What “The Gateway Arch” by Tracy Campbell Tells Us About St. Louis

What “The Gateway Arch” by Tracy Campbell Tells Us About St. Louis

St. Louis riverfront before clearance
{the St. Louis riverfront after businesses and residents were evicted for clearance}

The gaping wound of the highways, and the decaying structures just blocks from the Arch, underscore how St. Louis bet on tourism and expressways to save its downtown. It lost. – Tracy Campbell, The Gateway Arch

Today St. Louis is set to spend $578M to double-down on this same proposition. We’re told that renovations to the Arch grounds will bring a million or more additional tourists to the city, they’ll stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and save downtown, and possibly the city. We continue to bet on tourism and expressways, and we’re going to lose. The Gateway Arch goes well beyond these issues, ultimately asking how we came to have an Arch at all and what affect it has had on the city.

In his biography of the Arch, Campbell highlights the long, contentious history of the site. “Tourists are presented a mythic version of history,” when visiting the Arch. In short: a Depression-riddled city had a wretched wasteland of derelict buildings on its waterfront, leadership acted, citizens voted and then the city waited patiently for federal money until shear ambition and resilience presented the city and nation with the Arch.

Old Cathedral - St. Louis, MO
{the rivefront was cleared decades before the Arch was built}

Adhering to the mythical narrative, recently released renderings of the planned expanded museum at the Arch portray pioneer scenes and the construction of the Arch. Yet, our history matters, what happened and is happening to our city matters. What was lost has been physically erased, but it’s never too late to recognize our past. The museum renovation should have extensive displays on slum clearance policy, a catalog honoring those businesses and people removed from their homes and places of work, and a photographic history of what was destroyed. Visitors should be handed a copy of The Gateway Arch. We would be well served to ask again what The Gateway Arch author Tracy Campbell suggests; “What was there before? Who benefited from its construction? Who lost? What could have been?”

St. Louis Arch - attendance
{the history of Arch attendance provides no evidence that the current plan will produce sustained tourism gains}

A complicated history isn’t a bad history. On the contrary, it’s fascinating, engaging. Every city, and every big urban project, has a complicated history. The Gateway Arch can be understood in three sections: the destruction of the waterfront and what was lost; the life of Eero Saarinen and the design competition; and the building of the Arch. The first part is Campbell’s real contribution to our understanding of the Arch and St. Louis. Saarinen’s life, the competition (though new interesting details are revealed), and particularly the building of the Arch, have been well documented by others.

Among the myths Campbell dispels is the notion that city and civic leaders tirelessly campaigned for a tribute to the Louisiana Purchase and our nation’s westward expansion. This is false. What city and civic leaders campaign for was land clearance. Through the 1930’s even the mayor of the city remained indifferent to what was built, suggesting a football stadium for use by Washington University at one point. Some wanted a park and monument, but the motivation for the money behind the campaign was a theory that clearing 37 blocks of the city, for whatever reason, would increase property values in the rest of downtown and the city precisely because people and businesses would be displaced and have to find a new home.

{pre-demolition photos detail the staggering loss – most images of the riverfront were taken after eviction of businesses and residents}

“Lost within the political campaign (for the Arch grounds) were careful investigations of the realities along the riverfront.”  This quote would fit in 2013 as well as 1935. A study by the Post-Dispatch at the time of the 1935 vote found the riverfront wasn’t a derelict district that needed cleared. The paper found 290 active businesses, 5,000 workers and a 2% vacancy rate on 37 blocks that would become the Arch. Rents were comparable to adjacent city neighborhoods. Later lawsuits further show that the area was occupied and people fought to remain. However, a large portion of the area was owned by a small number of real estate interests and a federal buyout would mean a 25% premium gained over already inflated assessed values. A careful examination today would have identified a lack of activity and functioning businesses along every side of the Arch grounds and focused on connections and city building and not new attractions for tourists.

The oft-mentioned vote and bond issue by the city was a complete sham. An investigation at the time found precincts where 97% of registered voters approved, an impossibly high number. Thousands of voters were found to be registered at vacant buildings, hotels and other false locations. A court case eventually ruled that the city had entered into a contract with the federal government for matching funds and it didn’t matter if the vote was a fraud. At the time, the Washington Post reported, “the people of St. Louis really did not vote to spend $7.5M.”

