St. Louis, MO – April, 2018
Like Twain’s caravan takeoff point in Roughing It, many trips west first take shape in Missouri. I had been through the state briefly, at sixteen, on a trip to the Rockies and beyond. My family pulled off at the exit nearest the arch and we stood, necks craned upward, disposable cameras at the ready, yet unable to get a clear view of the massive monument from the road directly beneath. We ooohed at the arch. We might’ve even aaahed -I don’t recall. But whatever we did, it lasted no more than five minutes before we set off west along I-70, determined to make Kansas by dusk. I remember the rolling farmland contrasting with the corn covered ironing board we had just come through in Illinois and the shortgrass covered one we were to enter that evening. We spent even less time in the state’s other major metro, speeding through Kansas City without much more than a roadside glance at the Kauffman Stadium waterfall. Were we west yet?
When FiveThirtyEight asked Americans which states they believed were in different regions of the country, (west, south, midwest) Missouri was the only one that didn’t score a majority result for any of the three. Arkansas was definitely the south. Illinois unquestionably the Midwest. Kansas was closer but most considered it a western state. No consensus on Missouri – nobody claimed it. And it makes sense that it is the most difficult to classify, as the country’s current center of population, after jumping the Mississippi River in 1980, now lies in south-central Missouri near the town of Plato. The gateway to the west that was once the muddy river is now more of a gradient. Somewhere between Illinois and central Kansas the concept of the west begins in the minds of most Americans, but as the population continues to move, the blurry border follows.
“This might be the most historic place in the world,” Leo, our host in St. Louis had said earlier, tongue unreservedly in cheek. “Everything here was a first. No matter what you’re looking at, it will claim to be the first of its kind west of the Mississippi.” First college, first bridge, first park.
Every wall of Leo’s house was decorated in show posters and blown up prints by Ansel Adams. Tranquil jazz played throughout the entire downstairs. “How are you?” either Lauren or I asked when we entered after five carbound hours. He responded as if he was genuinely trying to figure that out. “You know…I’m not sure!”
Leo was probably around sixty and looked a bit like Larry David did at fifty. He led us up the stairs to our bedroom past rows of signed pictures and framed letters from his career as a traveling cook for touring musicians. Later that night we spent some time reading them, an invitation to a reception for BB King, a thank you note from the 1996 Olympic gymnastics team.
“Your friends are here.” Leo said, referring to Connor and Casey, who occupied the other room at his house. “Oh, and breakfast is from 8-10.”
My friend Connor has a similar running goal, but with additional parameters – a half marathon in each state as opposed to any race of any length. Casey, his purple haired vet tech girlfriend, went to every one of them with him, and they were trying to visit all fifty together. Missouri would be both mine and Connor’s tenth.
Leo’s neighborhood was called Shaw and it was walled on two sides by Tower Grove Park and the botanical gardens. Twenty years ago for a pocket full of loose change, he had purchased the house, a brick Victorian emblematic of St. Louis’s rapid Gilded Age growth. It has since quadrupled in value as people have flooded back into Shaw, and the amount of For Sale signs we saw driving in indicated that more of the same was to come.
Connor and I took some time walking around Shaw after breakfast one crisp morning. We checked out the Botanical Gardens, the founder of which gave his name to the neighborhood. Originally a French settlement called Prairie des Noyers, the name was changed to commemorate Henry Shaw after he purchased large tracts of land including nearby Tower Grove Park. We also walked down Flora Place, a divided boulevard that was originally the entrance to the gardens. It was now lined on both sides by ornate Victorian homes, shaded by barely blossoming trees.
St. Louis in general reminded me a bit of what a major Midwestern city was like in 2010. It was clearly rising from the ashes of the last half-century, an era of urban history nationwide that we will eventually look back on like we do the self-imposed spread thin fall of Rome. St. Louis lost a higher percentage of its peak population than any other major city in the country – a country, mind you, in which Detroit exists. Yet even during the current revival it was not what many of its peers – Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Kansas City – had become in the past decade of massive central reurbanization. There are trendy areas to be sure, and the residential infill is substantial, but these other cities feature block after block of minimalist interiors, charcoal coffee shops, and craft shops, all trying to be so timely that they have become a monoculture and will be what our children mock as quintessentially 2010s – The undercut of interior design.
