Thursday, October 19, 2006

St. Louis Notes, Part 1

Before too much times passes, I need to write my 2 part series on my trip to St. Louis.

St. Louis is an interesting city and not really what I expected. My experience with old industrial cities is pretty limited--I've lived my life on the West Coast and in the Sunbelt. I had the vision of a downtown that still reflected its industrial heritage while also both promoting people moving back downtown and centering the river in its redevelopment.

While there is a little of all of this, what really struck me about St. Louis was that downtown was still stuck in the 1980s--a place where people work and then go home. I'm sure there are cool neighborhoods in St. Louis--I heard that the area around Washington U. is great, but I didn't see them. We were staying near the river kind of away from our conference hotel and this gave me a chance to see quite a bit of the city. It's not that there is a lot of vacant space there, but it's not a place conducive to living spaces.

The riverfront of course is dominated by the Arch and the park surrounding it. While the park is great, it does serve to separate the city from the river. I wonder how often the citizens of St. Louis even see the river, unless their office window overlooks it. But the Arch sure is cool. Even better is going up the Arch. You get into these pod things that look like they were designed after a bunch of engineers got really stoned and watched Star Trek. They're about 4 feet tall and contain 5 white plastic chairs in a circle and lit from the rear. I thought Hal was about to talk to me. Very cool. The view from the top is great too. Everyone wanted to see St. Louis from up there, but I found the working river and East St. Louis far more interesting. Definitely worth the $10.

While, other than a warehouse district, there wasn't much going on downtown, that new Busch Stadium sure is gorgeous. Unfortunately, I was there for Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS, played in New York. But I did get to walk around the stadium. The history of baseball in that city is amazing--Hornsby, Brock, Smith, Gibson, Musial, etc. The new park both features that history and the new beauty of baseball stadiums. Not only is the park very open and featuring the city as the background but you can actually see home plate from outside the park--a passerby can view a bit of the game for free. How cool is that!

My conference took place at the hotel in the old Union Station. This was pretty separated from downtown, I assume for historical reasons. St. Louis tied itself to the steamboat and was late to embrace the railroad, thus allowing Chicago to pass it and become the Midwest's dominant city. So it's about a mile or so to the river from Union Station. Of course, the car supplanted the railroad and the city was left with this huge station and railyard. What to do with it? The answer turns out to be put a beautiful, grand hotel in it and surround it with a mall. I was of two minds on this project. I believe it was a pretty early redevelopment project and in the 70s and 80s, many thought malls were the new public spaces. But of course, while a mall serves those functions to an extent, it also is a heavily commericalized and sanitized space. Most of all, it's not a very interesting space, at least to me. On the other hand, what do you do with such a large building? If you don't fill it with consumer spaces, what are you going to do? I don't know. Perhaps they could have torn the whole thing down and built live-work spaces that had a railroad-yard-esque facade, but that's not real great either. So it is what it is. But that hotel space sure was grand. Weird though, going through a mall to get from the hotel proper to the conference rooms.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about St. Louis' history.