Friday, 15 August 2014

Days 491 to 493: St Louis

Before arriving in St Louis, the sum total of my knowledge about the city was this: it has a big steel arch, hence my reasons for going in the first place, and it is currently experiencing some very high profile media attention about racial tensions and alleged heavy-handed policing. Well, you can add this one to the list: St Louis is great.

(Also, to my great surprise, it's pronounced St Lewis, not St Lou-ee, despite being named after the French king and saint, Louis IX. I've still not got used to this yet, and am not sure if I approve. St Louis residents: sort this out.)

Great, as in attractive, fun, friendly, and interesting - four qualities that always help a city. And with these four qualities, let's go on a voyage through the city.


We were lucky. The weather during our visit was simply spectacular - blue skies, gorgeous warm temperatures. Usually, we were assured, it was a lot hotter and a lot stickier, but we'd arrived during a "cold" spell. It was still high 20s. Perfect weather always allows a place to shine, and St Louis certainly did. From the leafy suburbs where we were staying, filled with handsome neo-colonial buildings, to the modern centre with spacious parks and a grab-bag of skyscrapers styles, St Louis would still have looked good with dark clouds and rain. It certainly looked good in the sun.

The last couple are of the Civil Courts Building, built in 1930 when people still liked their skyscrapers to look beautiful. The top bit is modelled on an ancient World Wonder - the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The real thing is utterly ruined now, and there's no final word on how it ever looked in the first place, but the Civil Courts Building goes with the popular view of it.

These photos are just a small sample. St Louis has plenty of other areas that I didn't photograph that also look great. Not flashy or showy, just great. There are parks all across the city: the largest - Forest Park - is 50% larger than Central Park. While I'm sure there are plenty of terrible, crumbling buildings in parts of the city, I didn't see them. I wasn't staying in a tourist area, just a nice area, but everywhere I saw was nice, even some of the more run-down parts. No concrete towers or drab 60s monsters, although I suppose some of the more modern skyscrapers of downtown left something to be desired. St Louis is a city of roads, where you need to drive to get around, and usually I find cities like that awful, without heart or soul or any kind of community feel. St Louis, by virtue of its attractive streets and buildings, and multitude of green parks, gets away with it.

Curiously, the city lies on the banks of the Mississippi, but does very little with this. We did a short cruise along the Mississippi and it was pretty pointless. Unless you like looking at industrial areas. With the exception of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the Gateway Arch, the rest of the riverside is not exactly picture perfect.


I cannot overstate this enough: St Louis is one of the friendliest places I've ever been. Everybody was so nice, so helpful. While you might expect people in tourist information to be helpful, the man we spoke to went way beyond the normal call of duty. People in shops were lovely. Taking the bus, with our backpacks, people were keen to help us out with directions and getting off at the right stop. Even the homeless - and there were quite a few - were charming and polite, unfailingly so. Part of this might be because of people's pride of St Louis and keenness to make a good impression, but I don't think it was the only reason. I really believe that good manners and simple niceness is just part of the culture. On the buses, which were often very busy, men would always give up their seat for women. People chatted, to each other and to us.

We were doubly lucky in the form of our Airbnb host, Maria, who was undoubtedly the friendliest host we've had. Sometimes with Airbnb, when we're staying in somebody house with them present, Danielle and I can feel a little awkward, almost as though we're imposing. Maria immediately made us feel at home. Chatty and relaxed, she made it seem like we were staying with a friend. At the same time, she left us to our own devices. On the final evening, she took us to Cahokia (below) and then for some drinks and food at a bar.

Maria also had a cat, hilariously lacking a name beyond "Grey Cat" (even though he's not really grey). He too was friendly, although often got carried away and would roll on his back and began play-fighting and play-biting (fortunately none of the St Louis locals ever did this). He wasn't allowed in the guest bedroom - guess where was the only place he wanted to go?

As I write, there are obviously some tensions - between the police and black community, stirred up by the media - in some areas of St Louis, or the St Louis County to be more precise, but we saw none of that at all. If not for reading the BBC website, I wouldn't have known anything untoward was going on.


Ok, great, this is all very good, but there are many places that are pretty and friendly, but still pretty boring. Not St Louis. There was always loads going on. Even taking the local bus was experience. Always lively and bustling, they were filled with a variety of characters, ranging from homely to motley, in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they felt like community get togethers, with an abundance of weird conversations and greetings flying about the place.

