Thursday, March 26, 2009

St. Louis, Via Chicago

I spent a few days in Chicago earlier this week with my family. Last night my wife came across this interesting Paul Goldberger piece from a few weeks ago, about Daniel Burnham, the architect who was instrumental in planning out the city: 

Burnham wanted to remake the city along the lines of Paris—the plan gained the nickname Paris on the Prairie—and, to a large extent, he succeeded, prescribing a series of projects that kept the city busy through the nineteen-twenties. Some things, such as a gargantuan civic center that would have made Les Invalides, in Paris, seem modest, were never built. But the campus of museums on the lakefront—including the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry—and the network of parks, boulevards, piers, and lagoons that have kept the area in public hands for a century is the plan’s enduring legacy. It forms a startling contrast to the elevated highways and industrial buildings that have come to obstruct the waterfronts of most other American cities.

Elevated highways? Industrial buildings? Obstructed waterfront? Sounds familiar, yes, but I think St. Louis beats itself up a bit too much. We had fun in Chicago, but a family like mine could put together a great vacation in St. Louis as well, and for a lot less money. A day at Forest Park, hitting the zoo, the art museum, and the science center, with a jaunt over to the Hill for lunch or dinner. A day out in the county, at Grant's Farm and Laumeier and the Magic House, with a pit stop at Ted Drewes on the way home. A day in the Botanical Garden, then over to the playground at Tower Grove Park, then to South Grand or Hartford Coffee Company for some refreshments. Downtown you could do the Arch, then pop over to the brewery tour and Gus' for a pretzel, then a baseball game followed by some music at BB's or the Beale on Broadway or the Broadway Oyster Bar (OK, that part wouldn't work with kids). Throw in a visit to Crown Candy or Soulard or the Loop or one of the other art galleries if you have time. 

It's not all centrally located, like all the museums and Navy Pier in Chicago. You'd have to know where to go, and you'd have to have a car to get around, but it'd be a lot easier and cheaper than parking in Chicago. 


Kate in Chicago said...

If you read The Devil in the White City, you'd understand the lengths Burnham went through to make Chicago the way it is today. It started when Chicago hosted the World's Fair in the late 1800s, but I agree. Upon entering St. Louis only knowing Chicago or any other big city, the hot spots aren't obvious, but they're there. And they're a good deal and easily accessible with a car. I wonder if St. Louis wasn't up against Chicago so much, it would be better appreciated. What if St. Louis was where Kansas City is?

Anonymous said...

It's funny. I had a similar thought yesterday when I met a friend for lunch at a coffee shop near SLU and then walked to three small-but-free art museums: SLU's Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, the Pulitzer Museum, and the Contemporary. Only the third of these disappointed with a so-so exhibition. The Pulitzer has once again found a creative way to show off how well the museum's serene architecture shows off its exhibits--this time by combining old masters' works from the collections of the St. Louis Art Museum and Harvard's Fogg Museum and setting their baroque ambitions against the simplicity of Ando's high, smooth concrete walls. Best of all, though, was the MOCRA's small but moving exhibit of contemporary works inspired by the Passion narratives: crosses, cages, pietas, and Veronican veils that remind viewers that this much of the Christian story--the urgent awareness of suffering and injustice, the desire to find meaning in our inevitable wounds--has not lost any of its relevance in the last two thousand years. I could easily have spent the afternoon in the smaller museums of New York or Paris and not seen art that was any more arresting. Of course, in New York or Paris, I could spend every afternoon for a month this way and never go to the same museum twice--assuming I could afford to. But what I loved most about my St. Louis afternoon wasn't just how cheap it was but how intimate. In the Pulitzer there were almost as many docents as visitors--a circumstance that led to our receiving an extensive explanation of the pornographic implications of an otherwise lovely painting of a washerwoman. In a small room displaying three or four icons, we were the only patrons for the fifteen minutes or so that we took them in. The only thing that would have made our visit seem more like a private tour would have been an invitation to take the icons from the wall and hold them in our hands--which is more or less what happened at the MOCRA, where my friend happened to know the curator, who happened to be talking to one of the artists whose work is included in the exhibition. I enjoyed listening to the curator ask the artist questions about his work (apparently a fish in one of his stations of the cross represents the women of Jerusalem because all life comes from the sea just as all human life comes from the woman--go figure). But after a while I wandered off to sit with Steven Heilmer's Pieta Stone--a rough hunk of Carrara marble wrapped in white cloth--which is surrounded by a half dozen or so cushions that patrons are invited to sit on for a better look--the effect of which is the feeling of being gathered about a Japanese table preparing to feast on a great marble egg that is the unformed (or deformed?) body of the crucified Christ wrapped in his mother's arms of cloth. I must have spent ten or fifteen minutes with it, drawn by its elusive allusiveness, when the curator came by and asked me what sort of fabric I thought the marble was wrapped in. Having no knowledge whatsoever of textiles, I demurred--at which point he invited me to touch it, which I did (despite my unexpressed conviction that I could no more easily identify the cloth by palpating it than by eyeballing it) only to find that it wasn't cloth at all but carved marble. Damn! That's never happened to me at the MOMA.

(PS: Sorry I blogged all over your blog. Next time I'll get my own.)

framiko said...

Good point, Kate. I think part of the problem is that people compare St. Louis not only to Chicago, but also to what St. Louis used to be. It seems to me that St. Louis has to accept that, for whatever historical reasons (the common one seems to be that Chicago staked itself to the railroads while St. Louis went with the river), St. Louis lost the prominence it once had, and it won't get it back. We're not going to become Chicago; we shouldn't try. Instead, we should be St. Louis, friendly and welcoming but not abject in our desire for visitors and recognition or desperate in our attempts to make ourselves over.

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