts. People come here to buy, to sell, and to explore. People come here to create things.

I’m walking down the street on a March day, sky electric blue. It’s still cold, especially when the clouds swirl over the sun, or I walk in the shade of the brick buildings. Every so often the wind picks up and pelts my face with tiny grains of sand and loose gravel. A few bikers idle as an orange train clatters by. A building curves to match the bend of the tracks below, ghosted layers of paint still visible on its brick facade. Rail spurs reflect the sun. Something draws us to the West Bottoms, something far more than nostalgia. We’re drawn here by the excitement, the rarity of finding a place so specific and so distinctly urban, yet so undetermined, expansive and full of possibility.

Words and pictures by Gavin Snider