Sunday, June 26, 2011
St. Louis, Mo.
Have you ever noticed how St. Louis is a lot like Manhattan? Well, it isn’t on an island, but both cities have water at the east end, and also a very big statue. There are tall buildings clustered near the water and a relatively narrow swath of long parallel streets heading off to the west. In both Manhattan and St. Louis, the building-height drops and then begins to rise again as you approach a very large park. On either side of this central corridor the neighborhoods decline somewhat in quality. (In St. Louis, quite a few of the buildings have vanished altogether.) To the east of the big “central” park in both cities, there are several blocks of elegant nineteenth-century residential buildings. (In St. Louis they're blocked off by wrought-iron fencing into "private" neighborhoods.) The chief art museums of both cities are situated within the park.
There’s a lot more of everything in Manhattan than St. Louis, of course, including buildings and people of every sort, bustle, and things to do. But there was a time when the differences would not have been so glaring. In 1850, St. Louis was the second-largest port in the United States (after New York). And for many years its Union Station was the busiest rail terminal in the world. (Today it’s a shopping mall.) In the last ten years alone, St. Louis proper lost almost 30,000 residents—roughly 8 percent of its population. Ouch!
But for this very reason, St. Louis can make for a pleasant getaway—urban, historic, but also low-key and relatively free of traffic congestion.
We arrived in the city from upstream, shrewdly spending our first night in the historic community of St. Charles, on the banks of the Missouri River a few miles west of town. St. Charles was settled in 1765 by French Canadians, served as Missouri’s capital for a few years, and was the last town Lewis and Clark saw before heading off up the Missouri on their two-and-a-half-year journey to the West Coast.
A number of the buildings from those early times still stand along a cobblestone stone street near the river. It’s a pleasant neighborhood to explore on a warm Friday evening, with plenty of restaurants and pubs. Young men and women in tuxedos or satiny pastel prom attire gave the streets a festive flair, though it seemed many of them were hanging out in large gangs with others of their own sex. An art “crawl” was also underway, with colorful six-foot banners, like little wind-surfing sails, fluttering in front of the participating galleries. The art itself was lame, for the most part. Photographs of African animals, hand-thrown pots of middling interest. The best things we saw were some small color pencil sketches of exotic birds done by a retired illustrator from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
A hundred yards away, beyond the vast grassy sward that runs alongside this prettified historic village, the Missouri River rushes northwest toward it’s rendezvous with the Mississippi. The far side of the river is forested, and there was hardly a clue that we were only a few miles from a major metropolis.
The famous Katy bike trail—225 miles long—starts at the west end of the park, though it looks like the start of any other bike trail. We walked down toward the river past a huge bronze statue of Lewis and Clark and their dog, surrounded by a circle of bedding plants. Beyond stood an open-air museum housing a keel boat and a pirogue like the ones those explorers used to travel upstream two-hundred odd years ago. No one was passing on the river when we were there. Frogs were croaking in the soft evening light from the park’s grassy ditches, which were filled with water from the recent rains. At a parking lot down the way, runners wearing powder blue doublets were straggling in to a finish line, cheered on by their friends and relatives.
We walked along a sturdy industrial pier extending well out into the river, which was swollen with spring floodwater and moving very fast.
The next morning we crossed the river on the freeway bridge and made our way past the suburbs of Bridgeston and Jennings into the city. A tornado had ripped through St. Louis a few days earlier and we saw some of the devastation—mostly commercial rather than residential—across a swath of landscape near the airport. Soon the Arch came into view in the distance, appearing and disappearing again behind other buildings. As we got closer it came to dominate the landscape, standing twice as tall, or so it seemed to me, as the buildings nearby. We hadn’t planned to visit it just yet … but we hadn’t decided not to. It was a beautiful sunny morning, early. As we arrived downtown, looking this way and that at all the fine buildings, and exited the freeway (lest we zoom past Busch Stadium and out the other side of town) we saw a sign that said, “Arch Parking.” We followed it.
The Arch is one of those monuments that are useless, irrelevant…and cool. It’s simply cool that such a thing would get built, and it reminds me of the remark of the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, which I can misquote as well as the next guy: “The superfluous is in every way more essential than the necessary.”
