Sunday, August 30, 2009

St. Louis International

They were walking through Tower Grove Park carrying carved sticks adorned with shrunken heads. They were dancing to the rhythm of drums and recorded music. They were walking dogs and visiting with friends new and old. They were wearing costumes from around the world. They were dining on cuisine from over thirty nations. They were all attending the the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park which continues today.

For a weekend in late sumer, Tower Grove Park hosts and the International Institute presents the Festival of Nations, a multicultural experience celebrating the often underestimated diversity of St. Louis. Delicious food, perfect weather, wonderful music and fascinating exhibitions fill the southeast corner of the Park.

We attended yesterday. We ate from the different booths and enjoyed the various costumes and dance. We kept seeing people walking with the scary looking walking sticks.

One side of the event has mostly food booths, the other offers booths selling merchandise from around the world. And in between are various performance areas with musicians and dancers.

One booth representing Russia sold those wood carved, colorfully painted dolls which open and reveal many layers of smaller and smaller dolls on the inside. A booth offering Chinese themed goods was beautiful just to walk by. The festive bright colors were stunning. A man and woman dancing in costume to flamenco music were followed by a Japanese troupe dancing to music which sounded like Japanese nursery rhymes. I'm thinking this music would be great as either a conversation starter at our next house party or for setting the rhythm for cleaning house, maybe both.

And then the mystery of the shrunken-head-mounted-walking-sticks was solved. The most popular of all the booths represented Indonesia. Their items were made of molded plastic to look like carved wood. They sold rustic looking plaques with the words "Margaritaville" carved into them and mini surf boards with a bite out of them and the logo for LandShark beer, and what turned out to biggest seller in the park this day, walking sticks adorned with little shrunken heads. I don't know what any of these items have to do with Indonesia, but the operators of this booth sure seemed to know the kinds of things St. Louisans would like to take back home!

With a beautiful Sunday on tap, another trip to the International Festival may work out for a lunch visit today. It would be good to see you there.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Upgrade Opportunity?

With the abundance of park land in the city of St. Louis, it's hard to believe there would be shortages of playing fields. But in the area of quality baseball fields for adult/varsity games, it's true.

High school teams have few options. Across Cass Avenue from the new Vashon High School, at the Senator Jet Banks city park, there is a new full size diamond, built in part through support of the Cardinal Care organization.

In South City, I am wracking my brain to think of any varsity fields available for public school use. The only one I can think of is at "The Greens" on River Des Peres. The Green's field is a nice one, with dugouts, and outfield fencing and a grass infield.

Unfortunately, The Greens is located in a low lying area and as a result often suffers from flooding and can be unplayable in good weather. With the amount of rain St. Louis gets in spring in summer, it's important for baseball fields to have good drainage. The other downside with the Greens is that the field lacks lighting for night games. Since there are lots of nearby homes, installing new night lighting can raise concerns from neighbors.

It appears there may be an opportunity to upgrade an existing facility. Sandwiched between the city compost pile, Interstate 55 and the railroad tracks which cut through Carondelet Park on the east side of Grand Avenue, is the location for the new South City Recreation and swim center. The facility is nearly complete and makes for an excellent entrance into the city. Adjacent to the new recreation center is a large field which for years has housed two little league sized ball fields. With the construction of the new community center, these diamonds have been unused this entire season.

The area is large enough to build a quality, full-sized, varsity/adult baseball field. It features a natural hillside between the community center and the athletic field for spectators. It has a beautiful stone restroom building and quality lighting for night play.

What if this field were upgraded to complement the new community center with a first class baseball field? There would be no neighbors to complain about night games. It would bring more traffic to the area. Local high schools could have one more field for home games. And it could become a regional draw serving as home field to host St. Louis area amateur baseball tournaments.

An upgraded baseball field at Carondelet Park would expand the positive impact of the new community center, make a perfect compliment to historic Heine Meine field in Lemay, The Greens, and the baseball field being constructed at St. Mary's High School. Together, the four fields would position the City of St. Louis to compete in hosting high school tournaments from across the midwest.