St. Louis seems to be reasserting itself as a conglomeration of neighborhoods, mostly nodal instead of linear and much of it struck me as quiet. Even on a Friday evening there were no lines or wait times for bars and restaurants, even in what Leo told us were the most popular areas for “us millennials.” I was shocked when we ate at some of the highest rated restaurants in the city to not be greeted by a surly hostess who, aghast at our collective gall for walking in within what could possibly be considered traditional mealtime, would inform us that it would be a two hour wait.
When I think of St. Louis, I think of maroon. The city has more brick buildings than nearly any other in the U.S. and this gives it a distinct identity. The bricks weren’t painted like Cincinnati with its bright Italianates or Charleston’s federal colors, just brick. It boomed at once, and like any city that does so, an architectural uniformity took hold. This makes it far grander and pleasing to look at than the haphazard streetscape of places that grew more gradually. It is uniformity on a human scale, more like a London suburb than a featureless American one.
Over lox on toast, scrambled eggs, and coffee the next morning, Leo told us more about his career.
“So there’s a rumor,” Lauren said, “that you used to cook for Frank Sinatra.” We had heard this from a friend who had stayed with Leo previously, but he had yet to bring it up. We realized he was modest when it came to who he had met throughout his career, so I’m glad Lauren prodded him a bit.
“I did… many times actually.” Recognizing we wanted a story, Leo continued. “Frank used to want a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle before every performance. I would make all kinds of challenging dishes for the crew, but Frank, you know, he wanted his soup. He liked it slow cooked, so I would put it in a crockpot first thing and let it simmer while I worked on everything else. He would worry, too – that someone would mess with it.” Lauren looked at me as if that was something that I would also worry about. She wasn’t wrong.
“Like, someone would spit in it, or poison, or what?” Casey asked.
“Don’t know. But he would always have someone guard it – someone on my crew, someone on his crew. His wife sometimes.” This particularly interested Lauren, who grew up listening to Sinatra’s records and her father’s covers of them. We had to remember to relay Leo’s soup guard story – He would appreciate that. The conversation turned to another of his former clients, Alice Cooper and his recent role in Jesus Christ Superstar. Leo referred to him simply as “Alice” like they went way back and they probably did.
I went almost thirty years of life without knowing that St. Louis style pizza is a thing. Connor and Casey were excited to try it, but Lauren and I had heard it tastes like tomato sauce and cheese on a cracker, like a giant Lunchable.
“Let’s just say you don’t come here for that pizza” Leo said with a laugh after we asked suggestions. Instead, now that pizza had a hold on our collective thoughts, he steered us toward The Hill, an Italian neighborhood so named because of its location near the highest point within city limits. A relative term no doubt.
“It’s actually the largest Italian neighborhood in the country” he said. I didn’t fact check him but I was inclined to believe he wasn’t making that up out of local pride given his New York roots.
“Anthonino’s then Gelato Di Riso. There, you have a whole Italian evening planned!”
Like everywhere else outside of downtown, The Hill had plenty of parking and no wait times. Leo was right about the pizza at Anthonino’s, authentic Italian style in a large open restaurant between two houses – a true neighborhood eatery. It also gave us an opportunity to try St. Louis’s other Italian specialty, fried ravioli, which was most certainly not like a Lunchable. Our ride back to Leo’s, as the rest of the evening had been, was quiet. Silent brick houses and empty roads. Then, a jazz bar with a line out the door and well-dressed socialites crisscrossing the street and then nothing.
I asked Leo in the morning where he thought the best place to park nearish the arch would be that wouldn’t be cost inflated by the Cardinals’ afternoon tilt against the Diamondbacks. Or maybe if we should just Uber. “If I may be so bold…” he trailed off while carrying a cup of coffee into the living room. I followed. “Take the Metrolink, park at Grand and you won’t have to worry about it at all.”
