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Citygarden celebrates its first birthday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2010 - "Our official estimate is a gazillion."

That's Paul Wagman, spokesman for Citygarden, estimating -- with tongue placed firmly in cheek -- how many people have visited Citygarden since it opened exactly a year ago on July 1.

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St. Louis' urban oasis -- between 8th Street to the east and 10th Street to the west; Chestnut Street to the north and Market Street to the south -- has no gates or turnstiles so it's impossible to say how many have visited.

But Wagman hears plenty of anecdotes.

"We hear people say, 'This is the place I bring all my out-of-town friends'," he said. "And we hear West County grandmothers say, 'I haven't been downtown in 10 years, but I've had my grandchildren down to Citygarden five times already'."

The sculpture garden's popularity, say supporters, has helped revitalize downtown.

"Perhaps you've noticed, there are more people out and about downtown," said Wagman. "We'd like to believe we're part of the reason. In general, we believe it's made people more excited about downtown and about what can be."

"Citygarden is an incredible asset to St. Louis," said Mayor Francis Slay. "I'm sure tens of thousands of St. Louisans -- young and old -- have had a chance to experience art in the most accessible way possible. Children have played in the fountain, teens have taken cell pictures of a giant white rabbit, and downtown residents have gotten a great addition to their backyard."

Indeed, in general, the sculptures have fared quite well, with some of the more popular ones needing to be rewaxed. Last summer some areas were re-sod.

In the year it's been open, Wagman says, the most striking changes have been to the garden.

"As the garden's trees and plantings have matured, they've become more lush," he said. "Related to that, we've found that not only people like Citygarden -- rabbits like it, too. So we've changed out a few of the plantings. That was especially true in the rain gardens, where they took advantage of the privacy afforded by the grasses to nibble away at some of the flowers."

And, despite the rainy spring, "the special soils and rain gardens have handled the precipitation as planned," said Wagman. "They soak up the rain like a sponge."

Citygarden has earned its reputation as an oasis in part because of its popular water features. In the sticky St. Louis summer heat, children and adults alike can be found splashing through one of the most popular exhibits, the spray plaza.

On a recent hot St. Louis afternoon, plenty of people were enjoying the water features, the sculptures or even a quiet bench to sit. All had something positive to say.

Amanda Thoron, of Edwardsville, was playing with her six children in the spray plaza, "We love it," she said. "It's a good way to get into the city and have lots of fun."

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Nadia Wilson, a child-care provider with Love, Joy, and Success Child Care, said Citygarden was the children's favorite field trip every week, especially with all the fun water features. Wilson, her coworker Illecia Ritllifl, and more than 20 children ranging from 4 to 15 -- all outfitted in bathing suits -- go every Monday and Wednesday to enjoy the fountains and water. The small wading pool with a waterfall is a particular draw for her children. As she says, "Who can't stand in three feet of water?"

One of the youths splashing about in the water, 10-year-old Sean Price, said, "It's fun because every time you come here you see a lot of people, and it's a big place. There's a whole bunch of water [for when] it's hot."

Fifteen-year-old Tyron Shelton seconded his buddy's enthusiasm, saying, "It's fun and you know a bunch of people. When you leave here, you make a lot of friends."

Thirteen-year-old Terrica Washington had a slightly different take on Citygarden: "I like the Citygarden because it's fun, and it's a safe place to play."

Monika Bowles, whose three children were playing in the Eros Bendato, the bandaged head, by Igor Mitoraj, commented on how accessible it is. "The kids love to come here. You can't usually climb on different sculptures and stuff. It's different than going to a regular pool."

Kelly Garrett of Troy, Ill., tries to take her kids with a few moms and their kids somewhere fun every week. In her first visit to Citygarden last week, she said she wished Citygarden would have been around when she worked downtown so she could have eaten lunch there.

Vickie Canler, a mom with Garrett, said, "We want to come back at night." That's when colored lights give the spray plaza a whole new look.

Ralph Blakely from south St. Louis said he found Citygarden for the first time a week ago. "It's a cool place to read a book and feel the city."

The response to Citygarden has been gratifying. "Nothing in the garden is there is by accident; every square inch has been planned and considered," said Wagman. "The response, on the other hand, could not have been predicted."

Lauren Weber, a student at Georgetown University, is an intern at the Beacon.

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