This is the second in a two-part series on St. Louis and the 1904 World’s Fair. Read part 1 here.
Photo: Edward McPherson
The Palace of Agriculture is a blinding colossus in the sun. The man next to me reads from a booklet: twenty acres large, covered with 147,250 panes of glass. I have timed my visit—in one minute a giant clock made of 13,000 flowers will strike the noon hour. I am finished with the exhibits. I have seen the Missouri corn palace, the 4,700-pound cheese; I have laughed at Minnesota’s contribution, “The Discovery of St. Anthony Falls by Father Hennepin” shaped out of one thousand pounds of butter. Now a hiss of compressed air throws the 2,500-pound minute hand the final five feet, where it points to the giant numeral 12. An hourglass flips, doors open to reveal the gears of the clock—the triumph of industrial time—and a massive bell tolls the death of more agrarian rhythms.
Pyramids of fruit on a sea of china plates—the entire Palace of Horticulture smells like apples. Virginia has created a statewide shortage by sending too many to the Fair. I dip my fingers into the fountain, which gushes ice water. Farmers shake their heads at the monstrosities on display: a pineapple the size of a turkey and a mysterious dimpled fruit, said to be the unholy cross between a strawberry and a raspberry.
* * *
The company is a major employer in this city. One cannot miss its print and radio campaign: “We grow ideas here.” “We work together here.” “We dream here.” “We’re proud to be St. Louis Grown.” Its website offers videos of employees working in food banks, cleaning up after tornados, visiting Forest Park, and standing in front of the Arch. Articles rate the town’s best burger joints, as judged by company workers. The company is a major donor to local charities and institutions, including the university in which I teach. In 2013, the company’s net sales were $14.8 billion, up ten percent. Its chief technology officer won the 2013 World Food Prize. The company has 21,183 employees in 404 facilities in sixty-six countries—but its headquarters are here, where, over the years, the much-maligned Monsanto Company has worked to produce saccharin, PCBs, polystyrene, DDT, Agent Orange, nuclear weapons, dioxin, RoundUp, bovine growth hormone, and genetically modified seeds.
* * *
I live in a small apartment building that stands in the footprint of the Horticulture palace. We grow nothing in the backyard but herbs, potted lettuce, and a few stunted rose bushes, but on sunny days I like to think I smell apples.
A private gate in an old St. Louis postcard.
In Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland’s older sister reminds her, “Nice girls don’t let men kiss them until after they’re engaged. Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off”—to which Garland responds, “Personally, I think I have too much bloom.”
The film’s crisis comes when Garland’s father declares his intention to move the family to New York City, dashing his daughters’ romantic interests and hopes of the Fair. In the dramatic Christmas Eve denouement, he decides the family will stay put, saying, “New York doesn’t have a copyright on opportunity. Why, St. Louis is headed for a boom that’ll make your head swim.”
A slick-haired fellow shouts from an automobile: “One hundred and forty models of cars powered by gas, electricity, and steam!” His eyes shine with belief in the Palace of Transportation. He waves a magazine furiously about; as he reads, he stabs his finger in the air: “This new form of carriage will become perfected, and then the great cities will spread out into the suburbs, and life on an acre will become a possibility for even the humblest class of people!”
Opened in 1954, Pruitt-Igoe was a mammoth, state-of-the-art public housing development designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who later would build the World Trade Center. The Pruitt-Igoe development rose on a parallelogram bounded by Cass Avenue, North Jefferson Avenue, Carr Street, and North 20th Street on St. Louis’ northside, close to downtown. A city-designated “slum” was razed and in its place rose a modern utopia, Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” made real: thirty-three modular eleven-story buildings smartly arrayed in superblocks across fifty-seven acres, each high-rise facing the same direction, vertical neighborhoods of light and space with ample parking and vibrant public areas. Kids scampered in the breezeways. Apartments were clean and bright, offering views better than those enjoyed by the rich. In a recent documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a former resident remembers her top-floor apartment as a “poor man’s penthouse.” Another says, “It was like another world,” and then adds, “Everybody had a bed.”