Once we found the park and ride lot, which required adventure, the Metrolink experience was flawless. Within the city, the red and blue lines run together so a train shows up every ten minutes to go in either direction. This makes just missing it, an experience I have had on a small system like Cleveland or a large one like New York to name a couple, much less of a conundrum. Within fifteen minutes of parking the car, we were at one of the downtown stations after a speedy and jostling five mile ride. It accelerates suddenly though, even compared to most commuter rail systems. We made sure we were holding to something at each stop after an initial incident in which an unaware and possibly tipsy Cardinals fan came careening in our direction after takeoff.
Until six weeks prior to our visit, the arch and its surrounding green space was part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. In fact, all of the signs and gift shop memorabilia still informed us as such. But in February of 2018 the name was changed, for commercial reasons no doubt, to ‘Gateway Arch National Park.’ This led to some confusion as to whether the name change alone made it our sixtieth National Park or if it was just a snappier name to grab more tourist dollars. If it were a true capitol ‘N’ capitol ‘P’ National Park, it would be by far the smallest, with its 90 acres fitting into the next on the list, Arkansas’s Hot Springs National Park, 60 times with room left over. It would also be the only one to not be based around the natural environment. There has been pushback by parks enthusiasts that this decision opens the door to a watering-down of the importance of the designation. They believe it’s the beginning of National Monuments, Historical Parks, and Lakeshores all over the U.S. to apply for a change to bring in more visitors, essentially rendering the epithet meaningless. I’m inclined to agree.
That doesn’t mean the arch isn’t spectacular in its own right. It is the symbol of a major city and to a degree of the entire westward expansion. In fact, that is why it was called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to begin with. The grounds don’t just include the arch, but also the courthouse where the Dred Scott decision was made and exhibits pertaining to traveling what was then the true gateway to the west.
The arch was striking against the uninterrupted blue sky as Lauren and I stood in line waiting for to go through security. Connor and Casey skipped this outing both for Casey’s fear of heights and Connor’s desire to see Forest Park. Having a group of two actually made it easier to get going because once inside we were able to go directly into a tour group by virtue of pre-ordering tickets online. We were shown a short video about the building of the arch and the 1960s in general. The most interesting part was that the keystone at the very top was placed last on a very hot day, and due to the metal expanding in the heat, the engineers thought they had mismeasured. When it was realized the humid St. Louis summer was at fault, firehoses were brought in to cool down the arch and finish its construction.
We were assigned capsule numbers to take us to the top, representing number five. The doors opened like the doors of spaceship in a midcentury sci-fi film and Lauren and I ducked into our capsule with three others. These were not meant for those who dislike tight spaces, snug in all directions including upward, our knees knocking against those of our fellow capsule fivers. We started to move slowly to the side, and then with an unnerving clank, began to ascend. Out of the small window we watched dangling chains and a winding metal staircase that became thinner as we reached the top. There was another clank. The entire ride up, about four minutes, reminded me of what people in 1965 thought the future looked like.
We exited to another staircase which led to the windowed lookout. It was crowded and steamy but the view was expansive – the St. Louis cityscape on one side and the cappuccino colored Mississippi on the other. Everyone clustered on the city side making it difficult to walk, and a ranger attempting to usher everyone through had an air of defeat in her voice, recognizing the fruitlessness of her command. I felt for her a bit – Imagine training as a National Park ranger and then being transferred from wide open Yellowstone to a tiny room that was blazing hot despite the 45 degree temperatures outside. I have heard the arch is unbearable in the summer.
The spires of the churches and water towers in the more distant St. Louis neighborhoods were visible out of the western windows. The glass was slanted downwards at an angle that allowed, if leaning far enough over, one to feel as if they were flying over the land below with 630 feet of clearance. Lauren and I enjoyed picking out familiar landmarks with our limited knowledge of the city. The eastern side faced Illinois and the main streets of East St. Louis presented themselves from behind a layer of trees. Directly below us on the foreside of the river was the race’s finish line, the tops of tents that would soon be filled with water and masseuses and bananas. We stayed atop the arch for about twenty minutes before descending in a different capsule, a slightly quicker but jerkier ride in that direction. Nothing that a couple veterans of capsule five couldn’t handle.
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