Thursday, October 11, 2007

Journey to the Arch

When I applied to write a guidebook for St. Louis two months ago, in response to which I’m still awaiting even cursory acknowledgement, I tried to make myself appear interesting by saying I wouldn’t put the city’s six hundred and thirty foot icon, The Arch, on the cover. I didn’t offer anything to stand in its place—a cardinal foraging for winter or a cup of frozen custard, to name the candidates.

As the publisher seems to really be mulling my suggestion over, maybe there is something novel or very dense about trying to separate St. Louis from its singular symbol. I guess I don’t like that many people wouldn’t know or recognize the city without the Arch, but if it were removed, Downtown would look a lot like Cleveland.

Before yesterday, I had probably been inside the Arch twice. I remembered the elevators that simultaneously reference 2001: A Space Odyssey and a coal mine, the underground museum and the small windows at the top, easy to miss on the postcard. I decided to get on my bike and reexperience this black hole of our city’s national identity.

On the way down, where Chouteau Avenue meets South Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard (that was Missouri’s first woman in Congress), less than two hundred feet from the brown and swift Mississippi, there is a twelve-foot concrete flood wall that runs for more than a mile along the railroad tracks.

The wall opens for gravel drives leading to whatever riverside industrial complexes lie behind it, but the graffiti covering nearly every gray inch picks up again after each of the gaps.

The dedication in the wall’s top corner, where the artwork starts and the admirer can look left under a freight bridge to acknowledge the Arch, states that this project was sanctioned.

Over the Labor Day weekend in 1999, hundreds of graffiti artists, roused by Internet chat, gathered for the first annual Paint Louis festival.

As I’d rather not pay the St. Louis Post-Dispatch $2.95 for access to an article in its archive that should be free, I don’t know how many years the event officially ran. As recently as last year, organizers battled with Mayor Clarence Harmon for approval, in conflict with residents who decried the unauthorized vandalism of previous years.

None of the paint I saw looked fresh, but the wall gave me hope for alternative book covers.

Riding from the wall to the foot of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (that’s the Arch), I passed the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher riverboats and a “Bike St. Louis” sign that had been hit by a car.

I had to carry my Schwinn up a lot of steps, but this, I felt, benefited my sense of scale.

The Arch is as tall as it is wide. It’s made of rebar and 25,000 tons of concrete, encased in nine hundred tons of stainless steel. The cross-sections of its legs are equilateral triangles that narrow from fifty-four feet at the base to seventeen feet at the top. In one hundred and fifty mile per hour winds, it sways no more than eighteen inches.

Every national monument is probably a target for publicity-seeking stuntmen, if not terrorists, so the National Park Service has blocked the only point of street access with a humvee. Eleven light aircraft have successfully flown under the structure and two men have attempted to scale it by means of suction cup. In 1980, Kenneth Swyers died when he tried to parachute onto the Arch, only to slide down the length of one leg.

I locked my bike to a lamppost and descended an inconspicuous ramp. Unlike my first visit in the eighties, my bag was subjected to a security inspection and I had to pass through a metal detector. While I was waiting, I read a warning sign addressing the types of knives that are not permitted inside the memorial. These included Kershaw knives, switchblades, butterfly knives, double-edged knives and concealed sheathed knives, leaving me to wonder what knives might’ve been left off the list.

I spent eleven dollars on tickets for the “Trip to the Top” and the film, “Monument to the Dream,” which documents the construction of the Arch between 1962 and 1965. I also bought a coffee and some taffy from a shop selling “historically-inspired food” because I’d forgotten to eat lunch.

To kill the forty minutes before the next film screening, I wandered into the Museum of Westward Expansion, a dramatically lit exhibition of artifacts, taxidermy and robots.

I didn’t do much reading because helpful individuals like Indian Agent William Clark and Chief Red Cloud were right there, spilling the history from their mouths.

The only thing I found strange about my visit up to this point was the number of people free to tour the Arch grounds on a Wednesday afternoon. Some even appeared to be foreign tourists, but maybe they had a long layover at the airport.

“Monument to the Dream” was excellent. I learned that Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect, beat out more than a hundred and fifty competitors in 1947 with his design.

“Across time a simple shape has given the great memorials their dignity,” Paul Richards narrates, but points out that nothing about the Arch was simple beyond its shape.

Each of the legs had to be self-supporting, as the connecting bridge wouldn’t be set in place until they were over five hundred feet tall. Both the lifts and men were held by the structure they were building and five hundred tons of pressure were required to jack the legs four feet apart in order, on October 28, 1965, to position the final piece.

The film summarizes eighteen years of planning and effort with, “By strength and skill and valor, they unrolled the unknown before them.”

I left the theater feeling electrified by the will of men, then stood in line for an elevator that had malfunctioned just two months before, leaving people stranded at the top.

I only spent three minutes observing the city through the airplane-like windows, but it’s the best view of St. Louis and the visible poverty on the east side of the river.

I left the memorial site shaky with hunger and rode back to Chouteau Avenue, where a kind of utopia awaited me.

The Eat-Rite Diner at the intersection of South Sixth Street is one of the few remaining links in a larger restaurant chain.

This establishment has been flipping patties and serving breakfast since the 1940’s and is an official Route 66 Roadside Attraction.

I order coleslaw and a cheeseburger and would’ve tried the raisin pie if I hadn’t been staring down a few more miles on the bike.

I love the Arch and I love St. Louis.


august said...

Cheers to a wonderful story and a great city! Eero Saarinen is one of the greatest, check out the old TWA terminal (soon to be JetBlue) at JFK.

Edan said...

The descriptions of the Arch's displays read like a George Saunders story!

Your biased Mom said...

And I live here? I guess I'd better tag along on your next St. Louis adventure! But do I have to carry my bike up so many stairs? Your article is a wonderful ad for our fair city (and is good for a giggle!)

SonnyBoy's dad said...

It's wonderful to discover those "giant elephants" sitting right in front of us, isn't it? Great story and wonderful pics!!!

Emma said...

Eat-Rite seems like reason enough to visit St Louis. Love the photo of the burger.

sis said...

beautiful photographs!! i loved seeing the graffiti. i would buy a book about stl from you any day.

Nat said...

Loved your blog! That would you suggest to see of St Louis in one day for someone who has never been there?

Ryan said...

Thanks for reading, Nat.

In one day, I would definitely walk around the Arch (don't need to go up it, though), hit up the City Museum, visit Forest Park or Tower Grove, eat an Imo's pizza and got to The Royale for drinks.