Pruitt-Igoe was founded on the faith of communal, public life; it offered better living through architecture. One set of high-rises was to be white (the Igoe Apartments, named after a Congressman), the other black (the Pruitt Homes, after a Tuskegee airman), but Brown v. the Board of Education came down the year the development opened—and the whites moved out. Black by default, Pruitt-Igoe flourished. In 1957, occupancy was at 91 percent. Fifteen thousand tenants would call it home.
But the project was built for a postwar boom that never came. Another kind of planned community was thriving beyond city borders—the suburb, fueled by the same 1949 Federal Housing Act that enabled Pruitt-Igoe. Having already legally fixed its boundaries, the city couldn’t abate its population decline by annexation. With the middle class fleeing to the suburbs, the development would never be able to raise the significant maintenance fees it needed from its tenants. The city let the brand-new buildings deteriorate almost from the start. There were also more pernicious factors at work. Suburbs passed zoning laws barring low-income housing; public projects became a tool of segregation, the goal being to prevent, in the parlance of the day, “negro deconcentration.”
One historian has called St. Louis “the poster child of white flight.” It’s often ranked as one of the country’s most segregated cities based on what’s called its “dissimilarity score,” which analyzes racial makeup across census tracts. While different measurements suggest the divide might not be so stark, the traditional color line is widely acknowledged to be Delmar Boulevard. Seventy-three percent of residents south of the boulevard are white; head north, and neighborhoods become ninety-eight percent black.
In the musical, Garland sings about her home at 5135 Kensington Avenue, a stately three-story Victorian on an idyllic block on the MGM back lot known as “St. Louis Street,” which would appear in a number of films before
The Victorian on Kensington Ave.
being torn down. The real address, a few blocks north of Delmar, belonged to the writer Sally Benson, from whose memoirs the film was drawn. Benson’s former home was abandoned and demolished in 1994. Today, 5135 Kensington Avenue is a vacant plot with a history of debris and graffiti complaints whose value was last appraised by the city to be $3,800. It is owned by the St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority. In 2001, a ten-year-old boy was eaten by wild dogs in a park two blocks away.
I push past the crowds into the Palace of Education and Social Economy. In a model classroom, the teacher struggles to keep the attention of the giggling local children, who are thrilled at their turn to take part in the exhibit. I wander into the “School for Defectives.” Deaf students sewing—blind students on violins. Helen Keller, a senior at Radcliffe, will be lecturing soon. On my way out, I peruse modern treatments for the insane.
St. Louis is preoccupied with school districts, perhaps because its public schools were stripped of accreditation by the State Board of Education in 2007. The district was nearly twenty-five million dollars in debt; fewer than one in five students could read at grade level. In fall of 2012, the schools regained provisional accreditation, though the previous spring’s exams had shown only twenty-seven percent of students passing in math.
The problem of St. Louis schools is a Gordian knot of politics and passion. But most people admit the usual “solutions”—bussing; lotteries; a district transfer system; a mix of private, parochial, charter, and magnet schools—have failed to create equal opportunity.
The odds are against the shrinking city. A voluntary transfer system, scheduled to extend until 2019, allows African American students from the city to attend schools in one of the wealthier county districts. Waiting lists are long; each year, thousands of students are turned away. Those who are admitted face an average one-way bus ride of fifty-four minutes, among other challenges. At the start of 2013, 5,036 students transferred from city to county schools. The program also allows white suburban students to transfer to city magnet schools—eighty-seven students took advantage of that opportunity.
East St. Louis, Illinois, sits just across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis. The U.S. attorney for the district recently called it “the Wild West.” From 2008 to 2011, the city had to cut its police force by thirty-three percent; the per-capita murder rate is more than sixteen times the national average. Since 1960, East St. Louis has lost two-thirds of its population. A casino and the school district provide most of the jobs.
