Saint Louis - Gateway to the West

Trip Start Jun 23, 2014
Trip End Nov 13, 2014

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Flag of United States  , Missouri
Thursday, June 26, 2014

Saint Louis used to be considered the gateway to the west, the place from which Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition to explore the west to the Pacific commissioned by President Jefferson after the Louisiana Purchase. Apparently this was something important enough to be commemorated in the 1960s with a big silver arch that looks like half a McDonalds sign and goes by the formal name Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Saint Louis was once the second most important city in the Midwest after Chicago and at time of its World Fair in 1904 the fourth most populous in America. Within its city limits, though, it rivals Detroit in terms of population loss since its peak around 1950, having lost more than 60 percent of its people since then.

Thus, large parts of the city look weirdly empty, blocks devoid of building where is seems like buildings should be on the streetscape grid, or at least once had been. But why have old buildings in a city when you can have miles of surface parking lots and empty space? At least that was the ethos of mid-tentieth century urban renewal. When I'm in places like Saint Louis the developer wannabe in me always fantasizes about what could be – what great opportunities there are for redevelopment, to build nice things where there once had been nice things and could be again, not unlike what’s been taking place in LoDo and other neighborhoods around downtown Denver. Oh, if I could be dictator for a day! That all, of course, assumes there are actually people who would want to live and work there, and I’m doubtful that’s the case for the areas around downtown Saint Louis.

My main sightseeing goals in Saint Louis were the art museum and the cathedral on the west side of town, but I figured I’d walk around downtown for a few hours in the morning before my destinations opened and before temps got too scorching. Downtown Saint Louis has some monumental old buildings, but as a business center it isn’t very big for metropolitan area of over two million people. Around Saint Louis most economic activity apparently takes place in 'burbs like Clayton rather than downtown. Like many cities Saint Louis has located its baseball field downtown and fixed-up an old warehouse area into an entertainment and shopping district, but it doesn’t look like those have done much to induce new downtown residential or office construction.

I thought about going up the Gateway Arch but figured I’ll best leave that to some non-summer visit when the kids are back in school and the whole area around it isn’t a construction site; in a mini-version of Boston’s Big Dig Saint Louis is burying a highway which separates the arch and riverfront from downtown to integrate the waterfront into the cityscape. The other important historic site downtown is the Old Courthouse, now a historical museum, where the famous Dred Scott case was argued in 1846, the case that ultimately made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and was decided in favor of slave owners.

Beyond a great deal of emptiness and blocks with single isolated standing buildings are the midtown and west side districts of Saint Louis near Forest Park, which are much more prosperous. From the outside the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis looks much like other big Roman Catholic churches in America. The inside is a different story, though, completely Byzantine and absolutely marvelous, like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else in the U.S. It looks more like Saint Mark’s in Venice, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or some of the churches in Ravenna than churches in North America.

After spending much of the day at the Saint Louis Art Museum (my next entry) I needed a beer, and what better place than a city originally settled heavily by Germans and the home of Anheuser-Busch. But Budweiser was not what I wanted. Saint Louis is apparently reviving its microbrewery tradition with many new breweries and brewpubs. I chose The Urban Chestnut in the Grove District, apparently one of the largest for a few German style beers and a Hungarian Bratwurst Platter. Then it was back to my Motel 6 room in the Illinois ‘burbs.

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