Academic journal article Journal of Cultural Geography

Where Is River City, USA? Measuring Community Attachment to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

Academic journal article Journal of Cultural Geography

Where Is River City, USA? Measuring Community Attachment to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. This paper attempts to determine the location of towns self-identifying as metaphorical "River Cities" through quantitative methods informed by concepts of place attachment. Relative levels of river-oriented community attachment are measured by a frequency analysis of certain river-related terms in the names of businesses located in 213 U.S. counties adjacent to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Population-adjusted frequencies of the terms "river city," "river cities," "river town," "big river," "great river," "Missouri River," and "Mississippi River" in business names are used as proxy measures of community attachment to the river. The mapped results identify regional concentration and variation in river-centered community identity. Contextualized within the place attachment literature, these results suggest that the importance of big rivers to collective sentiment, self-presentation, image, and identity varies greatly from place to place.


What is a "river town"? Many towns and cities in the United States are spatially located adjacent to rivers of all sizes, but not all such places metaphorically "face" their rivers. A river may run through the heart of a city or town and remain ignored by residents; in other riverfront towns, residents embrace the presence and symbolic meanings of their river, interacting with it and incorporating it into their lives and shared community. How are these "river cities" different from riverfront cities, which are merely located adjacent to a river? More specifically, do our great rivers contribute to an identifiable, even quantifiable, sense of community identity or attachment in adjacent cities and towns, and are there regional variations in the degree of river-centered community identity?

Riverfront cities or towns are not the same as "river cities" or "river towns". The former describes a locational condition; the latter reflect geographical place imbued with meaning by the local population. In a literal sense, "River City" does not exist. Our search is not for a specific locale, rather, for a class or type of place where a discernible bond exists between residents and the physical environment. In order for a riverfront town to be a river town, there must be evidence for some tangible river-oriented community attachment. The material proximity of urban locations to river channels is distinct from historically reified perceptions. The river must be part of the self-imposed identity of the community and not just present as an environmental landform in the physical backdrop of a location. Similar to Zelinsky's (1980) categorization of vernacular regions, our goal is to quantify the extent to which these places publicly manifest themselves and map the perceptual results.

This paper surveys the current state of river-oriented communities along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers with the goal of discovering spatial variations in the degree of such orientation. It would be difficult to comprehensively determine all the various reasons why some communities metaphorically face the river while others no longer do so; rather, this project examines community river orientation as revealed by proxy measures within the context of place attachment.


Missouri and Mississippi riverfront cities were likely all originally river towns, in the narrower sense of a river-oriented community. Hinterland or frontier riverfront towns served as entrepots for transportation and warehousing of raw materials and agricultural products, and as distribution points for manufactured products. Predating the public land survey in the early 1800s, most land claims in the Mississippi and lower Missouri River valleys were directly adjacent to the rivers because of a preference for river-bottom soil quality and market access. As settlement spread north, these patterns continued. Initial settlers would claim all the available riverbank plots; subsequent settlers then pushed away from the rivers to the edges of timber or prairie (Mahoney 1990). …

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