But St. Louis holds its own. In 2013, it ranked as the third most violent city in the U.S., after New Orleans and Detroit. Another report listed two of its neighborhoods on the “Top 25 Most Dangerous Neighborhoods in America.” Such rankings are invariably rebutted by the mayor’s office and police department—often with good reason, as many of these stats are skewed by an antiquated city/county divide that puts St. Louis at a tremendous national disadvantage in the polling methodology. Still, at the time of the Fair, St. Louis was nearly twice the size it is now. It has lost some 500,000 people over the past fifty years. Segregation, disastrous “urban renewal” projects, white flight, “redlining” (racist lending practices), and blockbusting (racist real-estate scaremongering and profiteering) tell some of the complicated story. The fact remains: the last time the city had this few people was in 1870—and the national perception endures that it is dangerous to live in St. Louis on either side of the river.
A man in a blue uniform approaches me. He is a physical specimen—of “good feature and bearing”—one of the Jefferson Guard, the omnipresent guides and policemen of the Fair, some three hundred strong. I nod and say, “Just passing through.” He looks at me and smiles, but I feel nervous. I cross the street. He pulls his mustache as he reprimands a boy for spitting: “No one is innocent.” He should know. For fifty dollars a month plus housing, he and his brethren will arrest 1,439 citizens, including 312 trespassers, 421 disturbers of the peace, five murderers, and one vile soul charged with “wife abandonment.” On hot summer days, he sports a lighter khaki.
Pruitt-Igoe residents were treated with suspicion and subject to dehumanizing regulations, the subtext being that the poor were in need of forced moral uplift. Televisions were forbidden; apartments could be painted no color but white. Disastrous welfare laws broke up families—no able-bodied man could live in a unit that received federal aid, so fathers hid in closets when they were supposed to be, by regulation, out of the state. Many of the buildings’ modern innovations functioned poorly. “Skip-stop” elevators that didn’t land on every floor—an economic concession that supposedly encouraged mingling and use of the stairs—made residents easy bait for muggers. Public galleries became gauntlets. Residents had been promised beautiful, safe, affordable housing, but city maintenance deteriorated. Elevators smelled of urine and broke down regularly; “vandal proof” light fixtures stayed dark. Firefighters, police officers, and ambulances stopped showing up after frustrated tenants dropped bottles and bricks. Pruitt-Igoe quickly became an emblem of an overblown white fear of black poverty and crime. As the experiment unraveled, a complex story of structured inequality and misunderstood urban forces was turned—by some—into a more vicious parable of how those people just couldn’t be helped, just couldn’t be trusted with nice things.
I hurry past an anthracite coalmine belching soot and smoke in a gulch south of the palace. Slipping between a pair of Egyptian obelisks, I enter the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy: an oil rig, a 1,200-pound pot of mercury, the devil made of sulfur. I duck into a dark room that holds a luminous collection of radium ores. They look like fireflies. Next door, at 2:30, the U.S. Government will stage a demonstration of the mysterious element. Cosmopolitan implores I not miss this epochal discovery: “Revealing an energy so powerful, inexhaustible, and apparently so abundant in nature, that its substitution for other forms of light and power now in general use is within the range of possibility.”
A local sociologist named Lisa Martino-Taylor recently uncovered a secret Army experiment conducted in the 1950s and 1960s in which St. Louis citizens were unknowingly sprayed with a mixture of zinc cadmium sulfide that she believes might have been radioactive. Chemical sprayers were attached to buildings, schools, and station wagons. Residents were told smoke screens were being tested that might conceal the city from the Russians. The Army admits the aerosol was fluorescent, but it won’t say whether it was radioactive. Many documents remain classified. Most of the spraying was done around the Pruitt-Igoe complex, home at the time to about ten thousand low-income residents, some seventy percent of whom were children.
In 1969, Pruitt-Igoe tenants organized a rent strike, a shocking development in public housing. After nine months, the housing authority caved. But that winter, two months after the victory, water and sewage pipes burst, perhaps partly due to an estimated ten thousand broken windows. Sheets of ice cascaded down the façades. Buildings were vacated, then stripped by thieves. Superblocks became ghost towns, the darkened shells offering a high-rise vantage for drug lords looking to evade enemies and cops.
