St. Louis blues

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Sliding out from behind a billboard Supporting the Warfighter, another odd pustule of civilization interrupts the smooth horizon of the Middle West. Off to one side, a silver parabola straight out of a math textbook makes me scan the sky for an x-axis, that new horizon people are always talking about.

The bus station occupies a Victorian-era bank building with a two-storey-high ceiling and a small, resident flock of English sparrows. This is Greyhound’s gateway terminal for all points west, and it’s so crowded, people can hardly tell which line to stand in. I stow my bags in a locker and head for downtown on foot, ignoring warnings from a security officer that this is Not a Good Neighborhood. I guess that must mean black people live here; presumably, the bank went under when its red lines failed to check the tide. Gone are the days when Those People could be safely bottled up in East St. Louis, easy prey for racist cops and weekend vigilantes.

A mob is passionate; a mob follows one man or a few men blindly; a mob sometimes takes chances. The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a manhunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport. They went in small groups, there was little leadership, and there was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it.It was no crowd of hot-headed youths. Young men were in the greater number, but there were the middle-aged, no less active in the task of destroying the life of every discoverable black man.

That’s from an eyewitness account of the 1917 riot (click on the link for much more gruesome details). The factories of St. Louis were busy turning out materials for the first fully modern war when resentment at the influx of black laborers from the south spilled over into violence.

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It’s a sunny afternoon, and the streets are nearly deserted. A white plastic shopping bag – A.K.A. urban tumbleweed – crosses the avenue in front of me. One plaza near the heart of the downtown features, in lieu of a public fountain, a large, square opening that affords a view down onto an otherwise hidden stream. The opening provides just enough light to support grass and a few bushes (though not enough, at this time of day, for a good picture), and the overall effect is slightly vertiginous, as if the concrete flesh of the present could be peeled back at any time. The banks of the stream are dotted with small homeless encampments, whose presumed inhabitants are sitting around on benches in the street level portion of the plaza, soaking up the sun.

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It’s odd, the pull of an icon. Everything I see is colored by my expectation of the Arch. And why not? Eero Saarinen’s parabola captures as well as any monument could the Western European desire to cut all ties with the earth and inhabit a world of pure abstraction – a desire at least as old as the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

But just because the architect conceived of it as a symbolic gateway into the future doesn’t mean that everyone else has to see it that way. And in fact, a very close-up view of the thing shows the efforts of more recent, anonymous artists to capture the Arch for their own visions. We were here, they want us to know, or We were in love. However cluttered or atavistic our lives may seem, they still have value.

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I’m surprised to see a crowd of tourists lined up in front of a subterranean set of doors. It turns out that the Arch is hollow, and that one can ride a tram clear up to the top. The National Park Service has custody of the memorial site, and their police make everyone pass through security gates.

I get in line against my better judgement. I’m one of those who continue to set off the alarms even after removing every scrap of metal from my pockets; they pat me down, make me pull up my pants legs, and finally let me bypass the gate. Forty minutes later, I leave the Museum of Westward Expansion brimming with anger at its celebration of Manifest Destiny, its bland platitudes glossing over the grim realities of genocide and conquest.

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But at least the museum gives plenty of background on the building of the Arch. Winning the competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in 1947 catapulted the young Eero Saarinen to fame. He remains best known for the Arch, but his other creations are equally imbued with an almost fetishistic attraction to modernity – the 20th century’s version of Manifest Destiny. His design for the General Motors Technical Center, with its sprawling, one-storey buildings designed to celebrate the culture of the automobile, set the template for the modern corporate campus. The TWA Terminal and Dulles International Airport buildings embody a utopian vision of jet travel based, of course, on the false premise of a future of unlimited fossil fuels. As the website Eero Saarinen: Realizing American Utopia puts it,

Saarinen’s stylistic range came to represent the postwar American ideal of an open-ended society of unbounded choice and diversity. Key to the successful projection of this ideal were Saarinen’s visionary clients–businessmen like IBM’s Thomas J. Watson and CBS’s Frank Stanton who presided over the development of progressive technologies like computers and television. Saarinen, working in close collaboration with his clients, deployed equally progressive construction and mechanical systems for new office buildings set in bucolic corporate parks. At the same time, Saarinen himself embodied the free and creative individualist. Together, Saarinen and his work represented the image of a utopian capitalist America, ever new and dynamic and in full control of its domain.

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Walking back, a tune pops into my head, accompanied by – yes – a vision: Louis Armstrong with his trumpet, blowing the venerable old tune about the city that shares his name for an ecstatic audience of tens of thousands in newly liberated Ghana, 1956:

St. Louis woman, with all her diamond rings…

When I get back to the station, the evening sun is just going down.

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