Tales of a
21st Century Gypsy

May 12, 2006.
St. Louis, MO

I went to St. Louis because it was there – not because I was really interested in the town. But as it turned out, I really liked it. I arrived on a rainy day and found myself in a big park dotted with museums, bike trails, playing fields, and a zoo. I stopped at the art museum, mostly to see if I could use the toilet without paying to go in, and found that it was free! So I spent a few hours there, and a very nice few hours they were. It’s a delightful museum – not too big to be manageable, but big enough to have a good variety of work – European decorative art, American painting, African textiles and sculptures, figures of Asian goddesses, Tiffany lamps, and really strange sculpture visible on the grounds through the windows. People there were friendly, too. I had a nice chat with one of the curators, and a long discussion over coffee with a woman who’s a museum regular, photographing and drawing the artworks. The gift shop was a wonder as well, though I resisted the temptation to buy more than a couple of cards. Whoever does their buying knows just how to catch the eye of women in an artsy mood with a bit of cash to spare. Vibrant silk sashes and jackets, cleverly arrayed on manikins at the entrance. Colorful knick-knacks packed in sparkling drawstring bags. Lovely jewelry by local artists and designers. Blank books from all parts of the world, of handmade paper bound with silk, leather, and beads. The whole place was calm, soothing, and beautiful.

In late afternoon I drove downtown to see what there was to see. It was a dismal drive. The park – Forest Park, it’s called – is a few miles from the river, and the stretch between them is, to an alarming extent, derelict, destroyed, abandoned. It’s hard to look at; what were once attractive neighborhoods of modest clapboard houses and gardens, now frighteningly empty, for several miles. By the river there’s a sense of slightly unreal renovation – a new stadium, a renovated train station converted to a fancy hotel, with a spectacular lobby in what was once the main hall and a slightly seedy shopping mall filling the rest of the structure, selling tourist items and fast food. By the water the arch, which I’d only seen once before – from the air, flying to California – is spectacular, no doubt about it. But the area around it closes up at night, except for a few bars and restaurants seemingly targeting conventioneers.

In the morning I left my van in a nice area near Washington University and headed back downtown on my bike for a better look at the arch. It is stunning. It changes with every shift in the light; one moment blue, another dappled gray, another gleaming white reflecting the sun. I bought my ticket to go to the top, wondering how they could put an elevator in this slim curving creation.

The “elevator” was really a series of little pods, five seats in each, that clank up the inside of the arch like an old-fashioned cable car that I once rode up a mountain in the Swiss Alps. Out the tiny window in the pod door, I saw the illuminated inside walls of the tunnel through which we were climbing, and stairs – for emergencies, I guess, and cable car maintenance. It was all somewhat surreal. But then, so is the arch itself.

The windows at the top are short and wide – bigger than they appeared from the ground, but still not very big – or very clean. But still quite fabulous. If I leaned on the window-ledge I could see almost straight down, to peer on the heads of people sitting on the steps at the base of the arch. The river was brown with mud, rippling in the breeze and with the wakes of passing barges. Looking west, the city stretched across the plains as far as the eye could see; the tall buildings of downtown, the stadium, the low profile of the miles of abandoned houses, the high-rise hospital and apartment district surrounding the park, and far on the horizon suburban office towers in the edge cities that drain the life from the city itself. I watched the river and the city for a long time, as one cable car after another disgorged its school groups and tourists, and collected them again for the trip back to the ground.

The next day I decided to walk through the park, to a neighborhood that caught my eye on its eastern edge, an area of renovated brick homes, coffee shops, and flower-lined city streets. I packed my computer and set off on foot, parking Matilda on the western edge of the park on what would have been Central Park South if this were New York. It was a beautiful sunny day, as I strolled through formal gardens and among pools and fountains, along streams next to the bike trail. I my surprise, I saw dozens of people in matching green t-shirts reading “29K/30” picking up twigs and brush, and loading them into big trash bags. Clearly some kind of event – they didn’t look like park staff – but it didn’t make much sense.

Stopping into the information center I learned that this was corporate community service. The Price Waterhouse Coopers office in St. Louis had invited its employees to spend the day cleaning the park, followed by a catered lunch, instead of going to the office on that sunny spring day. Well, that’s a no-brainer! Who’d rather be at work? The 29K/30 did not mean that they had

completed 29 kilometers out of 30 in something, but I can’t remember what it did signify – it didn’t make sense to anyone.

Continuing along the stream, I saw more identical green-shirts, in canoes on the shallow water. I pulled out my camera, whereupon they called out to ask if I wanted a ride. I don’t think they expected me to take them up on it, but when their canoe reached the shore I stepped in, and off we went back into the stream. Clearly these were sensible folks – when offered a choice between patrolling the lawns and taking to the stream in a canoe, they chose the water. There was scarcely any trash to pick up, so we idled along, ramming their friends in other canoes, splashing each other, and generally having a good time. When I told them I was a tourist, they were delighted, enjoying the idea that my experience of their city included a ride in their canoe. They invited me to join them for lunch, but I declined, continuing my walk in search of coffee and a late breakfast.

My destination turned out to be one of the trendier parts of St. Louis. I liked it - no surprises there. I stopped at a nice café, with good coffee, good sandwiches, and free wifi. It seemed like a neighborhood place, people stopping by from the hospitals for lunch, books by local authors on display. Near the café, a house was for sale, and I pulled the flyer out of the box in front. Five bedrooms, on three floors. A sweeping wooden staircase with a towering stained-glass window on the landing. A big backyard. Yes, it “needed some work,” but all this for half of what my small house in Virginia might sell for, and in a much more interesting neighborhood. I wanted to buy that house, to live in that neighborhood, down the street from the coffeehouse, a short walk from the lovely park and the dozens of trendy restaurants. And to be part of turning a once-vibrant American city into a newly-vibrant American city, reversing the decay that was driving everyone out to the sterile suburbs.

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