Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Micro-Neighborhood

This afternoon, feeling restless and wanting to take advantage of the cooler temperature, I decided to take a bike ride. I've been curious lately about a particular little wedge of the city, the one bordered by Arsenal, South Broadway, and I-55:

I took Pestalozzi all the way from Tower Grove Park to the brewery (always an interesting stretch) and then rode south. Here were a few highlights from this little niche that is hidden in plain sight:

The most notable institution in the area is St. Agatha, a Polish Catholic Church which is still in operation. Here's the school/parish hall building:

This is the church and what I assume is the rectory:

7th and 9th Streets have some nice row houses:

This house on 7th Street has a beautifully landscaped side entrance and some great decks:

Down near the end of 9th Street is this facility, a gymnasium owned by the South Broadway Athletic Club:

This is a nice little area—there's even a bed and breakfast tucked back in there. Despite being right next door to an interstate highway and a gigantic brewery, it has a kind of quiet, peaceful, private atmosphere. Wandering these streets, you get a feel for St. Louis as a river town, with streets and neighborhoods that went right up to the Mississippi. This little micro-neighborhood is like a fossil from an earlier time.

Into the Cities

For the past week I've been reading Kenneth T. Jackson's classic Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. This morning, I read a chapter called "The Drive-In Culture of Contemporary America," which was about how the automobile eventually changed the landscape of the nation, as highways and services adapted themselves to a suburban landscape geared toward the car. Led by Sears, Jackson notes, "Large-scale retailing, long associated with central business districts, began moving away from the urban cores between the world wars."

This was the beginning of what Greg Brown describes in his song "The Poet Game":

I watched my country turn into a coast-to-coast strip mall
And I cried out in a song.
If we can do all that in thirty years
Then please tell me you all
Why does good change take so long?

"The multiple-store shopping center with free, off-street parking represented the ultimate retail adaptation to the requirements of automobility," writes Jackson, citing St. Louis's own Hampton Village (1941) as one of the earliest such enterprises.

Near the end of his chapter, Jackson nods to the rise of the enclosed shopping mall. His award-winning book was published in 1985. Since then, of course, even some enclosed shopping malls have fallen upon hard times—think of Crestwood Mall, Jamestown Mall, and Northwest Plaza—superseded to some extent by the car-friendly big box stores.

Just now, though, I read an article in the New York Times that seems to suggest we may have turned a corner back toward the urban core, that the population is turning back to the cities and that big retailers are following.

... retailers are now willing to come into cities on the cities’ terms — with all the zoning headaches, high rents and odd architecture — because that is where the growth is. Most large American cities are growing faster than their suburbs for the first time in almost a century, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of census results released last month, largely because young adults are choosing urban apartment life. That population shift, along with Internet competition, have made the car-focused, big-box model less relevant.

Is this happening in St. Louis? The Brookings Institution report notes that St. Louis's decline slowed in 2010-11. In my own small bubble of friends and acquaintances and bloggers, it certainly feels like there's a real movement back toward the city.

The suburbs, to be sure, are not languishing. The big box stores' parking lots are still packed, the malls are still thriving (think of the Galleria, South County Mall, or West County Mall), and new subdivisions are still going up out in the hinterlands.

Still, it is nice, for those of us who love the city, to envision it as a unique, thriving place at the center of the sprawling megalopolis, a place where people can live, work, play, buy what they need, invest in and repair the glorious architecture and infrastructure of the past.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What Romney's Career Shows

This passage from James Surowiecki's post on Mitt Romney and Bain Capital epitomizes why I can't imagine Romney winning the election in November:

What Romney’s career shows, after all, is that once you’re at the top, you can keep being called C.E.O. even if you’re not even working at the company. You can get paid a hundred grand a year—chump change for Romney, to be sure, but twice the U.S. median income—while doing, by your own account, nothing at all for the company. You can build up an I.R.A. worth tens of millions of dollars when the maximum annual contribution is four thousand dollars... And, above all, if you manage a private-equity firm, you can reap the benefit of the carried-interest tax loophole and pay a much lower tax rate on your income than the vast majority of Americans, and you can continue to reap the benefit of that loophole even after you stop working for the firm. None of these things is illegal, but none of them are things that ordinary Americans can benefit from, and that’s the real scandal of Romney’s career at Bain.

No matter how feckless on the economy Obama may be perceived to be, I just can't imagine that a majority of Americans will see Romney as a likely improvement. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012


One of the most amusing responses to the Supreme Court's decision in the health care case last week was Adam Gopnik's. Part of the questioning in the case, you may recall, involved a hypothetical government mandate that Americans purchase broccoli.

Justice Ginsburg's opinion notes the ridiculousness of such a comparison, and Justice Roberts's also mentions the issue. Underlying all of the discussion, Gopnik notes, is the assumption that broccoli is disgusting. 

Gopnik thus comes to a remarkable conclusion: "nobody on the Supreme Court knows how to cook broccoli."

I've never been a huge fan of broccoli, though I'll choke it down from time to time. I was intrigued by Gopnik's bold assertion:

The truth is that broccoli should always be either roasted or pureed, in the French style, and is so delicious done either way that, if you tasted it, you would not just tolerate but demand government-mandated broccoli.

So I decided to use Gopnik's recipe for roasted broccoli last night: sliced red onion, curry, salt, and olive oil, at 450 degrees for twenty minutes.

The verdict?

I don't think I'd demand a government mandate, but it was still the best broccoli I've ever eaten.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Lady or the Tiger?

I taught "The Lady or the Tiger?" to the seventh graders today in my Storywriting class. I think I first read it in school when I was in seventh grade myself, but I hadn't looked at it since then until I re-read it this morning. 

Today's topic was endings. We talked about what endings should do, what makes a good ending, and what endings of books, movies, and stories they've liked and disliked. We read "The Sniper," another English class chestnut, and they worked on their own stories for a while. But I knew we'd have some time to spare at the end of our two-hour block. Last night I was casting about for another story to do, finding that all of the Ray Bradbury stories I had in mind were too long for convenient use. 

My wife happened to hand me a list of short stories that she can choose from when teaching her 8th grade communication arts class this coming school year. "The Lady or the Tiger?" was the last one on the list—and it jumped out at me right away as a perfect one to use. 

I remembered it as the classic gimmick ending, a somewhat contrived plot that the author declines to finish off, leaving the ending unresolved. It's the type of ending I don't want my students to indulge in—along with endings in which the main character commits suicide or wakes up to find that it's all been a dream.

But revisiting Frank Stockton's story after all these years, I found myself quite tickled by it. It's the type of story that rarely gets written these days: a display of authorial wit and dry humor, a story that emphatically chooses telling over showing. The closest contemporary analogue I can think of is the short fiction of Steven Millhauser, who typically is less concerned with individual human beings and more with exploring conceits and conundra. 

T. Coraghessan Boyle's "Chicxulub" is similar in a way, too. As I did with "The Lady or the Tiger?", I often read "Chicxulub" aloud to my class. Both stories are tours de force, prose confections that create for their readers or listeners experiences that could not be duplicated with any other medium. 

The short fiction of our era, mostly, descends from Chekhov, in its devotion to the details of everyday life, its attention to character and consciousness. This type of fiction is certainly what I use in teaching my high school students to write stories. The Raymond Carver model is approachable for students, duplicable—and it can lead to some genuinely good fiction.

You could never build a class around stories like "Chicxulub" or "The Lady or the Tiger?" I do both stories at the end of my courses for exactly that reason—so that students don't try to imitate them. But they're worth appreciating nonetheless.