Editor's Weekly: How the Arch reflects St. Louis, for better and worse | St. Louis Public Radio

Editor's Weekly: How the Arch reflects St. Louis, for better and worse

Oct 29, 2015

Like all great art, the Gateway Arch commands attention for more than its striking beauty. It also beckons us to see ourselves and our place in the world with new perspective.

Most St. Louisans have looked at the Arch thousands of times, yet each moment reveals a different face. Nature works its magic on the shiny steel with the changing seasons, the time of day, the glint of sun and the blur of clouds. The thoughts and feelings the Arch inspires change, too -- from day to day and era to era, following human cycles of aspiration and insight.

My encounters with  the Arch go way back.

Photo from National Park Service, not the family picture
Credit National Park Service

1964: I'm peering at two partially finished Arch legs from the back seat of a gigantic white Plymouth with (then) stylish tail fins. My father, fascinated with the construction, has paused in the middle of a downtown intersection. He cranks his window down, slowly adjusts the dials on his camera and snaps a shot of the work in progress.

My brothers and I are mortified that we're blocking traffic. “Daaaad!" we wail in protest. "You CAN’T DO THIS!” But we share his pride in the daring symbol of progress that is rising on the riverfront.

Credit (photo by Tim Tolle via Flickr Creative Commons)

1967: A carload of friends cap our all-night high school graduation party by watching the sun rise behind the Arch. We're heading away to college, most with no intention of coming back. But my date that night is now my husband of 44 years, and we’ve spent most of our lives here.

1993: Standing beneath the Arch, I peer in amazement as mud-brown floodwaters swirl over  the grand staircase. Trees and chunks of houses drift by in a roiling current that runs uncomfortably close to the bridge decks. Nature's power is awesome, yet people approach this natural disaster in safety on their lunch breaks and leave with new respect for the river that birthed St. Louis.

For the past two weeks, St. Louis Public Radio has been looking at what the Arch means to many people as St. Louisans celebrate the 50th anniversary of its topping out. It stands as an international symbol and the focal point of regional life, yet most of us also have an unusually personal relationship with our soaring, silent neighbor.

Vito Comporato, right, and another worker during the construction of the Gateway Arch.
Credit Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Archives

Mary Delach Leonard talked to the workmen who fabricated the triangular segments and those who slid them into place hundreds of feet above the ground. At the time, many saw their labor as just another job. Now, they take extraordinary pride in creating an icon.

Nassim Benchaabane asked why hundreds of businesses have incorporated the Arch or its gateway designation into their names or logos. Actually, a few other cities might have a better claim to the title of Gateway to the West, Joseph Leahy learned.

July 14, 1964: CORE demonstrators Percy Green (top) and Richard Daly on the Arch.
Credit Paul Ockrassa | St. Louis Globe-Democrat | courtesy St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

Some of the most interesting perspectives on the Arch come from those who see it not only as a symbol of pride but also as a locus of controversy. Percy Green once climbed an unfinished leg to protest workforce discrimination against African Americans. Today, St. Louis’ racial disparities still run deep, and problems related to race have seldom drawn the attention they require.

Author Tracy Campbell explained how civic leaders mobilized to move the Arch project forward over decades -- sometimes involving unsavory tactics such as vote fraud. Today, big initiatives in St. Louis still generally happen through top-down leadership, still generally revolve around construction and still generate controversy.

Yet we've failed so far to take to heart some simple lessons: Displacing people doesn't solve their problems. Buildings alone don't meet their needs.

Urban redevelopment officials in the mid-20th century thought the best way to improve deteriorating neighborhoods was to demolish them and the best way to bring people downtown was to build highways. We’re living with the consequences of their misconceptions. Millions of dollars in public and private funds are being spent to cover the highway that separates the Arch from the rest of downtown and to generate vibrant activity around it – the kind of activity that happens naturally in a healthy urban neighborhood.

Yet we've failed so far to take to heart some simple lessons: Displacing people doesn't solve their problems. Structures alone don't meet their needs.

Look at the Arch today, and it challenges us, as always, to see ourselves and our place in the world in a new light. From the perspective of half a century, the Arch's simple, strong design looks more visionary than ever -- a symbol of St. Louis’ potential for stunning achievement.

But the Arch beckons us to accomplish something more complicated than construction – to focus the will and brilliance that created the Arch on the very human problems that the Arch can’t solve.