Sunday, May 11, 2008

St. Louis's Gateway Drug

I'm in St. Louis at the moment, and will be for one more day. I have many, many things to share with the world at large, and readers may now rest assured that the Daily Dose will continue well past #100.

I'd like to apologize to the residents of JeffVanderLou for making their neighborhood look like a place where, literally, the sun never shines. The weather just hasn't cooperated much; I'm working on it. I'd also like to apologize to anyone who I've freaked out as I cruised the streets this weekend, up and down, up and down, snapping photos out the window. There's too much ground to cover any other way in the short time I have.

My lovely ladyfriend and I elected to visit the Gateway Arch this afternoon, despite the gray cloudiness of the day, as she'd never been up and felt like doing something touristy and fun. This is despite my usual admonishment that it takes too long to bother with.

We walked away 2 hours later, largely unenamored of the experience.

The deeper I get into St. Louis's grassroots communities, the more unfamiliar streets I cruise down, the more decay I see, the more offbeat places I go, the more weird events I attend or hear about, the more real St. Louis becomes. It's not a pre-packaged experience; it's a living city with its own thriving, vital culture. Midget races, KSHE Klassics, semi-pro wrestling on South Broadway, Old North house tours, Ted Drewes on a Saturday night -- a committee can't just make this stuff up, folks.

The Arch is the diametric opposite: a totally controlled experience, from the instant you step through the doors and find yourself confronted by a security checkpoint of airport scale. You will find yourself shuffled and processed from the roped lanes at the ticket counter, through the lines for the elevator (where a 1-minute film compares the Eads Bridge to the Arch), up through the trickety-trock elevator capsules (the coolest part of the experience by far), and to the top, invariably packed with clambering tourists.


Honestly, St. Louis ain't much to look at from the air. Don't take it personal, folks; it's just how it is. St. Louis has its claims to fame, but a fantastic set of downtown skyscrapers isn't one of them. It's a city that's meant to be seen from the ground, like any humane, personable, lovable city should be.

Truthfully, the view from the Arch is best beheld by the seasoned St. Louis explorer, as a way to gain new perspective on old familiar paths. Why else would you want to look down on the Old Courthouse when you could see it from its front steps? Who would care about seeing St. Francis de Sales sticking up from the forest of the South Side unless they'd seen it up close? Why is East St. Louis so worth looking at from 3 miles away? No, the view from the Arch only hints at secrets to be discovered; unless you take in the terrifying view straight down, the view from the Arch just doesn't do St. Louis justice.

Old North St. Louis

The Mighty Mississip

It's a shame that the Arch draws newcomers away from the real meat of the city, diverts them and lets them depart thinking they've experienced St. Louis. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as the Arch grounds are shamefully detached from the city whose historic heart they stand upon, the experience of going up into the Arch is pre-packaged and sanitized in a way that has little to do with the spontaneous and delightful world of the city at large.

Downtown East St. Louis

Perhaps if the fragmented places where the city's culture thrives were better connected by roads, sidewalks, neighborhoods, and transit, that world might be more tempting and accessible to the casual visitor, allowing them to see beyond the soulless experience of being cattle-herded through the Arch.

Click on the photos for much larger and detailed versions at Flickr.

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