Recently, I visited the Art Park at Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi. This new pocket park, a little over an acre in size, lies at the base of the steep bluffs upon which the city is perched. Catfish Row is a historic area that once was part of an extensive wharf in the 1800’s and was one of the centers of trade on the Mississippi River.
The designers of the park used historic elements in clever new ways to interpret the past. When project designers first approached the site they found pieces of famous riverboats that once plied the muddy waters. They uncovered remnants of a huge steamer called the Sprague, one of the world’s great sternwheelers. Known as “the Big Mama of the Mississippi,” she fell victim to a tragic fire in the 1970’s, and for decades lay broken adjacent the site. The designers decided to work this local legend into the fabric of the park. Parts of the original ship, including cleats, vents, and capstans, are included as play or focal features. An abstract interactive ‘Sprague’ steering wheel and play structure is located at the south end of the park. (Landscape Studio)
As visitors approach the park from the downtown area, they are visually struck. All that you can see of the sunken park are the treetops and the colorful park ‘steamboat stacks’. When Catfish Row was at its peak as a port in the 1800’s, early photographs revealed long lines of steamboat stacks emerging from the tree tops. Robert Poore, a landscape architect on the project, recalled that “the idea for the stacks came from wondering what to do with existing light poles. The stacks on steamboats were unique to each boat, so they could be easily identified. The whistles were unique as well.” So the stacks become a visual play for the park and colorfully align with the grid of surrounding streets. They even boast artificial ‘steam’ released from the top of the stacks.
The Art Park at Catfish Row is more of an alloy of past, present, and future; fusing historical elements into new forms. Glimpses of the past are still evident in the catfish medallions that are inset into the concrete walls of the park, or the representative Spanish tile edges of the play fountain. These references become the familiar languages which seem at home to Vicksburg residents and add rich texture to a small public space. — Bob Brzuszek (R. Brzuszek)