STL plans the future with action today
{it may seem a thing of the past, but St. Louis ably defends its outmoded and damaging legacy}

It’s out-of-fashion to outright steal elections these days, so instead, proponents of the latest Arch ballot measure chose the lowest turnout election in sight and mounted a quiet campaign among likely supporters. From board rooms to living rooms, supporters were encouraged to turn out, but not mount a vocal campaign. Low turnout elections favor proponents. Such a strategy was just enough to win at the ballot box, but it remains a complete failure of civic leadership.

It’s easy to be accused by of being anti-Arch by pointing out what was lost and suggesting there were alternatives.  “Following your logic, the Arch would never have been built,” one accusation goes. I thought this was a great starting point for a larger conversation. Unfortunately that conversation hasn’t proved popular in St. Louis and especially among our civic and political leaders who believe that what downtown’s really missing is another half a billion dollars spent on the Arch grounds. It’s taken a professor from the University of Kentucky to try and restart this conversation.

The great story is that throughout the 1920s, 30s, 40s and beyond, there were people who understood how detrimental separating the riverfront from the city would be. There were people fighting hard to save the historic buildings of the riverfront. There were people who challenged the idea that highways and tourists would create a better city. People pointed out that removing 37 blocks of businesses, stores and homes from the city’s tax roll would be detrimental. Officialdom ignored them. The current Arch grounds revitalization process does the same. I would like to think that in 1935, many of us would have been standing shoulder to shoulder with Sigfried Giedion. CityArchRiver leadership would clearly be Bernard Dickman.

I-70 at ArchArchitect Harris Armstrong of St. Louis, who would place first in the initial competition round, but ultimately lose to Saarinen’s design, understood well the challenges of the site. “The most important problem of the waterfront project is that of circulation. This scheme (urban interstates) serves only to separate the project from the central business district.” He had his own vision, avowing little interest in tourist attractions. Armstrong proposed reconstructing the riverfront following demolition, adding high-density residential and commercial structures fully integrated by the street grid with the existing city.

It’s too easy in retrospect to say, as Campbell does, that the neighborhood erased to build the Arch is exactly the type of place that cities are now turning to and revitalizing. The St. Louis riverfront could have been our North End, our French Quarter (it’s of nearly identical size). That isn’t the fault of the Arch, but of the process leading to condemnation, eviction and mass clearance. The past isn’t coming back, but it should inform the present. The author very capably notes that the Arch itself is an incredible piece of Modern architecture, really THE iconic piece of Modern architecture. It should be held in awe, it should be admired and celebrated: “Today, the Arch is a cherished national landmark and one of the most recognized structures on earth. It is revered for the way it transforms a simple curve into an awe-inspiring experience of place. A person approaching it by car or plane cannot help but marvel at its size and elegance.” The question is what St. Louis should do with it.

arch collage

The Gateway Arch understands that the park is an instructive example of failed urban planning. If so, does the more than half a billion dollars set to be spent on the memorial demonstrate that we’ve learned anything? The author recognizes that a wide variety of forces and motivations created the park and Arch, but at a price that St. Louis continues to pay. What happened in St. Louis over the past half century that led us to the point where we believe a $578M Arch grounds project should be the focus of our civic leaders and city offices? Succinctly, if the Arch, the gleaming, wonderful, incomparable Arch hasn’t revitalized downtown and served to better the fortunes of the city, how can bike paths, new ramps, closing streets and a new museum entrance be expected to do so?

Today, City to River proposes to address what Harris Armstrong and others understood more than half a century ago; that the challenge of downtown St. Louis and the Arch is that of circulation. Only by converting I-70 into a boulevard that allows the reconnection of the city’s street grid will the city ever begin to heal. City to River has shown that more than a $1B in new development is possible with a boulevard in place of I-70. The city and civic leaders have punted once again on the true barrier to downtown’s success. All five Framing a Modern Masterpiece competition finalists endorsed a boulevard, the National Park Service wants the Interstate gone.

City to River

Campbell’s clear-eyed presentation of the life of the city and Arch grounds won’t be popular with some. The myth is more comforting, more self-assuring, simpler. Local criticism might mirror that of the Wall Street Journal book review (subscription). Not surprisingly, the WSJ mocks Campbell for recognizing the impact of the project on black St. Louisans, “He brings race into the book with a dull frequency. Only a captive of the faculty lounge could be under the impression that Kate Chopin was ever so celebrated that her fame overshadowed the genius behind “Johnny B. Goode.” I suppose the ahistorical ignorance is to be expected from that publication.

