The sun has barely cleared the eastern horizon, but already the Portland Boathouse is bustling. A team of college rowers returns their eight-person shell to the boat racks after a pre-dawn practice, three paddlers stand nearby with coffees in hand, and an electrician wearing a hardhat and reflective orange vest helps a kayaker pass her boat around his pickup. Even with renovations still in full swing, the boathouse on Portland, Oregon's central east side is nurturing a growing river community.

Built in the 1920s, the four-story Art Deco building has been long ignored, its windows boarded up and its paint graying. Until recently, the FBI used it to practice drug raids and a nearby science museum stored its overflow there, including such oddities as oversized eyeballs. Now, that very same space houses dozens of canoes, kayaks, and high-end rowing shells. Several non-profit organizations have offices on the upper floors, and Alder Creek Canoe and Kayak provides rental boats and instruction.

But it wasn't always this way. Though the Willamette River is the city's defining feature, it has a reputation dirty enough to keep some boaters off the river. A six-mile stretch north of downtown has been designated a Superfund site, and Portland's antiquated sewer system routinely overflows directly into the river, triggering frequent health warnings on radio and television. Yet, over the past several years, a group of local boaters and conservationists pushed for this public boathouse—in part because they believe it will help change attitudes and resurrect stewardship for the Willamette.

"Giving people an experience on the river is really our biggest outreach tool," says Amy Morrison of Willamette Riverkeeper, a regional conservation group with offices in the boathouse. "It forms a community."

And not just in Portland. New boathouses are springing up in urban areas across the country, providing access to some of the nation's most under-used waterways and, in the process, building communities of river users.

In New York City, a mix of state and federal agencies is developing five miles of blighted waterfront on the city's lower west side. The $550 million Hudson River Restoration Project will include four state-of-the-art boathouses, the first of which opened two years ago. Though the city is surrounded by water, in the past only the bravest of New Yorkers risked the dilapidated docks to paddle in the shadow of the city's skyscrapers. But Eric Stiller, whose Manhattan Kayak Company will help manage the Pier 66 public boathouse near Greenwich Village, hopes that the public boathouses will begin attracting more people to the water. "Perhaps, just perhaps, we'll reach a tipping point," he says.

In Washington, D.C., where the Potomac River has enjoyed a strong river community for decades, the nearby Anacostia River—an eight mile stretch of water that reaches into the city's most blighted neighborhoods—remains a dumping ground for garbage and sewage. But three years ago, city planners took a keen interest in the river and launched a multi-billion dollar renovation, including placing a baseball park near the river's mouth and opening up 500 acres of wetlands.

That plan should benefit the Anacostia River's burgeoning rowing and paddling community. In 2000, the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association (ACBA)—a coalition of rowing teams and the DC Dragons and NCA Outrigger paddling clubs—turned a building once used to test D-Day landing craft into the first permanent boathouse on the Anacostia. Another building is now being converted into a dual-purpose boathouse and community center, with the help of a $300,000 federal grant.

On Memorial Day weekend, the community boathouse association hosted an open house and taught more than 100 kids to row and paddle. "It was an extraordinary day," says ACBA board member Melba Black, adding that many of the kids are eager to return to the boathouse. "When people connect with the river, they naturally take ownership."