Thursday, April 29, 2010

Historic St. Louis: Gateway to the West, Part 2

I'm not sure why this never occurred to me but both the Gateway Arch AND Busch Stadium (the 1966 version) were under construction at the same time. I knew they opened the same year, but I guess I never really thought about the ramifications of two such major construction projects occuring simultaneously and in such a close proximity.

But then I saw this photo (and I'm sorry, I don't know whom to credit for it; I found it in a thread and they didn't know whom to credit either). Looking at this photo, it's easy to see that the face of downtown would forever be altered.

Consider for just a few seconds the swath of buildings that would have disappeared in order to house both the Arch and Busch Stadium. I have to say that for the first time in my life I'm doing just that. And I'm learning things that I don't like.

It made me laugh then to read this rather white-washed account: In the mid-1950s, several years after he persuaded the board of directors of Anheuser-Busch to purchase the St. Louis Cardinals, August A. Busch Jr. decided that if the team was to prosper and attract the fans necessary to support a major league franchise, it would have to move to a new stadium.
Mr. Busch took his idea for a new stadium in downtown St. Louis to city officials and civic leaders. Their interest in a major redevelopment of the downtown area and the idea that a new stadium could serve as the focal point for their efforts, paved the way for the laying of groundwork for the project.

It also revved up the steamroller and wrecking ball for a whole host of buildings, many of them part of Chinatown. Wait a minute. Chinatown? St. Louis had a Chinatown? Yes. And today, Busch Stadium is standing on it.

I think it was part gentrification, part assimilation that brought this on and pushed it forward. St. Louis was going through a radical phase of redevelopment in the 1960s, likely spurred by the Arch grounds' construction. And Chinatown was a dying part of the city, due in part to the assimilation of younger Chinese Americans who found life much easier than their predecessors and wanted to keep it that way, often turning their backs on their ancestral laundry and restaurant businesses.

And while the population there was never large (300-400 at its height), it was historical. Chinese residents and businesses showed up there in the decade preceding the Civil War. They had made and left an impression on downtown. But in less than a century, it was gone.

I was deeply moved by several passages in The New Town Square: Museums and Communities in Transition, a book by Robert Archibald that I plan to own very soon. These excerpts, from the book's introduction, sum it all up very well and very eloquently:

"The most profound dilemma of this new century, inherited from the last, is a deepening crisis of place and the accompanying ennui of placelessness. Lack of attachment to place disembodies memory, sunders relationships, promotes prodigal resource consumption; it threatens democracy itself ... a shared voluntary pursuit of the common good -- and it must happen in a place, a piece of physical geography, a particular spot on the planet. Those places, especially the ones that early nurtured us, are deeply impressed upon us. When we lose those places, we lose an essential part of ourselves and our stories. ... Every place's culture is now undermined by the homogenizing pressures of mass culture."

1 comment:

Kate said...

It really saddens me sometimes to think of all the things we've lost to "progress".