The review also attributes the recognition of the I-70 infrastructure barrier to the author himself, instead of properly recognizing the well documented concerns of Harris Armstrong, Ada Louise Huxtable and others. Those concerns again, are recognized and have been expressed by today’s designers, residents and the park itself. The reviewer’s endorsement of an urban Interstate is baffling as anything other than another way to dismiss a member of the “faculty lounge”.

Arch lid street disruption

MoDOT CityArchRiver update 8-30-2012
{the current plan invests in existing infrastructure and creates new confusion and dislocation}

Unfortunately that review and Campbell himself glaze over today’s efforts. The WSJ piece concludes all is well as “a parklike “lid” (will soon) cover the I-70 trough”. It won’t. Campbell claims that the lid now proposed “will reconnect the Arch to the city.” This continues to misrepresent any serious understanding of connections in cities. The new design offers visitors fewer connections than exist today. The removal of blocks of city streets and rerouting of traffic through a maze of one-way streets adds confusion. The city was connected to its riverfront when city streets were connected. By the logic of the current planned design, Millennium Park in Chicago has no direct connection to the surrounding city. One must cross a street.

The hypocrisy of the plan is evident. The stated mission of luring more tourists into downtown, exploring the city and spending money in local establishments, necessitates that visitors cross dozens of city streets. And yet for some reason, that street at the Arch is supposed to be the straw that breaks the visitor’s back, a barrier so severe that the attraction of the iconic Arch itself isn’t enough for them to cross street number 27 in their downtown adventure. In addition, the current plan simply reroutes traffic to another street any visitor must cross. The vision is as anti-city as can be imagined. Until St. Louis understands and commits itself to city-building and instead of attraction-building, the same challenges will remain and the same lack of success will result.

The next time you visit the Arch, ask “What was there before? Who benefited from its construction? Who lost? What could have been?” Then bring yourself back to today and ask again. The future of St. Louis may depend on it.

*The Gateway Arch author Tracy Campbell will be doing an author talk at Left Bank Books downtown St. Louis June 26 beginning at 7:00 p.m. (Google book preview)

Excerpt from NPR’s Gateway Arch Biography Reveals Complex History of an American Icon:

The Gateway Arch Introduction Saarinen’s Cathedral Early each morning, the buses and cars arrive at the St. Louis riverfront as they have done for nearly five decades. The tourists — some three million a year — stream out to see a gleaming stainless-steel arch that towers above the Mississippi River. They explore the underground museum, watch a short film about the Arch’s construction, and climb aboard claustrophobic space-age capsules for a four-minute ride to the crest. They peer out of thick, narrow windows perched more than sixty stories high, nowhere near as tall as the tops of many modern skyscrapers but somehow more magical and terrifying because they are suspended in air. The experience is a little more than some people bargained for when they realize that there is nothing under them. Perhaps they grasp for the first time the power of basic geometry, which is the only thing keeping them from falling. A few may remember Leonardo da Vinci’s definition: “An arch consists of two weaknesses which leaning one against the other make a strength.” After they have taken some photographs, the visitors are carried back to the underground station where they can buy souvenirs.

Once they emerge from below, most crane their heads one last time at the monument towering above them and wonder about its meaning. Throughout, tourists are presented a mythic version of history. They are told of a Depression-riddled city that struggled to rebuild a wretched wasteland of abandoned buildings and warehouses. They learn how in 1935 the citizens of St. Louis approved a bond issue for a project commemorating Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. City leaders, responding to this expression of popular support, cleared the area of empty, “blighted” warehouses and waited patiently for the millions of promised federal funds. After postponements necessitated by World War II and the Korean War, the city embarked on an ambitious effort to rebuild the riverfront with a wonderful monument to westward expansion. Finished in 1965 the magnificent Gateway Arch (officially the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) transformed the city and gave the nation a timeless landmark that speaks to our democratic heritage. When we think about a great monument or skyscraper or museum or cathedral, we seldom ask: What was there before? Who benefited from its construction? Who lost? What could have been?

