Later, Saint Louis

So, back from our brief vacation to the south of Missouri. (And only vacation this summer, sadly. Our usual week by the beach just couldn’t find time.) Though only four and half hours away from Chicago, St. Louis feels, in many ways, like a very different place. The highest structure in the city is the Arch at 630 feet, with the next smallest being its highest building at around 590 feet–a very different skyline for a girl used to a city housing the tallest building in North America. The traffic–well, let’s just say that, when we pulled into the city in our car, they had the streetlights all set to stoplight mode and I saw at least five cars drive half a city block in reverse to snag a parking space. They don’t build so tall. They don’t need to. Everyone is spread out here, like a wide country village with an urban face.

With a downtown probably comparable to Chicago’s and only a few hundred thousand people instead of a million, I felt like I was walking in a ghost town. I would cross maybe one or two people on the street every other block, except in the occasional restaurant outdoor seating. The economy downturn hit hard here. Fancy new storefronts are interspersed liberally with boarded up windows and “For Rent” signs. It is a mix of contemporary street art, modern architecture, country class, and urban grunge. A quiet, friendly kind of city, with the riverfront barges and factories still giving it that turn-of-the-century charm.

But St. Louis is not really your typical scape of concrete and gunmetal and grime. Go a little further, to the Forest Park, and the typical city scape is suddenly a vast stretch of green dotted with stone museums, fountain-fed lakes, and brick pavillions leftover from the World’s Fair. Larger than Central Park by 500 acres, and without a doubt more beautiful, the Park houses several museums and a zoo, and skirts an upperclass neighborhood and the Cathedral Basicilia, a gorgeous structure with the largest collection of mosaics in the world (worth a visit–every surface, ceilings, columns, cupolas, is encrusted with tiny pieces of glass and gilt that swirl into massive religious designs). In the Park, the city feels somehow more alive, and you can feel its borders slipping into the country.

And the Cardinals–well, the people of St. Louis definitely show their spirit here. With the Arch looming over Busch stadium’s off-center scoreboard, thousands of red-shirted fans file into thousands of red seats and cheer with a vibrant energy not seen on the daytime ghost streets. Here are their heroes, Albert Pujols (who, I had the good fortune to see, hit a home run) and Yadier Molina. A simple American pasttime in a simple city at America’s crossroads. A fitting vacation, I think, from the quick-walking citydwellers who won’t meet your eye, but with the same Chicago sort of ruggedness and midwestern values. St. Louis, I’ll see you again soon.