The largest city in Siberia was built on the banks of the mighty Ob River. It also has its own hidden urban stream, the Kamenka. Its once-imposing gorge was filled in the 1960s and a highway built atop its former course two decades later.
Adding to the insult, the river’s name was removed from the highway in 2007 and sets of luxury residential towers are popping up on undeveloped land that could have been used for daylighting the stream as a linear park. One hint of the Kamenka in the city is the Sibrevkom Street Bridge that spans the much shallower gorge that was carved by the Kamenka.
Where it Flows
The most detailed map showing the former course of the Kamenka is Konstantin Golodyaev’s 2012 mashup of a Google satellite map with the river. He is the go-to expert on the city, having written the 2017 Russian-language book Old Novosibirsk. Yellow lines on the course indicate mill locations. Numbers show historical sites. On this map the stream appears as Verkhovoye Lake, from where the water flows through an underground collector sewer through the filled-in gorge. Hippodrome Street, runs as a highway atop the former stream course. Along its route there’s till plenty of undeveloped land but it is gradually filling up with shopping centers and residential towers.
The City’s Origin
In the undated postcard above we see a boat dock at the mouth of the Kamenka. In the background is the Trans-Siberian Railroad crossing the Ob River, the fourth longest river in the world. Prior to construction in 1893, this region was sparely populated. Across the Ob was Krivoshchёkovskaya, a tiny Russian village built three centuries earlier. On the right bank were indigenous Teleut communities. With the bridge, the village was relocated to the right bank of the Ob and renamed Novo-Nikolaevsk in honor of Saint Nicholas, and the crown prince, who assumed the throne as Nicholas II in the following year.
Although the stream flooded every year, it did not deter settlers from building shantytown neighborhoods along its course. Its name Kamenka originates from the Russian word for stone as there were quarries nearby.
The Planned City
In the Russian Civil War the city changed hands four times before the Bolsheviks secured victory. In the 1924 map above the imperial grid is preserved by the Soviets, with street names reassigned in favor of Marxist figures and war heroes. Later that year the city’s imperial name would change in favor of Novosibirsk or New Siberian, reflecting the regime’s aspirations to transform the vast region into an industrial powerhouse.
Sibrevkom Street Bridge
The first symbol of change on the Kamenka was the concrete bridge carrying Sibrevkom Street, completed in 1926. Author George Orwell was familiar with the Soviets’ penchant for combining words into portmanteaus. He called it newspeak in the novel 1984. SibRevKom is shorthand for Siberian Revolutionary Committee. Industrialization picked up with the Second World War, when factories were relocated to Siberia in order to avoid Nazi takeover. A centrally located railroad hub with factories and a planned grid, Novosibirsk was nicknamed the Chicago of Siberia.
After the shantytown was cleared and the gorge was filled beginning in 1967, the landscape was transformed beyond recognition, with the exception of the Sibrevkom Street Bridge. Unfit for today’s traffic, it is reserved for bikes and pedestrians. On the left above, luxury apartments are reducing the once-wide bank of the river that now runs in a sewer underneath a highway.
Before and After
With only the distant dome of the Alexander Nevsky Church as a point of reference, the flattened gorge offers no hints of the Kamenka. In my previous blog posts, I noted how in Queens the Long Island Expressway runs atop the former Horse Brook, and in Dresden the Kaitzbach is also covered by a boulevard. Highways are built where there is less demolishing required, which often means routes mapped along or atop waterways.
Filling the Kamenka
As the city’s population swelled this river was regarded as an obstacle to progress. Boris Iofan, the great Stalinist style architect proposed covering the stream. It was such an embarrassment to city leaders that during U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon’s 1959 tour of the city, wooden fences were put up to hide view of the gorge. Locals say this visit inspired authorities to expedite the burial of the river. Using soil dredged from the Ob River, the gorge was filled starting in 1967. In the above photo that year, we see the natural stream and the concrete collector sewer that would soon trap it under the surface.
A map from the Brezhnev period (1964-1982) shows the Kamenka River’s buried section in dotted lines. To the north is another partially buried stream, the 1st Yel’tsovka and to its south is the Plyushikha. In total, there are nine named minor streams flowing through the city. If I don’t get to it first, I can expect Golodyaev’s next book to be Hidden Waters of Novosibirsk. While I work at NYC Parks, he works for the Novosibirsk History Museum.
Along the Course
The Kamenka starts its 35-kilometer course near the village of Leninsky, widening into the Chigirovka reservoir three miles downstream. Seen above, it also collects water from the Chigirovka and Dedikha tributaries.
The village of Kamenka at the lake’s dam still has that rolling landscape appearance of an Isaac Levitan painting. As the city is thousands of miles from the nearest sea, which happens to be the Arctic Ocean, the Chigirovka serves as a beach for local residents. The river enters Novosibirsk at its Dzerzhinsky borough, named after the feared leader of Lenin’s secret police. Beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg most Russian cities retained their Soviet names, along with streets and statues honoring Lenin.