Championship games could be held at the improved Carondelet Park field, with banquet and award ceremonies held inside the new Rec Center. Both facilities would be owned by the City of St. Louis and serve as an added source of pride and recreational opportunities for city and regional residents.

Stay tuned. Follow up conversations to explore the feasibility of this concept with local leaders, the operators of the new community center, and the city parks department will be sought to update this post.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

St. Louis: Good For Your Career

According to the "Sales HQ" website, St. Louis is ranked # 20 in the US for career opportunities and in the top 100 worldwide for quality of life.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Low voter turnout, election fraud, led to Great Divorce?

Sunday's Post ran a fascinating article by Tim O'Neill about the history surrounding the election and subsequent lawsuit leading up to the "Great Divorce", where the city of St. Louis separated itself from St. Louis County. At the time, voters in the city wanted out of St. Louis County, and voters in St. Louis County wanted to stay united with the City. But if the issue was of signficant interest, you sure couldn't tell by the vote count.

According to the Post article, in 1870, St. Louis city had a population of 310,864 persons and St. Louis county had 31,000. The vote was nearly split in St. Louis city, 11,878 for the divorce and 11,525 against. In St. Louis County, the vote was 848 for the split, 2,617 against. Overall, the measure lost by a 12,726 for and 14,142 against count.

However, pro-separation forces filed a lawsuit, and a pro-city judge, Thomas Gantt, tossed 5,069 ballots, mostly no votes, leading to eventual approval of the measure by 1,253 votes.

The thing that amazes me is that only 26,868 people voted out of the total 341,864 plus people living in St. Louis City and County at the time. Were only property owners allowed to vote? Thinking back, by this time, women were not yet allowed to vote, so that would have lowered the total.

I wonder if women would have had the vote, if the measure would have passed or failed?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Lambert Rising with "Windows on St. Louis"

This being vacation season, I made a trip to Lambert St. Louis International Airport this week and was amazed at the airport's new tourist friendly exhibit "Windows on St. Louis" located in the luggage area of the main terminal. The display is worth a visit to the airport.

There are four or five huge displays, situated behind huge panes of glass, highlighting St. Louis area destinations including the New Cathedral, the U City Loop, and the Arch. It's a must see. Kudos to the organizers behind this effort. For all the criticisms of Lambert, I personally am a big fan of the place. It's easy to get in and out, parking is ridiculously close and cheap, and it's within ten minutes of downtown.

The Visitors and Convention Bureau has a booth there as well, stocked with info about good things to see and do around St. Louis. We picked up a flier for a historic St. Louis themed baseball exhibition now showing at the Arch grounds. Did you know it was there? It runs through the end of the year.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fountain Park Back to School Celebration

This Saturday, August 22nd, from 11:00 AM till 3:00 PM, neighbors will meet again in Fountain Park for a Back to School Celebration.

Centennial Christian Church with other community partners are sponsoring a fun day at Fountain Park open to all school-aged city kids to help them get off to a good start for the new school year. There will be raffles for free bicycles, free music, and backpacks filled with school supplies. Supplies are limited.

Last year the effort provided five free bicycles and over 200 backpacks. The tradition is continuing this year and donations of time, funds, and bikes or school supplies are welcomed. If you would like to help out with a donation, the contact person for this event is Mr. Clint Potts, telephone number (314) 443-4081.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Review: Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch

A new book completed through a collaboration between the National Park Service and local author and historian Nini Harris documents the construction of the Gateway Arch and the history of the site through photographs, drawings, and detailed captions. "Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch" is a photographic time capsule of the thirty-plus year time span of the design and construction of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

The site of one our nation's most iconic landmarks was once the original riverboat docking warehouse district of old St. Louis. "Historic Photos of the Gateway Arch" provides readers a detailed retrospective on the city's original industrial warehouse and riverfront area.

Author Nini Harris is a lifelong St. Louis resident and author of many books on St. Louis history. The writer was active in early rehab efforts of the Lafayette Square neigborhood and is a resident of South City. In addition to her writing, Ms. Harris is involved in historic preservation consulting, including the preparation of National Register historic district nominations for St. Louis neighborhoods.