The implosion of Pruitt-Igoe.
In 1972, the city capitulated—the first three buildings were imploded. The demolition of building C-15 on April 21, 1972, was nationally televised, the spectacular footage spreading so widely that Charles Jencks, the architectural theorist, proclaimed this first stage of demolitions to be the day “modern architecture died.” The final 800 tenants were relocated, and by 1976 the development had been erased, leaving a fifty-seven-acre scar across the northside.
In the Hall of Anthropology, housed in a university building I can see from my office window, visitors could get tested anthropometrically—their bodies weighed, their skulls, foreheads, ears, and jaws measured—or gawk at a Brazilian shrunken head. On display in the ethnological exhibits: a family of nine Ainus from Japan (supposedly the world’s hairiest people), several Patagonian “giants,” pygmies from Africa, representatives from more than twenty Native North American tribes, and “many other strange people, all housed in their peculiar dwellings, such as the wigwam, tepee, earth-lodge, toldo, or tent.” The Department of Anthropology hoped to show “how the other half lives, and thereby to promote not only knowledge but also peace and good will among the nations.” Cultural and political imperialism were given a scientific gloss; the virtues of white, western assimilation were roundly praised. In his diary, one fairgoer favored the Ainus, whom he found “not as dirty nor nearly as lazy-looking as the Patagonians.”
St. Louis brick is a fine, beautiful brick that was once the pride of the city. In the fourth ward, there is a long-running scam in which thieves set fire to a vacant house; after firefighters come and scour off the mortar with their hoses, the thieves return and cart off the cleaned bricks. Thanks to a policy of demolition and clearance, an inner-city prairie has sprouted, a startling sight. Satellite imagery shows swaths of city blocks turned into gridded green plots of land. A four-way intersection in the middle of the city might look like a forgotten rural byway.
The gem of the anthropological offerings was the Philippine exhibit, dedicated to the islands that had become a U.S. protectorate following the recent Spanish American War.
The most popular—and controversial—part of the exhibit was the Igorot Village. In their loincloths, the tribesmen looked “like bronze statues,” according to one female viewer. (A male visitor noted they “seemed to have a tremendous attraction for the ladies.”) Secretary of War William Howard Taft wanted the tribesmen in trousers, but the fair’s Board of Lady Managers overruled, upholding their idea of science over prudishness. The loincloths carried the day, even late into the year, when the huts were warmed to accommodate the light dress.
Even more sensational were the regular dog feasts, an occasional tribal tradition greatly played up for the Fair. Fueled by reports in the papers, visitors brought dogs to the village to donate, sell, or trade; some sources claim twenty canines a week were provided by a local pound, though the number seems apocryphal.
At the Philippine Model School, Igorot schoolchildren serenaded President and Mrs. Roosevelt with “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” One Igorot chief insisted a telephone be installed in his imperial hut. A photo caption from Cosmopolitan that September: “Miss Roosevelt and her friends are amused at the manners and customs of the Filipinos.” Four white-hatted white ladies holding small bouquets of flowers peer around some shrubbery and laugh, flashing their white teeth.
An inner-city prairie.
A local sixteen year old named T. S. Eliot went to the Fair. I visit the reading room of the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center, just south of the Life-Saving Lake (now gone), where shipwrecked sailors were rescued daily at two p.m. I pick up Stockholder’s Coupon Ticket #1313, signed “Thos. S. Eliot” and bearing a photo of the boy poet, who gazes slyly down to the left, as if he knows better than to look. He wears a coat and tie, with tidy hair and a tight collar. His alabaster skin is wan and washed-out, and his heavy-lidded eyes are sunken, blurred, and unfocused, almost blind. One large ear is turned, as if listening. He sports a thin coy smile. The archivist handed me the photo with a shudder. “Creepy,” she said.
Eliot never wrote directly of visiting the Fair—though a year later, in his school’s journal, he would publish a south-seas short story critical of the powers of civilization, certain details of which recall the Igorots. Lecturing at Harvard twenty-seven years later, he would state, “Poetry begins, I dare say, with a savage beating a drum in a jungle.”
