In the Garden of Irony 

What happened to Bend-in-the-River?

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The Jordan River Parkway trail skirts the International Peace Gardens’ lush lawns and kaleidoscopic beds of geraniums and begonias and, in less than a mile, delivers you to Bend-in-the-River, a place where irony lurks in the waist-high weeds. I lean my bike against one of large cottonwood trees that shade the site and walk around the two acres. I feel like an explorer who has stumbled upon evidence of a lost civilization.

Built 12 years ago by a consortium of local interest groups, Bend-in-the-River was once an attractive destination for students and nature lovers. Or so the residual evidence suggests. Today, its soaring “urban treehouse” classroom, four-masted schooner, amphitheater and boardwalk are choked by weeds. Many of the shrubs and trees, despite wire barriers designed to protect them, are dead. The pond is dried up. The signs are defaced. A blanket hangs on a railing in the outdoor classroom.

Not far away, Gene Patten, 72, is pulling a red wagon. He has rigged it to carry two trash bags. Both are full. Patten, a resident of the nearby Fremont Avenue neighborhood, cleans the area every two weeks or so. “I like to look at it without trash,” he explains. He says he picks up beer cans and litter but draws the line at cigarette butts. He tells me a story. Last spring, a group of young volunteers spent a day planting plants. Three weeks later, city workers came through and mowed them down.

The genesis of Bend-in-the-River is at the University of Utah’s Bennion Community Service Center in 1996. The ambitious project was intended to mark the center’s 10th anniversary. It was conceived as a link between the west-side community and the university. Owned by the city, the horseshoe-shaped site was “an overgrown, abandoned mess,” wrote Sonja Hervi Davidson, an AmeriCorpsVISTA employee who served as the project’s second coordinator in the late 1990s. Eventually, kids from nearby Parkview Elementary School and architecture students at the university worked together to transform ideas into blueprints. Six-figure construction costs were paid by the Herbert I. and Elsa B. Michael Foundation. Much of the spadework was done by volunteers—hundreds of volunteers—including kids from the Parkview and Riley elementary schools.

The Bennion Center’s website offers a history of the Bend-in-the-River Urban Treehouse & Green Space. It paints a rosy picture of a “unique point of interest along the Jordan River” that “continues to carry out its mission of caring for and utilizing a natural learning environment in an urban setting.” The words radiate idealism. But the climactic closing sentence describing “a collaborative vision of different members of the community” through which “a legacy was created that will last for many years to come” seems hollow. The Bennion Center’s grand vision of an anniversary project has faded. To me, fresh from a Bend-in-the-River exploration, the idealistic rhetoric is suffused with irony.

“It makes me sad,” says Davidson, who now lives in Ogden and works at Odyssey Elementary School. An unreconstructed idealist at 34, Davidson says she has been pleased to see parking and signage improved in the past few years but, like me, worries the once-promising riparian space suffers from neglect. The root cause, ironically, could lie in the collaboration that launched the project but has not had the wherewithal to sustain it. Collaboration is a fashionable concept, but many of its proponents lose sight of the fact that it is not an end in itself. As collaborators attend to their collaborations, no one walks the ground each day. No one makes sure this week’s planting of oak seedlings are watered next week. No one supervises the maintenance crews so the young trees are spared. No one takes ownership.

I tell Davidson about Patten’s story of the mowed-down seedlings. “It happened many times to me,” Davidson says. “We once spent a great day planting a butterfly garden with students. A few weeks later, the city came through with pesticides and killed the plants. It is hard to explain that to the kids.”

One of the Bend-in-the-River signs provides an e-mail address for Kris Fenn, student-programs coordinator at the Bennion Center. I e-mailed four questions to her. I eventually received a response from Leslie Chan, Salt Lake City’s Open Space Lands Program manager, in which she describes “a partnership” with the Bennion Center. The partnership “offers large coordinated volunteer opportunities,” she writes, while her department “is responsible for maintaining this site and conducts weekly, seasonal and as-needed maintenance tasks. This includes trash pick-up, vegetation management and graffiti removal.”

I don’t doubt Chan’s sincerity, though it is hard for me to square her words with what I see. Davidson believes a funding shortfall accounts for the disparity. When budgets are reduced, need-to-haves displace nice-to-haves like Bend-in-the-River. Facing university-wide budget cuts a few years ago, the Bennion Center adjusted its priorities and laid off the employee who was responsible for Bend-in-the-River.

Without the oversight of a full-time staffer, Davidson doubts the promise of Bend-in-the-River can be realized.

When Davidson first visited the site in the late 1990s, it was an “unkempt, weed-infested, misused” tract of land. Ironically, the adjectives apply today. The urban green space is weedy and brown. The outdoor classroom is a makeshift bedroom. The lesson I draw from the Bend-in-the-River project is that if well-intentioned people hope to transform a vision into a legacy, they’d better have the money to see it through. 

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