Now, I realize that the Arch is ostensibly a monument to American’s westward expansion. The plan for such a monument was originally bruited in 1933, when the man who eventually designed it twenty-five years later, the naturalized Finn Eero Saarinen, was still in architecture school. But there is nothing about the Arch itself that makes us think about the West, or about expansion. Some metal wagon wheels welded into an arch? Maybe. A 630-foot-tall saguaro cactus made out of uranium tailings? Not a bad idea. But a simple, shimmering metal arch designed by a Finn? What has that got to do with the American West?
And yet, when you think about the things the arch and its creator evoke—immigration, elegance, simplicity, engineering brilliance, pointless bravado—it begins to reek of Americana of the very best sort. The architect himself described the symbolic element as “the gateway to the West, the national expansion, and whatnot.”
And that is pretty much what the director of the National Park Service at the time, Newton Drury, requested: “One central feature: a single shaft, a building, an arch, or something else that would symbolize American culture and civilization…transcending in spiritual and aesthetic values." The Arch also falls into that category of things that are media-resistant. Like the Grand Canyon or Rheims Cathedral, you haven’t seen it until you’ve actually gone there and seen it. It elicits a sort of awe. Not only because it’s tall, but because it’s sleek and beautiful. Take a few steps this way or that and the effect changes. Sunlight catches it higher or lower. Parts of it grow thicker or thinner.
The ach sits in the middle of a huge grassy field which was created after condemning many blocks of derelict warehouses. Historic preservationists remain shocked, a half-century after the fact, though there is no great demand for warehouse space in St. Louis today. Many such structures became superfluous when the Eads railroad bridge was built in 1874 and goods were no longer ferried across the Mississippi by boat.
As we waited in line to enter the underground visitor’s center beneath the arch, I saw a sign that said something about security scanners ahead. So while Hilary held our place in line, I went over to talk to the ranger standing nearby about my Swiss Army knife.
“That knife won’t be a problem,” he told me.”If you have a knife that opens with a spring-action button, that would be a problem.” (I was reminded of the line from Crocodile Dundee. “That’s not a knife…”)
“How long until we get in?” I asked.
“Twenty minutes,” he replied. “You got here early.”
As we waited in line, we chatted with the man standing behind us. He was from Sweden, he’d been attending a seven-day training seminar at Boeing. We mentioned how lovely the pine forests of Minnesota were, and he told us how much he loved to go camping in Norway along the fjords with his wife. “That was before the kids started coming,” he added with a quirky smile.
Once we got inside, I purchased the tickets to the tram that takes you to the top. During the forty-five minute wait, we had plenty of time to explore the Museum of Western Expansion that takes up most of the space under the Arch.
Once again, very cool. There are mechanical Indian chiefs, black cowboys, and French fur traders, telling their stories as their arms and heads ratchet stiffly back and forth. Huge portraits of Indian chiefs. There are teepees and covered wagons and stuffed horses and oxen. Along the back wall there are 20-foot photographs of the ever-changing landscapes people passed through as they followed the Oregon Trail to what they hoped would be a better future. Size is important here. Grandeur, real or imagined, is of the essence of Western Expansion. But there were also detailed panels full of little-known facts about events that took place during the presidencies of Van Buren and Polk. All in all, the place remined me of the five fine mueseums they have in Cody, Wyoming, all mixed into one.
Our time-slot finally arrived and we climbed into a little pod with a couple from Chicago who were returning from Branson. “My mom moved there when my dad died,” the woman said. “We’re thinking of buying some property ourselves. For retirement, you know.”
Once the doors closed on the tiny compartment, we were whisked to the top in a matter of seconds. Very little room up there. Small windows. A slight swaying in the breeze, 600 feet off the ground. Good views of both the river and the city, though the windows are only about 12 inches high, and they're bevelled at an angle toward the ground. A kid standing next to us eagerly pointed out the various sports venues visible far below us, and told us which team played in each.
It's true what they say, going to the top is something you do once, and never have to do again. We were soon ready to return to our pod and head back down.