* * *
I distrust my eyes. Chief Geronimo sits in a booth at the Indian Building. A sign says the seventy-five-year-old Apache prisoner-of-war arrived from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, under military guard. A man whispers, “Yesterday, he made a bow and arrow for my neighbor.”
August 12 and 13 were Anthropology Days, a series of sporting contests organized by the departments of Anthropology and Physical Culture a few weeks before the Olympic Games (when pervading beliefs held that the Americans would win over the “primitive” races, never mind the fact that George Poage, an African American sponsored by the Milwaukee Athletic Club, would become the first black medalist when he won bronze in both the 220- and 440-yard hurdles).
And so the Sioux competed against the Arapahos in tug-of-war. Tribesmen tossed a fifty-six-pound weight. There was a mud fight. Crack spear-throwers struggled with the javelin. Runners stopped and ducked under the finish-line tape. Participants laughed at the events; they didn’t try very hard. The white man’s games didn’t translate. Attendance was poor, as was the quality of “data” collected by the departments. Winners were given American flags. A Filipino Negrito named Basilio was the fastest to climb the greased pole.
On July 2, 1917, near Fourth and Broadway in East St. Louis, a black man was cornered and strung up on a telephone pole; when the rope broke, the man fell to the gutter, where, according to the New York Times, a mob “riddled his body with bullets” before hanging him again. In 1916 and 1917, some ten-thousand African Americans moved to East St. Louis from the rural south as part of the Great Migration, greatly feeding white cultural, economic, and political fear. Labor tensions ran high. The night before that July lynching—which would prove to be only one of many—a car of white men had driven through Market Street, shooting at black residents. When plainclothes police officers appeared in a car, they were mistaken for the original culprits and fired upon, killing two. East St. Louis exploded into some of the bloodiest race riots in American history. The goal: drive out the blacks.
Houses were set alight and the fleeing residents gunned down. Eyewitnesses described babies being tossed into the river or shot in the head and fed into the flames. Small boys fired revolvers. Two young white girls dragged a black woman off a streetcar; another white girl stomped on a black man’s face, bloodying her stockings. Bodies were left in the street. Militiamen were ordered to shoot to kill in their efforts to subdue the white mobs, but one black woman—hearing gunfire—fled an outhouse only to have her arm shot off by a soldier. The city’s most-famous expat, Josephine Baker, would remember watching—as an eleven year old—a man being beaten and hearing about a pregnant neighbor whose baby was torn out.
The mayor’s office attempted a cover-up; his private secretary ordered police and militiamen to smash cameras and arrest anyone attempting to photograph the violence. But the next day, a telegram reached the War Department: “Very bad night fires and rumors period. A lot of negroes killed number unknown period.” The approximate death toll: eight whites and anywhere from forty to hundreds of blacks. At least $400,000 in property lost. More than six thousand African Americans would flee. W.E.B. Du Bois, sent to bear witness to the massacre, reported an old woman’s lament: “We can’t live in the South and they don’t want us in the North. Where are we to go?”
In the fall of 2013, an editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would join the city and county of St. Louis—undoing the “Great Divorce of 1876,” what the editorial board called “the biggest mistake this region ever made.” Secret talks—including “key city, county, civic, and corporate leaders”—had been underway for years. The paper pushed the mayor to go public. An anonymous opposition group set up a website. Weeks went by with no more news.
During the Civil War, St. Louis had slaves but was not southern. It is not western, like Kansas City, on the other side of the state, but it is not eastern, not really—just ask any transplant from the coast. It truly is Middle American, whatever that means. There’s the old joke: what kind of city would advertise itself as a jumping off point, an exit door, a gateway to somewhere else?
The fear: that it has become just another link on the Rust Belt, the next Detroit. It once competed to be the biggest and best in the middle of the country—a crown long since lost to Chicago, though the rivalry (which sometimes seems a little one-sided) endures. Valentine’s Day weekend 2014 marks the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis, which will be celebrated with a lavish festival in Forest Park. The centerpiece: a sculpture of a heart—on fire—floating in the Grand Basin.
