I got there on Easter Sunday. Not a good time to arrive in the middle of red state territory. It was deserted. A ghost town. I had trouble finding a place to eat. I was staying downtown. St. Louis is huge, but the downtown population has been shrinking since the ’50’s. So on Easter Sunday, I felt as if I’d landed on the wrong planet.
The avenues were all 8 lanes or more. They reminded me of the huge communist Chinese cities built in Mao’s heyday, built for the grandeur of a society which never materialized. Barren sweeping avenues which dead ended in the country, with a few bicyclists wandering down them. I didn’t see a soul walking around St. Louis, except one polite homeless person who asked very nicely for some change to get a bite to eat. Not a soul otherwise. I’m not counting cars, of which there were a few.
I decided to walk down to the arch, the Gateway to the West. On the way down I passed the Old Courthouse, where the infamous Dred Scott case was originally tried before going to the US Supreme Court. The official name of arch is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Sounds kind of pompous titled that way. I like Gateway Arch. (or maybe Half MacDonalds Arch!) Designed by Eero Saarinen, a Finnish/American, it’s a 630 foot catenary arch. It’s triangular, not square, and tapers at the top, making it seem higher. Built in the 60’s to commemorate the Louisiana Purchase and the settlement of the American West, it’s a very cool thing to see at night, with no one around
There are a dozen or so huge spot lights trained all along the arch. And the shine of that brushed steel is powerful. As I approached it, feeling a little trepidation at being so alone in the open at night in a strange, deserted city, the arch loomed up over me, drawing me closer. The city receded in the background, hollow and predictable. But this shiny, strange, beautiful arch tempted me. (I wouldn’t have been surprised if a door had opened and a little green man asked if I wanted some space candy.)
It seemed like something out of 2001: a Space Odyssey. You remember, the strange obelisk or whatever it was, which kept appearing. Well this thing could have been planted here by some vastly superior culture from a distant galaxy. But certainly not by a conservative, Midwestern city whose claim to fame is some beer (Anheuser-Busch) and genetically engineered crops (Monsanto ). It seemed incongruous.
This beautiful structure simply didn’t deserve to sit here. It should be out on the plain somewhere, or in the middle of a dessert, where it’s grace and supple shimmer could be experienced appropriately. But there is was, surrounded by a clunky, barren, overgrown American city. At least I had it all to myself for awhile.
As for the city, I was most impressed, and most taken aback, by how polite and friendly people were. I kept jumping when some stranger would, quite suddenly, ask how I was doing or wish me a good day. (I knew I wasn’t in New York, that’s for sure.) For such a huge city, I was comforted knowing how helpful and polite folks were. But there was a limit, and I found it. I complained about the dysfunctional phone system in the hotel, and though I was treated politely, I knew I had crossed a boundary. I had messed up the happy illusion where everything is OK. Nonetheless, I relished the kindness and will not forget it.
I managed to find the "gay" part of town, called Central West End. But that was not quite what I expected either. I read about rainbow flags flying from beautiful Victorian houses in quiet neighborhoods.There were areas of beautiful, large houses, but each idyllic street had a sign at the entrance warning trespassers and solicitors to stay out. Not a bad thing, but certainly not open arms friendly. Some of the really big, fancy neighborhoods actually had enormous iron gates blocking entrance. I was not welcome to stroll too close.
I did stumble on the best book store I’ve ever been in. It’s called Left Bank Books, and if you are ever in St. Louis you have to go there. It’s independent, so they can sell whatever they want. This place was way liberal, way gay, way cool. I browsed for an hour, paging though Jonathan Letham, Thomas Frank, and others, finally settling on buying only 4 books, since I had to get them back to Columbus the next day. I’m looking forward to reading Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Anyway, I would never choose to visit St. Louis, but I’m glad I did.