What is Shreveport? Where is it heading? Does this place have a future? What do we have to offer the region, the state, the world?
These are questions that seem to arise each time the city has passed from one phase of its history into the next. Contemplating the future is invariably aided by looking to the past, as a “rear-view mirror” is as necessary to city development as it is to driving a car. Cities do not exist apart from their own culture and history.
People gather to settle an area because of a common call to that place–whether it is fertile land or natural resources. Cities come into being because enough people respond to that attraction and a community grows. Over time, a sense of “place identity” develops; what social scientists like to call the aspect of the individual that relates to the external environment. The significance and purpose of the city as a collective population becomes inextricably linked to that of the individuals who make it home; and vice-versa. More importantly perhaps, this is what motivates us to modify that environment, or shape it into something that looks more like what we believe it to be. This is not a phenomenon unique to any one city, but one that is found everywhere. Every community has an outward identity that is marked by an underlying sense of purpose, usually found woven through its history. It is no surprise that urban planners of the last century tapped in to this notion as an important element in formulating strategic vision.
The fact that Shreveport ever existed at all is rooted in a unique geography; defined by the independent Republic of Texas situated to the west of what promised to be a navigable river. That is, if the “Great Raft” of debris could be effectively cleared from the Red River, the northern part of the state acquired from the original partition of the Louisiana Purchase could become the gateway to the West. It is hard for many to think of Shreveport this way today; even harder to realize that this city was once the farthest on the western frontier of the United States in 1839. Because Captain Henry Miller Shreve of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was able to clear a logjam of over 180 miles in length, Shreveport (originally Shreve Town) was born. Because the unique conditions under which the city was incorporated have not existed since Texas entered the federal union in 1845, this meant Shreveport’s early identity as both frontier town and river port was quite short-lived.
In many ways, Shreveport has always been a city in search of lasting defining characteristics. It was easy to be a frontier town until the frontier moved further west. It was easy enough to be a port as long as riverboat was a preferred mode of transport. This was a colorful beginning, however, and it makes for many a story that historians yet love to tell. The rough-and-tumble frontier town had all the ills and vices afforded by the transient populations of a river port, complete with gun duels, card fights, prostitution, and no shortage of seedy characters. Yet, the gateway to the West with the signature of a lively frontier town lost that characteristic quite early. Then, increased travel by rail and later by truck forever changed the character of Shreveport’s relationship to the surrounding region. Rapid changes in modes of mass transportation combined with further navigability issues on the Red River seemingly brought an end to the Shreveport’s “port” identity as well.
This left Shreveport isolated in many respects, sharing little in common with the culture or demographics of much of the rest of the state. From a political perspective, Shreveport historically brokered little influence with power bases of south Louisiana, even though it found itself face to face with the reality of that responsibility when Civil War came calling. By the circumstances of default, Shreveport became the temporary capital of the state when Union forces occupied New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Of course, the seat of power returned to the south when Louisiana was restored to the Union after the war, and Shreveport simply resumed its identity as a northern center of commerce and agriculture.
By the early decades of the twentieth century, it was the discovery of oil in the region that changed the economic face of the city. Oil provided a vital base to the infrastructure of a city in search of a new purpose, until the bust of the late twentieth century. Once again, Shreveport seemed to cast around for means to renew its identity, and again began featuring the river prominently in tourism campaigns. Interestingly, this coincided with the arrival of riverboat gambling in the area, which had the effect of not only reviving an interest in the river as a focal point, but also forged that body of water as a nexus which re-connected the cities of Shreveport AND Bossier economically. Indeed, much of the last twenty years has seen the downtown riverfront explode with development in an almost frenzied rebirth of our early roots.
This brings us to the latest saga in the ongoing quest to define what and who we are. Any anxiety over this seems unwarranted, as clearly the community identity continues to re-emerge and renew surrounding our most significant natural landmark. The commitment to develop the Port of Shreveport-Bossier as an economic engine for the area reflects a profound awareness of the only purpose that ever made the city possible. Opening in 1995 and receiving more than 5 million tons of materials since then, the Port is a visible testimony to what the city has always primarily been. The investment in the locks and dams system and other infrastructure to support a thriving port has been a way of embracing the past and the future simultaneously. It seems that history has come full circle. At the end of the day, we always come back to that–the “port city,” or the “river city.” If there is a defining characteristic to be singled out, it continues to derive from an odd geography and the acknowledgement that yes indeed, there is a river that runs through it!