Understanding St. Louis: A Summer Reading List for Learning About Our City

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Seeking to understand St. Louis a little better, OK, a lot better? There’s certainly a lot of material out there. You can read about the 1904 World’s Fair, check out various viewpoints in Seeking St. Louis and bemoan what we’ve lost in Mapping Decline, but I’ll offer up four books that I think will do more to shed light on today’s St. Louis, and only one is about the city itself.

Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things
Author Barry Glassner covers everything from cyberporn to airline safety, maybe not the most urban issues, but he also covers our irrational and distorted fear of crime, drugs and minorities. As Glassner notes, “Atypical tragedies grab our attention while widespread problems go unaddressed” (and may I add, the joy and pleasure of everyday life in St. Louis goes uncelebrated). Seemingly endless anecdotes tell us there’s much to fear. Whether in the local media, in online forums, or with our friends and neighbors, I think we spend an unjustifiable and harmful amount of time addressing our fears, rational or not. My takeaway: our city isn’t as scary as you may think.

Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950
“Downtown” means many things to many people, but in the end our visions of downtown are mythical, an agglomeration of the best of several decades. Maybe it’s the idealized image of a ticker tape parade, or in St. Louis the Veiled Prophet at its prime, or a street full of holiday shoppers, or likely all of the above. But downtown was never stagnant. Congestion by horse and buggy then cars, pollution, obsolescent buildings, have all been present as long as there have been downtowns. In fact, the pinnacle of downtown’s existence (real and imaginary) was likely fleeting and impossible to recreate. My takeaway: downtown was never what you think it was and likely won’t be what you want it to be.

St. Louis: the Evolution of an American Urban Landscape
Simply put, this is the social, political and economic history of St. Louis as told by its buildings. Covering 1796 St. Louis to the 1947 redevelopment plan for Soulard to today’s Wildwood, author Eric Sandweiss provides an encyclopedic history of neighborhood development in St. Louis. Focused on a portion of South St. Louis, sub-division plots, development patterns and housing types are cataloged and explained. Ever wonder why and when porches moved from the back of homes (Soulard) to the side of homes (Benton Park) to the front of homes (Tower Grove Heights)? My takeaway: If you know where to look you can read history by looking at the buildings in St. Louis.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and what it says about us)
There’s now an accompanying blog (howwedrive.com) detailing traffic, our choices and the psychology of transportation. Where did I learn that early mergers on the highway are really just wasting road capacity? How about the fact that fewer (or no) road signs can often mean safer roads? Or that roundabouts nearly eliminate the most violent vehicle collisions? With plenty of examples from around the world, this book should help you rethink what you think you know about traffic. My takeaway: traffic is a choice and often counterintuitive – we should experiment with traffic more.

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