I decided to spend the week visiting Saint Louis with my mother. I have long wanted to visit that fine midwestern town down river, but the opportunity never came up. With its being so close to Cincinnati—less than six hours of driving away—and with so many of its attractions’ being free or inexpensive, I knew that we would have little to lose.
The drive to Saint Louis was uneventful. I decided to take the southern route down I-71 to I-64 to Saint Louis so that we could enjoy the rolling hills of the Ohio River valley. I find the flatness of central Indiana along I-70 to be somewhat soul numbing, though that is how we returned at the end of the week. I especially liked driving through Hoosier National Forest; we saw many turkey vultures and some deer on the way, but fortunately none walked toward the highway.
I enjoyed Saint Louis a lot. I knew that the city had many of the same problems that have plagued northern industrial cities. Manufacturing has collapsed, black ghettos checkerboard the city, and it is clear that the best days ended a century ago. The same can be said for Cincinnati.
Indeed, Cincinnati and Saint Louis are similar in many striking ways. They are both river towns that experienced tremendous growth in the nineteenth century, when they were among the largest, fastest growing, most dynamic cities in America. The industries in both towns became iconic companies for American goods. Moreover, many of the beer baron families that moved to Saint Louis had their start a generation before in Cincinnati. That shared experience is surely due to another similarity—both towns have a strong German presence. German immigrants made Cincinnati and Saint Louis what they are—the fact is unmistakable in the architecture, culture, and values of the cities.
Both towns have suffered the deleterious effects of racial diversity, with the common results of slums, disintegration, and social tension. Cincinnati experienced the influx of black migrants after the First World War, but Saint Louis may have had an indigenous stock. For Missouri was a slave state, and the Mississippi River connected the town to the deep South in a way that the Ohio River did not. Jazz has far more roots in Saint Louis than in Cincinnati, where there were some fledgling black musicians. When we visited the home of Scott Joplin in Saint Louis, the guide talked about a picture of a black Cincinnati musician and businessman who became one of Joplin’s sponsors and promoters. I had never heard of this fellow, and I assume that he left Cincinnati and went to Saint Louis because of its more prevalent black music scene at the time.
The people of Saint Louis seem correspondingly (to Cincinnatians) proud of their city. Perhaps, the nostalgia of the good old days contributes to provincial pride, or, maybe, it is due to the intense civic engagement that German stock brought to these cities’ civic culture. I could not tell, however, how parochial the culture was in Saint Louis. In Cincinnati, neighborhood identity matters a lot. East is east and West is west and never the twain shall meet. What hath Hyde Park to do with Cheviot? I did not figure out as much with the locals. I did notice, however, that the Italian community on “The Hill” in Saint Louis is quite proud of their turf, and it appears that they have successfully defended it from invasion—eh, I mean, “urban blight.” The Hill is composed of modest but well maintained homes on clean streets that transport you to the 1950’s. There are dozens of restaurants and specialty shops that offer Italian cuisine and goods, and all the street poles sport Italian colors. One has to admire the tenacity of the Italians. With the Germans, I think that they are the finest American immigrants, though Coulter suggests the Italians and the Cubans as the best American immigrants. The Irish are curiously overlooked . . .
As in Cincinnati, it appears that public life in Saint Louis benefits much from magnanimous citizens and engaged corporations. The city boasts many fine public institutions that generous benefactors have bestowed on the population at large. Many cultural and educational venues in Saint Louis are free and of very high quality. The Anheuser-Busch clan alone has ensured that Saint Louisians have some of the best animal encounter and wildlife conservation institutions in the country. Beer has done much for the Gateway to the West.
Culturally, the locals are clearly Midwesterners. I found people to be very friendly and unassuming. The respectable, working class feel to the city reminded me of Cincinnati, or at least of my Cincinnati. Like Cincinnati, Saint Louis also has pockets of chicness patronized by the trendy, new moneyed professional classes, such as The Loop area. I did not notice any rainbow flags; so, perhaps, such folks are more discrete than they are in Clifton.
There are substantial differences between Saint Louis and Cincinnati, of course. The street system in Saint Louis is more of a grid network. There are so many streets that run north-south or east-west over the entire city; after a few days, I could easily get around the city without a map. The Queen City also has her grand boulevards, but you can bet that they will snake and turn so much that any foreigner will quickly lose his sense of direction. Saint Louis also seems smaller in size, land wise. Perhaps, it is simply the easy navigation that allows one to cross the city in no time at all, or perhaps, we did not visit enough of the city edges to get a sense of the cultural (rather than political) boundaries of Saint Louis.
If you have a free week and you live near Saint Louis, I recommend a visit. Below, I’ll add links to particular places in Saint Louis that we visited.
See my post on the World Bird Sanctuary, Lone Elk Park, Laumeier Sculpture Park, Purina Farms, Route 66 State Park, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in “St. Lou Flora and Fauna.”
See my post on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, with the Gateway Arch, the Museum of Westward Expansion, and the Old Courthouse, the Mississippi riverboat cruise, the Scott Joplin House, and Union Station in “History in Saint Louis.”
See my post on Grant’s Farm, the Budweiser factory, The Old Chain of Rocks Route 66 Bridge, and the Crown Candy Kitchen in “Budweiser Day.”
See my post on the wonderful “Saint Louis Zoo.”
See my post on the “Cathedral Basilica Saint Louis.”