There's loads to visit too. Downtown is more of a business place, but that's where the Gateway Arch can be found, as well as the small but charming cobbled area of Laclede's Landing, with bars and restaurants. About half-an-hour's walk from our Airbnb place was a similar area (without cobbles). Perhaps one of St Louis's best features is one we didn't visit: Forest Park. This is a huge park stuffed with all kinds of free public facilities. There's a zoo, museums, a science centre, and tons more - all free. Also nearby is St Louis's cathedral, which the tourist information guy (perhaps not impartially) described as better than the Notre-Dame but without the history. But I don't know, because I didn't visit.

We didn't visit Forest Park because of two things: the Gateway Arch and the Delmar Loop. One of my requirements about visiting Wonders is that I need to visit twice. This I did, but this takes a little time, and so we only had one afternoon spare to visit either Forest Park or the Delmar Loop. We chose the wrong one.

The Delmar Loop is fine - it's just a long street with lots of bars and restaurants, but it's probably better in the evening than the afternoon. I preferred the other streets we'd already visited with bars and restaurants. The Delmar Loop does have a kind of root beer/ice-cream cafe place though, and I had some deliciously revolting concoction there.

To my surprise and delight, St Louis has something truly historical on its doorstep. One evening, I was having a quick chat with Maria, and mentioned my Wonder quest. She seemed interested, and immediately suggested another - Cahokia. Cahokia was an ancient Native American city that was around from about 600 to 1400 AD. In 1250, at its peak, it was bigger than London, and had a vast metropolitan area covering around 6 square miles. These days, about 3.5 square miles are covered in the UNESCO World Heritage site, which includes 80 grass-covered earth mounds. The American Indians were pretty keen of building giant earth pyramid-like mounds, on top of which they would place buildings, probably temples. It's pretty close to how all the Maya temples would have been, except made from earth, rather than stone. Trade routes, incidentally, would have existed between the American Indians (who were probably not the Cahokia tribe, despite the city retrospectively being named after them) and the Maya, and other Central American civilisations too - they were all pretty developed.

But something happened in around the 13th Century or so in America. Probably nothing immediately dramatic, more likely environmental changes due to the size of the city being unsustainable. The same happened with the Maya around the same time. Cahokia was abandoned, and left to nature. The area is a fertile one, and a giant mound of earth with a wooden building on top, soon becomes a giant mound of grass, without any wooden buildings. The wooden homes scattered around also disappeared. Today, we have this.

You have to use your imagination a little when visiting Cahokia. It's a large expanse of grass with mounds that are just a little bit too regular to be naturally occurring. It would have been a thriving city and is full of secrets and history we'll never know. The main man though is Monks Mound, named because some French missionaries had a chapel on top of it for a while in the 18th Century. It's big, but because it's covered in grass, it doesn't have the impact a big pile of stones might have. Again though, it's too regular to be natural. It reminds me of a grass covered version of Teotihuacan, or the 1st Emperor of China's tomb (guarded by the Terracotta Warriors).

The figures are impressive. The base is larger than that of the Great Pyramid, at 290 by 255 metres, and it's 28 metres high. Soil samples reveal that it is largely built from non-local soil, some from hundreds of miles away, and it calculated it would have taken the equivalent of 43 million baskets filled with soil to build. That's a lot of work. A large building of some kind would once have graced the top, though it's long gone, and there would have been a log stairway, now replaced with a concrete one, which is easier on the visitors' feet.

Maria, herself with a Native Indian background (not Cahokia though), kindly drove us to the site, and we took a little wander. Being a large expanse of land, mostly grass punctuated by mounds, the site is very peaceful. Monks Mound is sprawling, but doesn't seem particularly high until you climb it, where it suddenly becomes the top of the world. St Louis and the Arch can be seen.

Monks Mound certainly falls into the category of Lost Wonders, if I were to ever make one. It's a widely overlooked remnant of a widely overlooked former civilisation, that joins the ranks of the many we really don't know that much about. The ancient Egyptians had the benefit of living in a desert, so that most of their stuff has been treated lightly by the weather. But build anything in wet climates and nature takes over quickly. Earth and wood constructions don't stand a chance. I wonder how our modern glass and steel buildings would get on after 800 years of neglect.


St Louis turned 250 years old this year. As part of the celebration, they have placed birthday cakes all around the city. Here are just two of many.

Happy Birthday, St Louis.

1 comment:

  1. Saint Louis does indeed look very nice, and seems to have some very pleasant architecture.

    "Curiously, the city lies on the banks of the Mississippi, but does very little with this. We did a short cruise along the Mississippi and it was pretty pointless. Unless you like looking at industrial areas. With the exception of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the Gateway Arch, the rest of the riverside is not exactly picture perfect."

    I like looking at industrial areas! In the Ruhr (around Dortmund) there are actually guided tours of old steelworks. Maybe something for the tourist board of Saint Louis to ponder if they have these not far from the city centre itself.


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