06.10.10

32 Hours in St. Louis

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:47 pm by Benjamin Ross

Quick, without checking Wikipedia, what was the largest American city outside of New York and Philadelphia in 1870?  How many of you guessed St. Louis?….(I had to check Wikipedia).  For much of the middle of the Nineteenth Century, St. Louis was THE city of the West (now called the Midwest).  While its stature has slipped in recent decades and most of the population and wealth have left the urban core, St. Louis still has a rich history and culture.  It’s also where my mother spent a good chunk of her childhood, and me, many a Thanksgiving dinner.  So it was that I found myself on an impromptu trip to in the Gateway City two weekends ago (don’t worry, everybody is ok).  I was only in town for a day and a half, but oustside of family time I was able to get some siteseeing accomplished.

I arrived on MegaBus at Union Station which was the largest and busiest rail terminal in the world when it was built in the 1890s. Union Station is actually no longer a rail station per se, the Grand Hall (above) having been converted to a hotel lobby and the rest of the station now functioning as a shopping center.  It does have a connection to the MetroLink light rail system, but long distance trains are now all routed through the Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center a block away.
From Union Station I walked directly east on Market Street towards the Mississippi River.
Like my hometown of Kansas City, St. Louis is subject to good ol’ Midwestern summer heat and humidity. If I hadn’t had my camera and laptop on me, I probably would have jumped in too.
This is what much of St. Louis’ downtown looks like.  Sporadic high rises, lots of parking lots, not much urban density.
The Gateway Arch, St. Louis’ most famous landmark, is located in a park right right along the River with downtown behind.
In terms of architectural achievements, the Arch has to be one of the few completely non-utilitarian projects to make the “greatest hits” lists.  (Even the pyramids served as tombs, right?)
Most of my childhood trips to the Gateway City had centered on Chesterfield (St. Louis’ prototypical megaburb) with intermittant trips to Ted Drewe’s Frozen Custard in the city.  This was my first time actually seeing the Arch from up close, and it blew me away.  Visitors can take a capsule up to the top, but being that it was Memorial Day weekend I wasn’t about to sacrifice my entire afternoon waiting in line.
Directly across from the Arch is the Old St. Louis Courthouse, site of the famous Dred Scott case.
From the Arch, I wandered north to LeClede’s Landing.  Here’s another downtown shot along the way.
The St. Louis metro area spills over the River into Illinois.  For purpose of compariosn East St. Louis, IL is St. Louis’ version of Newark.
The two cities are linked by various modes of transportation, including this doouble-decker bridge, with automobile traffic above and the MetroLink light rail below.
MetroLink is one of the country’s younger transit systems having opened in 1993, and overall I was impressed.  While coverage is not expansive enough to make car ownership unnecessary, the system does reach the many of St. Louis’ (and inner suburbs’) main points of interest, including Downtown, the Loop, and University City, making it ideal for tourists wanting to explore the city.

The system is called “MetroLink” because it links St. Louis and vicinity with East St. Louis and surrounding towns on the Illinois side.  I took the train all the way to its eastern terminus, and was surprised to find that it reaches all the way into the country.  For the last fifteen minutes of the ride before reaching Scott Air Force Base, I was literally passing crop fields out the window.

The MetroLink also provides convenient access to the new Busch Stadium.
For a pristine vantage point of the downtown skyline, step off MetroLink at the East Riverfront stop and look out from the south platform.
Since my exploration time was limited, I only had the chance to explore one residential neighborhood and I chose Soulard.  One of St. Louis’ oldest neighborhoods, Soulard is located just south of downtown, and was originally settled by the French.
The word “soûlard” is French for “drunkard,” and appropriately so as Soulard is home to many of St. Louis’ trendy watering holes.  Accordingly much of the neighborhood is inhabited by the coveted “young professional” demographic.
With only two short afternoons worth of free time and less than half a day to plan my trip, I didn’t get to see as much of St. Louis as I would have wanted.  While its place among the ranks of major urban centers has diminished over the decades, St. Louis still has well more than a weekend’s worth of sites to see.  And as long as Megabus continues to provide cheap, regular service from Chicago, I’m sure I’ll be back again in the not too distant future.

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