An Arch Look

By Tim Page
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 2, 2000

If you have ever been to St. Louis at all, it was probably to change planes. Lambert International Airport is the hub and hive of Trans World Airlines, and thousands of travelers squeeze through one or another of its pores every day. Indeed, Lambert is among the busiest airports in the country--too busy, in the opinion of most St. Louisans--but woefully little of this traffic finds its way to the stately and gracious city some 15 minutes to the west.

Traveling through St. Louis was once more glamorous. At the turn of the 20th century, Union Station, a sweeping Romanesque structure at the corner of 18th and Market streets, was the largest and most populous railroad terminal in the world. St. Louis was coming off some glory years--it had recently been the fourth or fifth largest metropolis in America (the exact rank remains subject to debate, mostly within city limits)--and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, remembered as the "World's Fair of 1904," was already in the planning. (Meet me in Saint Lewis, Louie.)

Then as now, you could get anywhere from St. Louis, but, had you stopped to investigate your immediate whereabouts, you would have found more than a line of sunburned cabbies waiting for a fare. Rather, the area surrounding Union Station was peopled with the whole untidy panoply of human experience.

But the past century has been particularly rough on St. Louis, which has suffered through floods, tornadoes and an even more disastrous succession of civic choices. Urban renewal policies, however well-intentioned, plunged federal highways through historic neighborhoods, and suburban flight was so extreme that many area residents have ventured downtown only with the hopes of watching Mark McGwire swat yet another hardball into the bleachers. In 1988, a gripping, desolate postmodern thriller by Jonathan Franzen called St. Louis "The Twenty-Seventh City"; today, its population ranking among U.S. cities is 50.

It's all a shame, for St. Louis is a poetic place, and its languor and present-day quietude only add to its appeal. Sometimes I am reminded of Brigadoon: When I am within the city borders, I cannot quite imagine the rush and whirl of the outside world, and when I am away, the easy friendliness and slow pace of St. Louis seem something of a dream. A pleasant dream, and one in which more visitors should indulge.

Even now, only a month after I moved back East, memories of a sunny Sunday stroll down Euclid Avenue have taken on a sensitive-greeting-card soft focus. Most St. Louisans attend religious services every week--self-described radicals as well as conservatives--and so it is likely that the street will be almost empty until 11. But the fanciful and vine-covered mansions with their towering old trees from the 19th century will prove good company for a while. Later on, Left Bank Books (a splendid indie that sells both new and secondhand books) will open up, as will several antiques stores, and friends will gather in one of the Euclid Avenue sidewalk cafes, discussing, in safely-far-away terms, the troubles of the outside world.

There is an abundant stock of history in St. Louis. Mound-dwelling people lived in and around St. Louis upward of 4,000 years ago. The city was founded in 1764 as a fur trading post by Pierre Laclede and Rene Auguste Chouteau and was named for King Louis IX of France, the patron saint of then-reigning Louis XV. In 1804, St. Louis was chosen as the site for the official formalization and implementation of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon and France. By 1826, the Jefferson Barracks had been established as the primary post for military troops heading west.

Throughout most of the 19th century, St. Louis maintained its standing as a frontier town--the last outpost of European culture before the unknown hazards and promises of a journey into territory still being charted. Kansas City, just across the state, is clearly a "Western" town today, having more in common with Denver than with Chicago. But St. Louis stands by itself--certainly not "Eastern" but not quite stereotypically "Midwestern," either. It has been called the northernmost Southern city in the nation and, as generalizations go, that's a fairly good one. But there are complications.

To understand St. Louis's character it may be helpful, for a moment, to contemplate the motley eight states surrounding Missouri. (I have found this a surprisingly challenging parlor game, and not one Easterner in 10 will be able to name them all.) Outsiders are inevitably surprised that Oklahoma and Illinois, Arkansas and Nebraska, Kansas and Kentucky, and Tennessee and Iowa, with their distinct traditions and histories, all border the same state. When you add in the French and African American cultures that have migrated up the Mississippi River from New Orleans over the past two centuries, you arrive at a diverse and variegated city.

It is not, however, much of a melting pot. The downtown area is almost deserted after office hours--this, despite the Gateway Arch, a multitude of civic revival projects and a nascent loft district (complete with chic nightclubs that have begun to attract a late-night audience). It used to be city legend that if you waited long enough, everybody you knew would walk by the corner of Grand and Olive; nobody would make that claim today.

The city is mostly poor, while some of the suburbs are extravagantly wealthy. The sad fact is that the farther one ventures due west from downtown St. Louis in the evenings, the more activity one will find.

The county is plush and pleasant--the proverbial "good place to live"--but not especially interesting, while the city of St. Louis, for all of its struggles, retains the power to haunt. It sometimes seems pure Dreiser, with the expansive grandeur of its lush boulevards (among the widest in the country); its perpetually stayed locomotive cars set against a backdrop of steel, gravel and the open sky; and its incalculable number of empty storefronts. It has been a long time between financial booms, and there are a disproportionate number of old factories and office buildings still standing. In St. Louis, it is yet possible to sense the ghosts of another America.

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