< this post is by my good friend Alex Reisman, whom I asked to share her thoughts about st. louis with us. enjoy her incredible photos and this first of several entries! >
Diana has invited me to write a little bit about St. Louis. I went to college there and recently returned for a six-week internship at the venerable community development corporation and mouthful Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.
I feel uncharacteristically religious about St. Louis. Evangelical about its patent potential. If you walk around downtown and many neighborhoods, you might declare, as a visitor of mine did, that “it feels so empty.” But spend some time in the subtext of St. Louis and you would find that the city is in fact—to borrow a friend’s favorite word in college—rife. There are exquisite details everywhere, crumbling buildings to be restored, old mistakes to be avoided, and dire legacies of racism and economic hardship from which to recover. To a large degree, St. Louis’ redemption is and will be in the salvage of its buildings—a literal, physical salvation. This is no more obvious than at the City Museum, a private museum downtown that arranges artifacts harvested from the ruins of St. Louis to create a city unto itself—rife with history, noise, oddity, art, and ideas.
Old things have been repurposed—as has the building, a former shoe company warehouse—and strange things have been glorified. To begin, there is a Ferris wheel on the roof, a precariously situated school bus, a handrail made from old railroad rail, a wall made of bottles, enormous sea creatures, a pinball arcade festooned with Americana, an old bank vault, the world’s largest pencil, caves mimicking Missouri’s real caves, a serious double-decker playground made from all kinds of junk, and more traditional museum-type displays of curios and architectural trimmings.
Every city should have one of these. It juxtaposes time-strewn elements, the common and the arcane, original uses and re-uses. It is both a distillation of a city’s material identity and, perhaps more so, an exuberant alter ego constructed from that city’s parts. Among this city’s parts are relics from the 1904 World’s Fair, relics from an industrial era, freight remnants, brick buildings, and cast iron moldings. St. Louis’ economic rise and fall is thus present in the museum’s collection. Its dark social/racial history may likewise be embedded, but to my knowledge, the museum does not explicitly confront this formative aspect of St. Louis’ story.
All told, the museum truly shows that accessible art (and history) engages citizens. (After all, the worst part about the place is just how crowded it is.) But if the City Museum is something of an event on the path to urban righteousness, a swelling of virtue (and, in this case, a celebration of grotesqueness), then the revitalization of neighborhoods should be the opposite of that—an implicit, foundational aspect of the path. Of course, good neighborhood revitalization is so thrilling, because it is the organic result of these virtuous events, big and small. I will pick up on this thought in my next post, in which I will discuss the Old North St. Louis neighborhood and the work of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.