Wednesday, August 05, 2009

EXCURSION--St Louis, Missouri (2003)

This posting is in honor of Tennessee Williams, whom I was writing about recently, and who, though he was born in Mississippi, lived in St Louis for many years.

About 100-120 years ago, St Louis was a very happening place. It was to the 1890s at least what Seattle was to the 1990s. In 1900 it was the 4th largest city in the United States. There was a lot of civic energy: commercial, artistic, sporting. It hit a peak in 1904 with a legendary World's Fair, as well as the Olympics, events that 100 years later are still called up when St Louis wants to feel proud and confident about itself. For its heyday is not merely long gone, but most physical reminders of it have vanished as well. Block after block of what used to be dense housing near the center of the city have been knocked down, and replaced with...nothing. Squares of dirt and weeds. The old train station was sort of preserved, but completely removated and turned into a shopping mall. No trains stop at it anymore (there is a stop in St Louis these days at a modern concrete transportation center, though it looks like it isn't very busy--9 trains a day or something. This is St Louis!) but at the far end near the main entrance one authentic set of restrooms and a marble staircase have been preserved, which are ridiculously strikingly beautiful compared to anything else in the facility, such as the very crowded Hooters restaurant. The downtown area is always empty. No one lives there except for a few pockets of pretty poor-looking black people whose houses have managed to avoid the wrecking ball to this point, so it is strongly hinted to white tourists that they ought not to wander around on their own, not that there is anywhere for them to go. My father was in St Louis once and reported that someone had actually called him a honkey, which I believe was the only time this has befallen him. This did not happen to me. It's still over for St Louis though. 1. View Over Park to Mississippi River and East St Louis, Illinois. This is the view from my hotel room, which was on the tenth floor of a very large and by my standards quite spiffy hotel right along the riverfront park, by the Arch, etc. But no one goes to St Louis. If the Cardinals had not been in town I might have had the whole hotel to myself.

This was my first view of the mighty Mississippi River up close. Like many people from the East, I was struck by how wide it is, the incredible volume of water carried in it, and also by how brown/muddy it is. I assume the river has an incredible personality, since so many classic songs and stories have been written about it, but I suspect this takes some time to get to know.

2. I only had one child at this time, though my wife was pregnant with the second one, given which circumstances it was very sporting of her to go on a two week driving tour to lands very far away from home. This is the last semi-ambitious trip I have undertaken. The Florida trips involve long driving, but we don't move about much once we get there. I remember on this St Louis trip having lunch at a place called the Pepper Lounge that was going for a cool effect, dim lighting, the waitresses dressed in black, groovy mismatched tables and chairs, that sort of thing. I haven't been in a place like that in years, that maybe was even the last time.

3. Kate Chopin, something of whose I have read at one point, is buried in the same cemetery. As is Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, Dred Scott, and lots of baseball players from 1880-1950 whose names I vaguely recognized (no Hall of Famers though). It is probably gauche to pose by people's graves--visiting them was a hobby I had for a while, and one I rather liked, for I like to be outside and to walk around, but I oddly prefer doing so in a well-manicured human space to rawer and wilder nature. I have however always been fond of this picture.

4. Yes, we are inside the arch. Unlike in other cities where it is cool to avoid the most famous sites and the unbearable crowds they attract, after you've been in St Louis for a few days you are eager to go somewhere where there are other any other people, any sign of life, even of bland touristic life, at all; hence the trip up in the arch.

We did go up also to the park where they held the World's Fair in 1904, but no one was hanging out there either. All of the buildings from the fair except one, which now houses the art museum, were, like everything else in this city, unfortunately torn down. (The art museum was closed by the time we got out there, so no report on that.) We went by the University of St Louis, an old Catholic college which I have always had positive feelings towards due to the high quality of a couple of textbooks published by their press in the 60s that I have referred to for years. I should have planned better so as to stop in and at least looked at the statue of Pope Pius XII by Ivan Mestrovic that they have, the illustration of which adorns their survey of modern art in my textbook along with those of works by Picasso, Mondrian, Jacob Epstein, Matisse, and so on. As with everything else, I think of all these semi-interesting things I could do after I've been to the place and not really done much of anything.

5. Scott Joplin's House. I guess this is what the city block houses in downtown St Louis used to look like. You can't see it from this picture, but every other house on this block all the way around the four sides was torn down. This was left up for its historical association. I kind of liked this site. It gave a pretty good idea about the historical setting, background, what have you. I do emotionally respond to ragtime music as much as it is possible for the likes of me; whatever the effect is however, it is not easily expressed through my being to other people. The staff was a little less relentlessly enthusiastic and polite than in usual in such places. They weren't mean or anything, and I suppose most people would consider my earnest presence in such a setting to be inherently comical, but still, one would like to have such bearing at least as to coax some people's better selves out of them once in a while.

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