Saturday, January 24, 2015

One-Way Gateway - From St. Louis International Airport to the Gateway Arch on Foot - Part 3

This is the third part of a four-part series.  To read the first installment, click here.  Here is the second installment.

Part 3

Wellston, I would come to find out, is the poorest urban community in Missouri, and it was smack dab in the middle of my path to the Arch.  With every step, the buildings became older, more dilapidated, more antiquated. 

St. Charles Rock Road had transformed into Dr. M. L. King Drive; from there, I turned down the street on my assigned path, and everywhere I looked showcased a condemned, half-demolished building, its storefront rotting or boarded up.

The varying state of these structures was intriguing; some appeared to have naturally demolished themselves or had been helped by intentional fire, or even arson.  Nothing had been carted away; the building collapsed as it was, and it was to be left there until someone with the money and will to do so cleared the lot for something else.

Graffiti was pretty common across the old buildings, but this one was particularly telling.  Because it says, “still” on the right portion, it’s safe to assume this was painted back in 2011, when President Obama was running for his second term.  Regardless of what you think of Obama, the folks living here were hoping for a change; whether or not Obama had the power to actually deliver it to this community is something else altogether.

My directions seemed incorrect, and the distances between my next points seemed wrong.  Walking on these side streets made me feel uneasy.  The sidewalks were old, cracked, and covered in weeds.  Dogs barked in the distance.  Sirens blared a few blocks over.  My innocent walk had turned down a dark path.  I pulled my hood up and picked up my pace.  I turned down my next road, which was an alleyless sidestreet.  Someone behind me shouted for me.  At first, I wasn’t sure if she was talking to her companion (she was walking alongside someone else), but it quickly became clear that she meant me. 

I was in the thick of a neighborhood.  The houses that weren’t destroyed or condemned were actually quite nice, with simple Halloween decorations, but they were the exception, not the rule.  Windows were smashed out all along the row.  Realizing that my directions may have left out a step, I took an impromptu right turn, hoping to push to a major road again.  A car pulled up beside me at a stop sign as I crossed the street, lingering much longer than the traffic laws required.

The destitution of the region, in my mind, doesn’t reflect poorly on the residents that live here.  It’s important to remember that, when what was once a promising community declines, it becomes increasingly difficult to be mobile.  One’s property starts to go down in value, traveling to a job outside the declining area requires more time, money, and effort, if a job is even still available within a reasonable distance.  So holding a job is difficult, and so paying your mortgage becomes harder, so you have less money to travel, ad infinitum.  These things feed each other until those left in a declining community are locked in.  This has happened in a big way here, and while some of Wellston’s citizens have fled, others remain, bound there by family, lack of opportunity, and/or physical or mental disability.

Still, whether or not the members of this community meant it, I did not feel welcome here.
After several blocks, I finally turned left onto Page Blvd, a four-lane road heading east and west.  I kept a quick pace, camera stowed, taking in the sights with my eyes instead.  On my side of the street, house after house lay abandoned or ruined, with perhaps two out of five houses exhibiting no sign of habitation. 

This charming townhouse was an unprecedented exception; fresh paint, new fencing, landscaping and gardening, and even this charming gate to enter the property.

This person had the motivation and the means to care for their home, and I really enjoyed pausing there and photographing it.

One of the reasons I was excited to take this trip during this particular time of year was the changing of the leaves.  It was perhaps twenty degrees cooler here than in Louisville, so their leaves had already undergone significant transition, unlike Louisville, whose leaves still held their summertime hue. 

I had lost my way over a mile back, but I knew that this was a major enough road that it would likely intersect with my next mark soon enough.  Well, I hoped it would.

My father’s recently finished his own novel; it takes place during the 1960s in a fictional town in Kentucky, and the main conflict arises between an established garage owner dealing with the competition of a brand new service station franchise across the street.  He’d probably love these old pumps, their casings disintegrated, stolen, or salvaged away, revealing the mechanisms beneath.  While in no shape for an antique aficionado due to decades of exposure, my dad would be all over it.  He prefers things a little loved.

This gas station sat at the corner of Park and Spring Street, and I thought I’d remembered seeing Spring Street on the map, so I shouldn’t be far.  I kept going, knowing M. L. King Drive was to my left somewhere.  I passed a Sav-a-Lot, took the first left, and there it was!  I connected with it at an angle and kept my brisk pace. 

This neat old building was a bit of a diamond in the rough; pocketed windows, many of which had been smashed, an old marquee for a presumably defunct business, and unique architectural stylings.  I assume that it was some sort of building contractor, as either side of their marquee claims they were “bonded” and “fireproof.”  Research online revealed nothing, and given the practically identical state of this image from Google Maps’ image from three years ago, it’s probably been derelict for fifty years. The architecture suggests it was built sometime early in the last century.

St. Louis has been in the news since August because of the shooting of Michael Brown.  Ferguson, just a couple miles east of the airport where I landed this morning, has captured the core of the attention, but demonstrations and gatherings throughout St. Louis have been covered, too.  Intriguingly, this was the first time I’d seen anything referring to the shooting. 

Regarding the shooting itself, I wasn’t there, but you cannot, in good conscience, say that things aren’t suspicious.  Even if not a racially motivated murder, it’s clear that those in Ferguson and St. Louis at large recognize a distinct divide between police and their community, and race exacerbates that divide.  Regardless, the overzealous, militarized police response was wholly unacceptable.   