An international contest was held to reimagine use for the Pruitt-Igoe site, with winners announced in 2012, the fortieth anniversary of the demolition. The top design, from two Harvard graduate students, took home $1,000 and called for the abandoned land to become an “ecological assembly line,” with nurseries and aquaculture basins producing native plants, trees, mussels, and fish. The proposal is beautiful, part memorial, part farm, but I cannot stop staring at images of the implosion. Behind the buildings and the dust cloud, to the left of the horizon, stands what was then the city’s most recent monument to a radiant future—dedicated only four years earlier—the gleaming Gateway Arch.
The Arch, designed in 1947 by Finnish futurist Eero Saarinen, was a monument to America’s westward expansion, a six-hundred-and-thirty-foot tall and wide stainless steel curve made of tapering equilateral triangles, a mathematical dream rising over the heartland. From the beginning, its purity was suspect. After Saarinen announced his design, an Italian architect claimed the idea was his, stolen from a fascist monument he had drawn up for Rome’s 1942 World’s Fair (never realized). Twenty-one years later, at the dedication, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey proclaimed the Gateway Arch would provide a “new sense of urgency to wipe out every slum,” promising that—by its example—“whatever is shoddy, whatever is ugly, whatever is waste, whatever is false, will be measured and condemned.”
Forty downtown blocks were leveled to make room for the arch, many of them home to poor bohemians, artists, and African Americans. A day or two after reading Humphrey’s speech, I hear a historian say on the radio that the arch hasn’t transformed the city as its builders had hoped, and if it is destined to be remembered by history, it will not be as a celebration of the Louisiana Purchase, but as a monument to the mid-20th century—to an America so powerful, so brash, so sure of its future that it would destroy a downtown to put up a symbol.
A perfect day at the Fair could be ruined in many ways, by rain, cold, heat, exhaustion, not to mention the usual human foibles and follies. The expense was not trivial; expectations had to be met—a lot was riding on the day. Countless diaries, photos, letters, articles, and books exist—an obsessive amount of documentation.
And so beneath the fairgoer’s wonder was a kind of manic sorrow, a present-tense nostalgia. Dazzled by the lights, you already began picturing life outside the glare. As one concert attendee rued in his diary, “Our taste will be better than our opportunities hereafter.”
Meet Me in St. Louis ends at the Fair. Overlooking the Grand Basin, Garland swoons to her beau, “I never dreamed anything could be so beautiful.” When the palace lights come on, her mother sighs, “There’s never been anything like it in the whole world.” The youngest sister asks, “Grandpa? They’ll never tear it down, will they?” He replies, “Well, they’d better not.” Garland gets the last breathless word: “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis.” Fade out.
Closing Day was December 1, 1904. The governor declared it a school and business holiday. As midnight approached, President Francis made a brief speech, then turned off the lights as the band played “Auld Lang Syne.” His face floated over the grounds, painted in fireworks next to the words “farewell” and “good night.”
Having cost roughly fifty million to build, the disposable Fair buildings were sold for $450,000 to the Chicago House Wrecking Company, which salvaged and resold one-hundred million linear feet of lumber (“enough to build outright over ten cities with a population each of 5,000 inhabitants”), plus roofing, steel, doors, plumbing, fittings, and so on. Also for sale, some 350,000 incandescent lamps: six cents used, sixteen cents new.
In an Alpine-themed restaurant on the Pike, the Fair fathers pick their teeth with quail bones; juice from medallions of beef drips down their chins. In the corner, the governors of Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota share a hearty joke. In five days, President Francis will turn off the lights. The men are confident and rich. One of the waiters bumps me. He says to a guest, “Pardon him, sir—just another rube at the Fair.” The gentlemen smirk in my direction before offering me a seat. One asks, “Well, was it worth it?” Does he mean the Fair or my visit? Then President Roosevelt stands and delivers these thoughts: “I have but one regret, and that is a deep regret—the regret that these buildings and these exhibits could not be made permanent; that these buildings cannot be maintained as they are for our children and our children’s children and all who are to come after, as a permanent memorial of the greatness of this country. I think that an American who begrudges a dollar that has been spent here is not so far-sighted as he should be. It is a credit to the United States to have had such an exposition carried on so successfully from the beginning to its conclusion.”