Through a wide variety of images, Harris leads readers through the planning, design competition, and construction of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Images range from hand drawings to historic and modern photographs. From the expressions on the faces of city leaders, construction workers, and citizens at the time, you can see the sense of pride and accomplishment the Arch brought to St. Louis.

The book opens with a panoramic aerial photograph of downtown St. Louis taken before massive clearance was carried out to make way for the Arch grounds. For those interested in early St. Louis history, the book provides reproductions of many posters and drawings from mid-19th century St. Louis. Photographs then lead readers through many blocks of the historic street grid once located where the Arch now stands. Cobblestone streets, cast iron storefront, warehouse, and apartment buildings are shown.

Following the documentation of the original buildings, the book transitions readers into the design competition for the Memorial. There are many photographs of the unselected proposals. It is interesting to ponder how different St. Louis would be today had any of the alternative proposals been selected. A proposal by St. Louis architect Harris Armstrong called for the construction of a futuristic observation tower and navigable slough for small watercraft on the St. Louis riverfront, with a new airport to be built on the East St. Louis side offering prime views of downtown's growing skyline.

The approximate 30 year timeline from the original clearance to construction of the monument can be tracked based on the vintage of automobiles in the photographs. A significant percentage of the work covers the actual construction of the Arch. Many of the photos of Arch construction must have been taken by the workers themselves, since they are shot from vantage points high in the rigging.

As the National Park Service is currently updating its General Management Plan for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a process and plan that will govern uses of the Arch grounds for the next 15 - 30 years, including a new design competition and possible expansion into Illinois, this book provides an important context in the overall review of the Memorial as future uses and designs of the Memorial are considered.

Historic Photos the Gateway Arch is available at local St. Louis retailers like Hammonds and Left Bank Books or online at or for $39.95.

Monday, August 10, 2009

1st, 2nd or 3rd?

Late in the summer of another year in St. Louis we just completed a week-long tour of two midwestern destination cities - Cleveland and Pittsburgh. St. Louis has made a local out of me, but with nearly twenty years of time here, it was time to clear my head and think about the motivations that keep us here in this place.

This was a father-son trip (recommended for those with teen sons that have outgrown the junior amateur athletics and scout aged things). Now we share interests in music, architecture, historic neighborhoods and local/ethnic food. Both Cleveland and Pittsburgh offer much to choose from in those categories.

Our trip started in Cleveland. We made the drive from St. Louis to Cleveland in about ten hours. Not one highway patrolman in sight, so traffic moved at 70+ mph the whole way. Midway through Ohio you enter the Great Lakes watershed and beautiful Amish farm country. Arriving in Cleveland you immediately get the impression that it is much more a smaller version of Chicago than St. Louis ever is. Note to self: We St. Louisans would be well served to stop the STL-Chicago comparisons.

Without a reservation, we got a great deal on the lakefront at the Crown Plaza hotel. Cleveland folks are super friendly and helpful. Our primary destination was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but we arrived early enough to explore some of Cleveland and was directed by locals to the historic Tremont neighborhood. Tremont is a 19th century neighborhood, undergoing significant rehab and gentrification.

Tremont is beautiful, about five minutes from downtown, and full of hip restaurants and galleries. One interesting feature of the neighborhood is the way architects of infill new construction seem to have a lot of freedom of design expression. The new construction has urban scale but modern form. I liked it and recommend a visit to this neighborhood if you're ever in Cleveland.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was worth the visit. But after having made the trip once, I doubt we'd return to Cleveland for another trip the R and R HOF. After you've seen it once, it would probably be kind of boring. Maybe after another ten years or a major remake of the place. We would return sooner to attend a sporting event or tour more of the city's neighborhoods.

Pittsburgh and Cleveland are only about 140 miles apart, so the rivalry between cities is strong. After attending a baseball game at Cleveland's Progressive Field (a new downtown ballpark built in a decidely non-faux historic style), at about 9:00 pm we left Cleveland heading to Pittsburgh. Enter the land of the toll roads. What a strange life it must be for the workers collecting those tolls. I'm wondering, are those patronage positions?