In an area of allotment gardens and storage sheds between Trikotazhnaya and Kombinatskaya streets we see urbanization appearing. The river goes underground at a point north of Adrien Lejeune Street. His was a fascinating life. A veteran of the unsuccessful Paris Commune of 1871, he later fled to Soviet Russia. He died in 1942 in Novosibirsk.
Although the river is underground at this point, after a heavy rainfall one can see the low points where puddle linger for a few days. This is where the Kamenka offers hints of its presence.
Although the official Russian policy is to offer a counterbalance to America’s superpower status, culturally the Russian public looks to America as an example of “learning how to live.” After seven decades of communism, Russians now imitate their former adversary with luxury residences, foreign cars, and massive shopping malls. Above is the Siberian Mall, built atop the sewer carrying the Kamenka.
Downstream from this mall we see trash-covered lots, upscale residences and century-old wooden izba houses along the filled stream bed. Old and new Russia in one scene.
The river briefly returns to the surface in the form of Lake Verkhovoye, a 12-meter deep former quarry that was filled with water. Signs posted on its shore remind visitors not to swim here. Leaving this lake, the stream again goes underground.
A short distance from the quarry-turned-lake is the viaduct carrying Hippodrome Street across the former stream bed. The soil below the bridge is landfill covering the sewer in which the Kamenka flows. From this point, Hippodrome Street follows the former course of this stream almost to its mouth at the Ob River.
Beneath this row of automotive shops is the Kamenka. It appears on the map, but not in plain sight.
Leaving the automotive repair shops, the buried stream crosses Voyennaya (Military) Street and meets the Aura Shopping Center, which is more upscale and architecturally attractive than the Siberian Mall.
The most controversial project along the former course in the post-Soviet period is the Flotilla development. The luxury project towers above a triangular parcel bound by Hippodrome Street, and the bridge carrying the October Highway, and the Sibrevkom Street Bridge. For decades this block served as an unofficial park on city-owned land.
When it was sold to a private developer, local residents united under the name Maimed Novosibirsk (Искалеченный Новосибирск), calling on authorities to preserve open space along the buried river and create more parks across the city. It is beautiful to see a grassroots civil society movement take form, but this is Russia where the powerful people usually get their way. Above, lone protester Mikhail Ryazantsev stood in 2013 on the future site of the Flotilla towers holding a sign that read “sold.” Behind him is the October Highway viaduct and the gorge where the Kamenka flowed.
From Golodyayev’s collection, we see the Sibrevkom Street Bridge shortly after the gorge and stream were filled. Hippodrome Street had not yet been built when this photo was shot.
On its final mile going downstream, the amount of green shoulder space along Hippodrome Street gradually narrows, leaving little room for a restored stream, but enough for a bike path.
Looking upstream from the Bolshevistskaya Street overpass, we see Hippodrome Street ending at a traffic oval. On the opposite side, this overpass parallels the Ob River. This highway is designated as Route 256, running for nearly 600 miles from Novosibirsk to the Mongolian border.
City Origin Park
In contrast to European Russian cities which have palaces, fortresses, churches, and kremlins (which contain all of the above), a century-old Siberian boomtown does not have its own “Old City” to serve as a reference point for tourists. Novosibirsk resolved this omission with City Origin Park (Городское Начало). In this park there is a piece of the original Trans-Siberian Railroad bridge preserved in the 1990s after the crossing was expanded. In front of it is a statue of Emperor Alexander III, dedicated in 2014. Although the world’s longest transcontinental railroad was completed during the reign of his son, it was commissioned by Alexander.
In a 2012 helicopter flight above Novosibirsk, local resident Andrei Kiselnikov documented the city’s destinations. In the foreground is City Origin Park. Note the delta formed at the foot of the railroad bridge. This is where Kamenka flows out of its sewer into the Ob, carrying enough silt to form a sandy delta. The meandering blue line running through the park is a blue brick path meant to evoke the original Kamenka River. All of the water here eventually reaches the Arctic Ocean.
Hidden Waters of Novosibirsk
As mentioned, Novosibirsk has other hidden waterways paralleling the Kamenka, all flowing into the Ob. A map from the official 2008 city plan highlights all of them. Great credit here should be given to Konstantin Golodyayev for publishing so much material on the city’s history.
On the subject of Russia, I’ve previously written about the Clean Ponds of Moscow and the Black River of St. Petersburg. If you have an out-of-town urban stream in mind, let me know and I will tell its story.
Send me to Siberia!
My ancestors would have cringed to hear me say this. The Siberia of today offers plenty of opportunities for urban planners and park designers to “get it right” and build cities that are attractive, sustainable, and in harmony with their natural history. Or not. The Siberia of today also offers opportunities for unrestricted development if you have the right political connections. If the Parks Department of Novosibirsk is looking for a guest researcher, they know where to find me.
My connections to Siberia are a distant cousin in the city of Miass, Chelyabinsk Region, and postcards I received from a childhood friend showing Akademgorodok, the secret Soviet city built for scientists near Novosibirsk. I’d like to see both of them.