I have ridden a tiny tram capsule up the north leg of the Arch. The 1960s space-age pod barely fits five people and rises in a rocking-step motion—ka-chunk, ka-chunk—followed by stretches of smooth ascent. My head brushes the roof of the pod. Before boarding, a futuristic female voice speaks from a monitor: “The Gateway Arch transcends time.” The trip lasts four minutes.
A Park Ranger repeats over and over: “Welcome to the top. It’s all good,” and, “You got questions? Let your tax dollars sing.” Visitors get their bearings by peering through seven-inch slits. A hot summer day: the arch casts a long, lopsided shadow. The base of the arch holds something called the Museum of Westward Expansion.
The arch is centered on the Old Courthouse, immediately to the west, where slaves were auctioned and Dred Scott tried his case twice. Ahead of me stretches downtown, Pruitt-Igoe, Forest Park, my university, my neighborhood, a number of private places. What was once the world’s largest wheel no longer rises over the fairgrounds—after the Fair, it was dynamited, its countless perfect spokes twisted and heaped. The remains were sold for scrap, but the wheel’s seventy-ton axle—then the largest piece of forged steel in the world—remains missing to this day.
Behind me stretches the swollen, brown Mississippi, well above flood stage, having already swallowed the lip of downtown. On a submerged street, a stop sign lists with the current. Muddy water laps up the steps leading to the arch, as if to reclaim it. Across the river rise a casino, grain elevators, an American flag, and the train yards and telephone poles of East St. Louis.
Most of Pruitt-Igoe has returned to the wilderness. The land sat unused until 1989, when fourteen acres became a public school site that still houses magnet middle and elementary schools. The remaining thirty-three acres have become an abandoned urban forest bound by an easily and—judging by the total collapse in some places—frequently scaled chain-link fence. An access road leads to an electrical substation on the site; a chain dangles between two short poles, blocking the way, another gate swung shut: “Danger: Keep Out.”
Even after the Fair ended, visitors returned to wander the empty paths. One woman wrote her husband that she was “heart sick to see the ruin and desolation”—but she could almost imagine herself still at the Fair.
Here’s the thing: the Arch is beautiful. Before moving to town, I dismissed it as a hulking piece of modern midcentury kitsch—a civic branding tool, the stuff of bad airport T-shirts and mugs. But for more than a year the arch has watched over me, and while there are places in my neighborhood and on campus where I know to look for it, I often find myself catching an unexpected glimpse and—shocked back down to size—experience a jolt of the sublime. It is not unlike what used to happen with the Trade Center Towers. The arch is machined, perfect, soaring—the city’s greatest open gate. It changes color with the weather and hour: sometimes sky blue, sometimes gunmetal gray, sometimes pitch black.
The arch has no keystone; the north and south legs are of equal length. You’re either on one side or the other. Arches, it should be noted, hold themselves up: they rise on their own weight, they compress—higher pieces push down and out on those below. Some five-hundred tons of pressure were needed to pry the legs apart to install the final four-foot piece. That’s why the windows are so small: to preserve the structural integrity—a wider view would cause the whole thing to crash down. The National Park website lists the exact mathematical equation that describes the arch, but it never was a pure construct: it sits eighteen degrees askew from the north-south axis and sways some eighteen inches, like a chain or a gate. That fact does not comfort me when the wind blows, or even on a clear day like today. The balance is an illusion. I stand at a tense threshold—atop the tallest manmade monument in the country—upheld, for now, by forces great and unseen.
Read part one of this essay here.
Edward McPherson is the author of Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat and The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Observer, Salon, The American Scholar, The Gettysburg Review, Epoch, Esopus, and Talk, among others. He teaches in the creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.
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