Friday, October 20, 2006

St. Louis Notes, Part 2

While most of St. Louis' downtown doesn't reflect it, the place has a very interesting history.

One of the best things about the National Park site that includes the Arch is that it also protects the old courthouse. The courthouse is where Dred Scott was first argued and decided. Sadly, the room it occurred in has been split up but nonetheless, that is a vital little spot of American history. Much of the courthouse is about Dred Scott but there's a lot more too.

I was truly amazed in reading about the Dred Scott case. The woman who refused to grant his freedom ended up, sometime in the early 1850s, getting married--to an abolitionist Congressman from Massachusetts! Her response--sell the slaves to her brother. Now, I know that you can't explain why people get married to who they do. These things don't always make sense or lead to the actions you would expect. But how in the hell did that Congressman live with himself knowing that this case was going through the courts and it was his wife's fault. Amazing.

Equally amazing was the pictures of air pollution in St. Louis. St. Louis wasn't any dirtier than other contemporary American cities. But today, we have little ability to comprehend how filthy these cities were. They showed a picture of St. Louis in 1942. The once white courthouse was black with soot. They repainted it the next year. In another picture, you see the glistening white courthouse surrounded by black buildings, a shocking contrast.

Another interesting thing about St. Louis is that it went through its downtown collapse quite early. By the 1930s, downtown had become increasingly abandoned. That's really surprising and I'm not sure why it happened. This was before white flight and the rise of postwar suburbia. The old French and Spanish quarters by the river had fallen into complete dilapidation. The Park Service bought it up and demolished the buildings to make way for the new park that today holds the Arch. Perhaps this happened because the city was so tied to the steamboat that when they finally built a big rail center, it was over a mile from the river and thus business moved that way.

Finally, one note on the Arch. When in the 1940s, the Park Service and Truman Administration decided to build a monument commemorating western expansion, no one image or design was favored. In a video, you can see some of the alternative designs. They are dreadful. Perhaps the worst is reminiscent of that terrible JFK memorial in Dallas. The Finnish architect whose name I forget that won picked the arch because of its classic design. A good choice, as the St. Louis Arch is the most beautiful piece of modernist architecture I've ever seen. But amazingly, it wasn't until the thing was almost completed that the architect realized that the Arch could serve as a metaphor for westward expansion. Typical of an architect to ignore the completely obvious way that people would see and use their work.