Admittedly, I struggled to find the charm of St. Louis, but once I peeled back the layers, I discovered a quaint, intriguing city (that totally requires a car).
This older American city is housed in the home state of Mark Twain, with famous caves only an hour West of town, and is the base for Mississippi River culture, a thought process all unto itself. It is known for blues music, as the genre floated up the Mississippi from New Orleans and Memphis in the early 1900s. It has the cold weather swooping down from the Great Lakes, just in time to crash into the winds coming off of the plains from the West. There is quick access to Northern cities such as Chicago, providing that Midwest industrial, blue-collar feel, but there is a local mindset that is much more representative of the conservative Bible Belt just to its South. Because of its central location, St. Louis can be a collage of American cultures and ideals, but those cultures can also clash.
Before arriving, I was excited about St. Louis being a city full of history, as well as a blues hub. However, upon arrival, I realized that this place was going to present a bit of a challenge to understand. I am a wanderer of city streets, and this is not that type of city. They are behind the bandwagon in the renovation of their downtown, with much of that area feeling forgotten, almost desolate. Certain areas are under construction, but they are just getting started, with signs hanging on the fences stating completion dates into 2018. Instead, the interesting places are outside of downtown, spread out across the western front, buried in neighborhoods or in the suburbs. It quickly became clear that St. Louis required much more effort on my part to discover its uniqueness, and I put my mind to the task. We had to get into our car, bottom line. Only then would I discover the fun of which I had always heard. But, first things first: let’s learn our history. So we made a day of it.
Upon some research, I came to understand that the city of St. Louis grew out rather than up. It has one of the largest urban sprawls in the nation due to a one decision: nothing in downtown can be taller than the Gateway Arch, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Upon embarking into the urban renewal trend of the 50s and 60s, the officials of St. Louis made the decision to tear down several historic, but also dilapidated, blocks along the Mississippi River to build the Arch and create green space. And while that area is now a nice place to stroll or ride a bike, it kind of goes nowhere on either end. However, the city’s history is prevalent in and around this green space, of which aids in walking from spot to spot. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is across the street from the Arch. It is a building that contains the courtroom where the Dred Scott case was tried, as well as a Westward Expansion museum. Riverboats are stationed in the river, ready to transport groups back to the days of Mark Twain and the former booming Midwest port, playing ragtime music loudly. As we walked along the sidewalk, I was surprised to discover an old church by the Arch, built in 1770. I came to understand that St. Louis was founded as a fur trade hub in 1764 by the French (hence the naming of the city after King Louis IX). The area was sold to the Spanish in 1770, then given back to France under a secret treaty with Napoleon, and then purchased by the United States in 1803 with that famous document, the Louisiana Purchase. With all of that French and Spanish influence, the city was founded on Catholic ideals, and the first Catholic church West of the Mississippi was completed. The church is still there and open to visitors today, right next to the modernly designed Arch. Stroll just north and you’ll find Laclede’s Landing, a place where you can walk on a few of the original cobblestone streets and grab a beer, even if it is pretty touristy. This nearness and mixture of the old and new began to become a common symbol to me in St. Louis. Seemingly valued, preserved, historic places are dominated by modern architecture and industry, creating a feeling of conflict just in the decision and design.
Once I recognized this identity crisis, an ever-present aspect of the area, the city started to make more sense. It still doesn’t know what it wants to be, and apparently that’s been a trend since the early 1900s. It declined as a major American city once we entered into WWI and a more modern era, becoming more dependent on trains than rivers. St. Louis has been playing catch up ever since, and when I read more about the history of the area, that is what a lot of historians discuss: missed opportunities or chances that put the area steadily behind the times and consistently struggling, never really on sure footing or with a clear understanding of how to move forward. Throw in that strange, but unavoidable, clash of cultures coming in from all directions, and now I am starting to understand the very confusing vibe that St. Louis gives off. Basically, the tourism industry wants the area to be seen as an historic place. But the diverse people who live there just want to move forward, seemingly much more interested in the opportunities that the city has to offer in today’s world, as well as in the future.