By exploring these questions, we find that the story of the Gateway Arch is more complicated than the account given to visitors. It involves political and economic power, short-sighted city planning, and decades of disputes over the historic riverfront. It includes more than visionary architects and civic leaders: local and national politicians, landlords, renters, bankers, real estate agents, construction workers, protestors, and citizens. Their motivations and actions often had little to do with promoting modern architecture or honoring the city’s role in developing the republic. Today, the Arch is a cherished national landmark and one of the most recognized structures on earth. It is revered for the way it transforms a simple curve into an awe-inspiring experience of place. A person approaching it by car or plane cannot help but marvel at its size and elegance.

For interstate highway travelers in the Midwest, the Arch is one of the most memorable sights they will encounter. The genius of the Gateway Arch is that it is both traditional and modern. The Romans built countless arches, and they were indispensable to Gothic architecture. The vast array of bridges, aqueducts, and churches whose arches have survived for centuries testify to the form’s inherent durability. Yet the one in St. Louis manages to reinvent the idea, as if it were the very first one. We are surrounded by arches, yet there is only one Gateway Arch. It is disarmingly simple and extraordinarily complex, an unadorned geometric shape on an almost inhuman scale.

The Arch informs us of the wealth and audacity of the United States in the mid-twentieth century. It is the product of a supremely self-confident and rich society; conceived after the Arsenal of Democracy had won World War II, and built as the nation planned to go to the Moon. It is a symbol of affluence and influence, a bold statement of national strength. But the Arch also represents a significant chapter in the history of American cities. Its origins and construction allow us to ask: Why do our cities look the way they do? In this vein, the Arch is more than a symbol; it is also a symptom. Tourists and the local community experience it in different ways. The Gateway Arch is an extended cautionary tale that emerged from a grand and ultimately failed experiment in urban planning. This too is part of its history and meaning — part of the less triumphant side. Just over a century ago, St. Louis considered itself the potential equal of New York City, perhaps even the site of a relocated American capital. Today it has less than half the population it had in 1950.

The history of the Arch, and of the contested ground on which it stands, is deeply intertwined with the history of St. Louis, as well as East St. Louis, Illinois, directly across the river. Long before Saarinen conceived his design, city leaders debated what to do with the land adjacent to the river. It was a struggle that started with the city’s birth as a modest trading post. By the early twentieth century, the area was dotted with warehouses and small businesses, some struggling and some thriving. It contained apartments and houses of various sizes, as well as a number of historic buildings, including some of the best examples of cast-iron structures in the nation. The creators of the Arch shared the belief, widely held in the mid-twentieth century, that the future of the city lay in its friendliness to automobiles. The ideology of mid-century urban planning held that downtowns would thrive to the extent that they were accessible and navigable by out-of-town visitors traveling in cars. Attractions such as sports arenas and convention centers, highways leading into and through downtowns, and vast parking towers were seen as the way to revive struggling urban cores and connect them to the more vibrant suburbs. Older modes of urban life — historic buildings, getting around on foot, dense neighborhoods where people lived, worked, and played in close proximity — were considered outdated relics that stood in the way of progress.

St. Louis, like many other American cities, embraced the mid-twentieth=century answer to urban decay. Yet unlike any other city, St. Louis turned also to what became an architectural masterpiece to lure people downtown. The Arch is a paradox: on the one hand, it has become one of the country’s great tourist attractions and one of its most successful and inspiring works of art. On the other hand, just blocks away, one can walk past empty buildings and dreary lots. Though its overt function is to commemorate the city’s past, the Arch’s design and underlying purpose look toward the future: it was meant to renew the city that surrounds it. The steady procession of people leaving St. Louis is another marker of urban decay, and the Gateway Arch helped speed the decline.

Cities and monuments are not created overnight. They are the product of longstanding political, economic, and cultural forces. Over time, people in power made choices and implemented policies that had profound consequences. The results, reflected in our built environment, were sometimes glorious, sometimes disastrous. In uncovering the bloody history of the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, David Harvey wrote: “The building hides its secrets in sepulchral silence. Only the living, cognizant of this history … can truly disinter the mysteries that lie entombed there and thereby rescue that rich experience from the deathly silence of the tomb.” That sentiment extends from Paris to St. Louis. Some architectural landmarks have more to tell us than meets the eye.

From The Gateway Arch by Tracy Campbell. Copyright 2013 by Tracy Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.


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