For miles there was nothing but darkness. No street lights, no highway intersections with four corners of fast food and filling stations. Eastern Ohio and western PA are heavy rural. Where were the suburbs and sprawl? Maybe we were on the rural route? We'll have to make the trip again in daylight to see what we were missing, but I'm betting it was all forest and farms.

The lack of familiar settlement patterns continued until we were very near Pittsburgh. Highway signs for the Pittsburgh International Airport appeared before any gas stations or subdivisions. Where were the suburbs? We felt like we were riding in the twilight zone. Good thing we had spare change for the toll plazas and enough gas in the tank!

We finally found an offramp with services (restaurants, hotels, filling stations), about ten miles from downtown Pittsburgh. There was an inn with a room, so we checked in and got a good rest before our visit to Pittsburgh. Having heard lots of good things about Pittsburgh, this would be the main destination of our journey.

The next morning on our drive in to Pittsburgh we were impressed with the geography. What a hilly place. Mountains really. Steep ones. We kept getting closer to Pittsburgh, now there were offramps for the city and stadiums, but still no major developments along the road. Very open mostly. Then we came upon the "Fort Pitt Tunnel". We drove through the tunnel and on the other side the whole skyline of Pittsburgh appeared right in front of us. What a view and how dramatic! It was beautiful. And bridges and water everywhere. Pittsburgh claims over 400 bridges. Our plan was to drive around for an hour or two to get our bearings.

The place reminded me very much of eastern cities. Much older and smaller scale of buildings than St. Louis, and a very dense and impressive big city downtown. Regional attractions in Pittsburgh abound. Other than a quick game of catch at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and a ballgame at spectacular PNC stadium, we didn't even make a dent in the downtown area. Neighborhood destinations filled our schedule.

We toured the Andy Warhol museum, a closed Catholic parish church which had been coverted to a micro brewery, the Carnegie natural history museum with one of the world's largest collection of dinosaur fossils, took a ride up one of their incline trains (awesome views of downtown from the top), checked out the "Strip" neighborhood (ate a Primanti's sandwich there), the northside and southside neighborhoods, and Heinz Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

The rivers, steep hills and historic neighborhoods, along with a strong eastern European influence in churches dotting the hillsides, make for very scenic landscapes, defined neighborhoods, and beautiful views. I expected to see more vacant steel mills but there really weren't very many, even though we did hear from the locals how the local economy still feels the sting from the loss of jobs in steel industry.

In both Cleveland and Pittsburgh we asked for recommendations about neighborhoods with nightlife and music, sort of like our Soulard or Loop areas. Recommendations were few and we didn't find much. Any suggestions would be appreciated, especially for Pittsburgh, since we definitely plan a return there.

There was a noticeable lack of cemetaries around Pittsburgh. We only passed one the whole time we were there. Maybe with the scarcity of buildable land, they're all along the periphery? Or maybe they've been relocated outward through the years?

Whetherwise, Pittsburgh was best. The news reported they were getting ready to have their first 90 degree day - in over a YEAR! With the reduction in industrial activities, the years of dust and soot are over and the skies were clear and blue.

It's easy to see how people would love living in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh. We heard from a person at the ballgame at PNC how many Pittsburgh families have over 100 years of local residency.

Given the competition among midwestern regions, there are lessons we can take from both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. All three regions, St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, are about the same size (just under 3,000,000). All three suffered from white flight, struggling public school systems, and declines in their industrial jobs base. Yet all three are making turnarounds and getting national attention.

Cities of the midwest enjoy lots of advantages. They are drawing more attention from young people seeking creative, affordable environments. They have history and destination attractions of national significance. They are supported by educational institutions and interesting neighborhoods. Weather is seasonal and with A/C, summers are manageable.

St. Louis has better baseball than Pittsburgh or Cleveland, but I'd submit Cleveland and Pittsburgh have better stadiums. Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I'd say St. Louis has a far better music scene. Cleveland and Pittsburgh have more the big city feel, but St. Louis's small town atmosphere makes it easy for people to get connected and gain a meaningful role in their communities.

Making lists makes news. But it's easy to find holes in the lists. So does it really matter whether you're first second, or third? I learned on this trip that we can learn a lot from our neighbors, and we need to always be doing more.