So okay. Let’s go where the locals go, then; I want to understand even more about this quirky place.
If you’re a local, you might take your visitors to the Arch, but that’s about it. Locals instead embrace the new, modern side. Union Station is a place where the old meets the new. The former train station has been renovated and contains a hotel, restaurants, and a Grand Hall. They play one of fourteen awesomely prepared projection shows every hour on that renovated ceiling of the Grand Hall, and we sipped our drinks while watching a few. There are also plans to build a 360 degree aquarium just outside of Union Station, which means patrons will soon walk through the center of it, with marine life swimming around them on all sides. A ten-minute drive took me to the original Anheuser-Busch brewery, complete with the famed Clydesdale stable, brick buildings, and clock tower. I went in the evening to see the holiday lights with what felt like everyone else in town; that place was packed with locals, all saying hello to each other, then posing for future Christmas cards in front of the decorations. Tis the season, right?
The brewery, of which offers free tours, is housed in the hip Soulard neighborhood, an area where the streets are lined with brick utilitarian row houses and a bar on each street corner, typically playing live blues music. But our favorite areas of town became Midtown and Central West End, near Forest Park. Midtown contains the Fox theatre, restaurants, and a few music venues, as well as St. Louis University and the staggeringly gorgeous Basilica. Central West End is a high-end, walkable neighborhood with diverse restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and bookstores, all of which were inhabited by a young crowd with modern views. There are several culinary treats that are local to St. Louis (toasted ravioli, imo pizza, and gooey butter cake), and you can find a taste of it all right there. Forest Park is massive, containing the largest and oldest outdoor musical theatre venue in the country at 11,000 seats, called Muny. Forest Park is also central to the majority of the museums in St. Louis, with the zoo consistently ranking as one of the top zoos in the nation. Many other parks contain beautiful fountains and statues to gaze towards while walking Maggie Dog. Additionally there are great establishments that aren’t a part of any neighborhood, such as Pappy’s Smokehouse, where one must try the delicious and distinctly St. Louis BBQ ribs, or the many microbrews that are starting to pop up around town, despite the overbearing Anheuser-Busch (AB, as the locals call it) native status. But again, all of this requires a car or a ride, so doing some research and planning ahead is a must in this town.
Now, let’s be honest. There are places in St. Louis that travelers just don’t need to go, mainly because one wrong turn and you are suddenly in a very different neighborhood. One bartender in the Central West End discussed with us several other areas to hang out in, but also suggested taking a local with us. The population of St. Louis is still segregated in many ways, and the wounds from recent problems with racial relations are fresh and delicate. Many seem cautious, walking on eggshells, so to speak, in even the nicest of neighborhoods. They tend to not make eye contact on the street. I guess ignoring each other will keep the peace… for now. I questioned how this came to be. How did this odd city that seems to long for modern times find itself in such a predicament? I began to think of the mixture of people in St. Louis. Those coming East off of the plains, South from Chicago, and north from Memphis, all to converge on a place that has been on shaky ground regarding jobs, industry, and identity for awhile. Those are a lot of differing opinions and a mixture of experiences that still to this day don’t quite no how to get along or talk to each other, let alone know how to work together to help bring their city into a new era. But, as our bartender friend explained, they are indeed moving forward. It is a slow process, but it is one that is going in the right direction. Everyone wants to stay and heal; no one wants to run. And that says something about the character of a place.
At first glance, St. Louis can be a confusing, sad place. But that confusing nature is from strife, and that same strife has helped create a place that has a charm and wit to it, with history, folklore, and cave adventures waiting to be had. If you take the time to get to know it, peeling back the layers and looking at the heart of the people who live there, as well as the struggles that they continue to weather and overcome, it is a place that will endear itself to you. You just have to be persistent in finding it. So try not to judge on face value and allow the heart of St. Louis to reveal itself to you; it has a strong beat. (And again, totally eat the ribs.)