Well, I'm back from STL and I'll tell you one thing: It's no NYC. But I guess I should have suspected as much. Maybe it was my high expectations, but I left there feeling duped. The Arch! The Mississippi! Louis and Clark statues! Route 66! Budweiser! And the Bowling Hall of Fame! Yes, they are all there, but they might as well be here.
I've noticed a trend recently. From Easton Town Center to Legacy Village to the Warehouse District in Cleveland, to Akron, to St. Louis: in order to spruce up the place, they've all taken a page from Disney's book and remade their downtowns in the image of a simpler time. While I appreciate the charm of an outdoor village with cute shops, it kind of all feels soulless.
I suppose it's better than boarded up shops and cracked up streets. I'm sure all these places are the victims of "best practices." The city planners have all visited each other and said, "Hey! It works for Columbus, it will work here!" It's the same mentality that got us into the War: If democracy works for us, it will work for everyone. And we all know that was a big farce. We want the fast track to oil or tourists dollars or what's left of our disposable income. We don't care to take those best practices and have them custom made for the locality. No, that would require what we call "thinking." I guess, on the positive side, we're pretty good a mass production.
Don't get me wrong; I love my country. But we keep selling ourselves short. Rather than slowing down, taking a breath and sleeping on it, we slap what looks like it will work on top of a mess and hope for the best. And we repeat it everywhere we can. How else do you explain tax abatements?
I had dinner one night at a restaurant that was supposed to make me feel like I was in NYC. I visited the "Warehouse District" and I was supposed to feel like I was in the early 20th Century. Why can't I just go somewhere and feel like I was where I was? And that was somewhere special because it represented something and not because of some Sears & Robuck style smoke and mirrors? Only the eight of an inch that remains of Route 66 in this area made me feel like I was somewhere special.
We stopped at Ted Drewes Custard stand, which was busy and thriving. It also looked like it belonged on Route 66. And unlike the other Historic Sites on Route 66 that we passed, it was open and people from this day and age were spending some time together. It was sunny, people were happy. And everyone seemed to understand this was special. My pal Jeff and I were taking pictures of each other next to the route 66 sign and Ted Drewes. Some locals offered to get us both in the shot. They asked us where we were from and recommended their favorites.
We walked up to the menu posted on the side of the ice cream stand. An older gentleman was looking up, confounded. He was trying to find the price of a Sin Sundae so that he could figure out what he owed his friend. He asked us if we knew, but we didn't. We helped him find the price and tried to figure out what we wanted too.
We ended up with small sundaes, eaten out of a plastic St. Louis Cardinals ball cap. We ate quickly. lest the ice cream melt and, besides, we were anxiouse to head west on Route 66 for some kicks. I'm sure we must have taken a wrong turn. In fact, I'm surprised we didn't end up in Dale's backyard. But, before we knew it, we beheld the Arch off in the distance. We were headed back downtown.
It was here we gave up on St. Louis. We cried "uncle" and decided to cruise the street our hotel was on, Natural Bridge Road. We eventually found ourselves at the Breakaway Cafe, which was marvelously "local." There were even locals there, enjoying their meals. I had one of the local brews, Budweiser (prounounced Bud-wyz-er) and enjoyed one of the best hambergers I've ever eaten.
We waddled back to our white Hyundai and made our way home: Just this side of the Hollywood Hustler store on Natural Bridge Road. We slid into an extra wide parking spot at the hotel and entered through the side door, welcomed by a blast of cold air, hotel cleansers and chlorine. I now know exactly how the Tydee Bowl man feels when he punches in at work.
But, hey, St. Louis is a place with all the baggage of a midwest recovering manufacuting town and all the charm of southern humidity. I realize that "Warehouse Districts" are trying to make use of old buildings, and I appreciate that. I don't like the complete new "villages" or "town centers" that wipe away clean the local mom and pop stuff. Why not give mom and pop grants to spiff up their images instead? Why not use open lots for something more organic than a place to park? Why not add some sidewalks, too. Lots of people are walking these days, just like Jesus did.
I came home from St. Louis with my eyes open. If we're not careful, the powers that be will franchise America. And that would be great, if other nations were buying it. It would fund new ideas and a Madonna-like reinvention of this old broad we call our home land. But they're not buying it...or maybe they are. And what will we do with all that cash?