Systematic discrimination is never out of the question, intentional or subconscious.  All I can hope is that we find all the facts, and bless Mike’s family for all the hardship this has inflicted; I think Mike’s innocent.  His community wouldn’t defend him so vehemently otherwise. 

Back to the walk.

All of a sudden, everything changed.  A new fire station, a fancy new housing development, and a lovely park flanked me on every side.  It was like a wave of money washed in from the Mississippi River over this part of town, and the crest stopped right here.  It wasn’t all nice, but these were the newest buildings I’d seen in hours.

This stand-alone townhouse had an interesting façade; on the left side, a stone face is clearly visible.  Given the outside layer is brick (or faux brick), I originally thought that the stone was also fake, but a Google Maps check shows that, in 2011, the brick covered the whole façade, so it must have been damaged.  From my angle, though, it looked intentional.

2Buk actually tags in Louisville, assuming 2Buk is a real person.  Lots of road and interstate signs back home bear this mark.

Unlike the mural I passed a couple hours ago with the Arch, this mural is colorful and vibrant.  On the side of what I surmised to be a music store, this impressive painting was unusual in its subjects, as it seemed to cover random pop culture and daily life topics.  But hey, I couldn’t have made it.

The next couple miles were surprisingly boring.  Long stretches between blocks and nothing but new, industrial facilities on either side, none of which were particularly photogenic, even for my tastes.  I passed more people than I had all day, though, and all kinds, too.  Families, a preacher, a disabled dad and his kid, a couple runners.  The road had grown quiet now, as cars had little reason to come down this way on a Saturday.  I had followed St. Charles Rock Road all the way until it turned into Dr. M. L. King Drive, and it had formed the backbone of the trip.  It wasn’t until now that I realized that this same street bore me most of the way downtown.  The buildings were getting taller, and the sounds of the city were growing louder.  At my planned turn on 16th St., I finally bid my favored road goodbye for the last time.

16th St. seems like an arbitrary cut-over, and to most people it would be.  However, I wanted to stop by my favorite place in St. Louis: the City Museum.

For those of you who can’t actually discern what the Museum is from this angle, I’ll try to describe it for you.  Imagine an adult playground made out of industrial scrap that also has nifty exhibits about the city where you literally climb and crawl from one room to the next. 

Outside the front area here, a smattering of old planes, twisted and smoothed rebar, and stone towers cover perhaps an acre of property where the only purpose is to climb, dive, duck, and slide your way around everything.  When my wife and I visited St. Louis in 2010, this was our major destination on our second day. With big grins on our faces, we proceeded to spend the better part of the day experiencing the playground/museum, seeing shows and demonstrations, laughing, taking pictures, and having an all-around great time.  Trust me, it may not make much sense on paper, but it’ll be a blast for you and the whole family.  Just make sure to pick up some Advil; you will be sore the next day.

I checked my watch and considered how far I had yet to walk and weighed it against the time I’d need to get my wife a souvenir.  Checked my watch.  Thought about my distance.  Checked.  How far.  Ignored reason and went in anyway.  Did not regret.

The City Museum is right on the outskirts of what you might consider downtown, so there wasn’t much farther to go, maybe two miles or less.  This was the home stretch. 

Downtown St. Louis was filled with lots of old factories and warehouses; our hotel the last time we were here was a converted manufacturing space.  The downtown area was also fully stocked with Art Deco skyscrapers, like these three examples.

There’s lots of modern buildings, too, though.

Although these were enticing diversions, we’re on a mission, and my feet are about ready for a sit.
Then I see this shot, like I’m sure they planned it.

The building below the arch was St. Louis’s original courthouse.  Now, it acts as part of the Jefferson Expansion Memorial, the entire complex that includes the Gateway Arch.

It’s the tallest thing in the state, so I won’t miss it, but whatever you say, sidewalk!  Lead on!
Finally, after a solid five hours on my feet, I arrive at the entrance to the park surrounding the Arch.

There’s quite a bit of construction, so pedestrian traffic has been routed all over to bypass the roadwork.  In fact, I’d say that when you picture a tourist destination in your mind, the last thing you picture is it being surrounded by construction.  However, almost without fail, there will be construction around it when you arrive.  Try me on it, I dare you.  I bet the next place you go, there’s nearby construction that reroutes you in your car or on foot. 

No matter; a few minor detours aren’t going to slow me down.  Along with a swarm of other tourists, I cross a bridge above Interstate 44 and emerge beside this behemoth of a monument.  I wasn’t kidding; the Gateway Arch is the tallest building in the state.  While I was flying in, I could easily see it from a long way off, and it’s distinct enough to stand out against the background, especially with nothing in front of it (it’s right against the river, and there’s no tall buildings on the other side, really.) 

After arriving in the park, I made a beeline past mobs of tourists to meet my goal.

Almost there.  Aaaand…

Tag!  You’re it!

At long last, I made it!  Now, time for a good sit.

That’s better.

I took five minutes and just relaxed.  Nothing like a sit after five hours of basically power walking.

32,978 steps.  Get ‘em!

And now, for a gallery of miscellaneous Arch shots!


Come back next Wednesday for the final installment of my St. Louis trip!

Keep going –


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