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Richmond's much-awaited Canal Walk is a thoroughly modern celebration of the age of steel and steam. 

Industrial Strength

There are a dozen ways to approach the repackaged canal system as it zigzags along a 1.8 mile pathway that hugs the north bank of the James. On a recent, tropically muggy Sunday afternoon, grandparents with children in tow began their stroll at Brown's Island. At the opposite end in Shockoe Bottom at 17th, two young couples crossed the street and sauntered up a herringbone walkway.

But the intended point-of-entry for downtown's newest attraction is off 14th, just north of the Mayo Bridge near Dock Street. Here, a turning basin has been constructed. Visitors can descend a wide, concrete staircase and board long, low, canal boats for a short glide along part of the James River and Kanawha Canal. As vehicles roar overhead on double-decker interstate highway ramps, trucks rattle up and down 14th Street and an occasional freight train screeches past, these quiet craft mark the return of another means of transit to a commercial crossroads that's older than Richmond itself.

For pedestrians ambling along the bank, the people-filled boats were as much an attraction as the encircling panoramas — hulking remnants of Richmond's industrial past, warehouses retrofitted for new uses and sleek skyscrapers serving the information age.

This spot had already been a marketplace for decades when canal construction was begun in the late 18th century to ease trade with points to the west. Now, the canal is the centerpiece of a spectacular new urban park conceived to put Richmond in touch with its downtown riverfront and anchor future commercial development.

Designed by Philadelphia planners Wallace Robertson and Todd and executed by Richmond engineers Greeley & Hansen, the Canal Walk is unlike any of our city's other great public parks, Bryan, Byrd, Chimborazo and Forest Hill. These were built to provide a green antidote to late 19th- and early 20th-century overcrowding, soot, noise and pollution. In contrast, this new park that opens on the eve of the 21st century, indirectly celebrates bygone industry. You could call it the Jurassic Park of the age of steel and steam— an era of belching smokestacks and heavy labor when milling, tobacco, shipbuilding, printing and railways were major industries in the vicinity. The fragments that remain is what makes this park so visually and historically compelling. Therefore, to enjoy fully this space that stretches from 17th to Tredegar Ironworks, one doesn't need shops, jugglers and other activities found in a shopping mall, a festival marketplace or at Disney World (although they appear to be in the canal's future). Instead, a surprisingly handsome, rusty and muscular industrial aesthetic is at work. From virtually any vantage point there are vistas framing unwitting sculptures of iron and brick and urban layering that bespeak Richmond's — and America's — rich industrial past. Just as tourists wandering through ancient rubble of the Roman forum can sense classical grandeur, such buildings as the 1901 Vepco hydroelectric plant and a 1920s, mossy, brick ziggurat of a steam plant evoke American technological grit.

Architecturally, the Canal Walk succeeds despite this dizzying cacophony of images and scale changes because the designers made appropriately simple choices in surface and paving materials. Granite, both recently cut and remnants from the original canal, is the primary building block. Playing off this is smooth white concrete, tan aggregate pavement and brick sidewalks, all masterfully interwoven. Landscaping in strategic spots softens the hard surfaces and provides a number of oasis-like settings for comfortable benches.

The nearby floodwall serves as a backdrop. But instead of being a looming presence, it melds like a polite guest at a party. The now-infamous, floodwall murals with historic imagery (by Ralph Applebaum and Associates) are handsomely, but simply designed to provide enough information to be evocative while stopping short of being intrusive.

At the western end of the park, on Brown's Island where the Haxall Canal has been fashioned out of a former mill race, the setting is far more sylvan than the 14th Street stretch of park. Here, shade trees planted a decade ago have matured. And the grounds on the south side of the Federal Reserve Bank, packed with colorful daylilies and graceful weeping willow trees, have evolved into a lush, terraced, picturesque garden.

But most importantly, at Brown's Island visitors also have views and direct access to the James River. If, in some ways the Canal Walk is similar to esplanades in Boston and New York City, Richmond's great linear park is different in how it opens onto a wild river whose depths, flow, palette, foliage and fauna is always changing.

After the unfortunate destruction of much of the James River and Kanawha Canal infrastructure in the 1970s, the resurrection of a canal system a generation later is a milestone in Richmond's development.

Richmond seems to experience a continuous cycle of decline and renewal. But with this project, age has been regarded as an asset for renewal, not a liability. If the Canal Walk is successful, it is because it celebrates the dinosaurs from the past while softening more recent, in-your-face architecture. And as social and business interaction increasingly takes place via computers, Richmonders — especially those living and working downtown — and visitors should embrace the Canal Walk as a place to commune with industrial age ghosts while enjoying a kind of majesty that can be found in few other thoroughly modern public
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