Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

The old Chain of Rocks Bridge is located near the northern tip of St. Louis.  It's span of the Mississippi River measures just over one mile and it connects the Riverview Neighborhood of St. Louis to the manmade Chouteau Island, part of the city of Madison in Illinois.

The bridge was built by a private venture for ~$2.5M and opened to vehicular traffic in 1929 (source).  The bridge company relied on tolls to operate the bridge which once carried the legendary Route 66, bypassing the Mother Road from its former route directly through the southern part of downtown St. Louis south on the MacArthur Bridge. A federal mandate stripped the company of the ability to charge tolls and the butt-ugly, boring, staid, New Chain of Rocks bridge (opened to traffic in 1966) immediately to the north.  This was the death-knell for the old Chain of Rocks bridge, closing in 1968.

Thankfully, kismet was on the side of the bridge and my favorite city's history. The bridge was nearly destroyed by the Feds but was spared due to luck and circumstance:
"The bridge deteriorated, and during the 1970s, Army demolition teams considered blowing it up just for practice.  In 1975, demolition seemed eminent.  Fortunately for the bridge, a bad market saved the day.  The value of scrap steel plummeted, making demolition no longer profitable.  At that point, the Chain of Rocks Bridge entered 20 years of bridge limbo--too expensive to tear down, too narrow and outdated to carry modern vehicles." (source)
This is one of three bridges you can walk across in St. Louis, the majestic Eads bridge downtown and the McKinley Bridge are the other ones.  Sure, they have better views of Downtown St. Louis, but the Chain of Rocks is my favorite for walking because it is pedestrian only, whereas Eads carries vehicles and Metrolink and McKinley carries cars.  It gives the bridge a peaceful experience like no other and it is unique for other reasons.

First, a walk across this bridge affords the best views of the Mississippi River itself with muddy water rushing over a shoal of limestone rocks for which the bridge takes its name just to the south.  This forms raging rapids that can easily be seen and heard from the bridge's deck.  It is a lesson in the power of the river and a reminder of why recreational boats and yachts are limited on this stretch of the Mississippi and why locks were engineered for barge passage.

Secondly, there are distant views of downtown St. Louis and the Gateway Arch reminding you that no matter whether you are in the northernmost, southernmost or westernmost edge of the city, you can still find a view of the of cities greatest mid-century modern sculpture.  And then of course, you have unbeatable views of the two majestic mini-castle water intakes.  These are still a functioning part of the St. Louis waterworks.  The site was selected in 1865, the year the Civil War ended.  The water plant commenced operations in 1895 and when a filtration system was added in 1915 it was the largest water filtration water plant in the world.  St. Louis was built to be great.

Intake Tower #1 (1894)

Intake Tower #2 (1915)

Thirdly, this bridge was featured (among many other St. Louis spots) in the 1981 movie Escape from New York starring Kurt Russell and featuring one of my favorites, Harry Dean Stanton.  It is storied that director John Carpenter purchased the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St Louis for $1 from the government and then returned it to them for the same amount after filming was completed (source).  What do you do when an American city doesn't look post-apocalyptic enough and it's the early 1980s?  Well, you come to St. Louis.  And for that I love the Chain of Rocks even more for documenting the dirty history of abandonment we have in St. Louis. 

Fourth, the bridge mirrors the history of the entire city of St. Louis especially that of the near south up through all of north St. Louis.  The worst days, the 1970s-1990s were ripe with disinvestment, abandonment, suburban pressures, school closures, violence, decay, racial upheaval and finally near collapse on the verge of erasure.  Gladly, the bridge was spared despite some pretty terrible behavior in the 1970s - 1990s.  There was an amusement park at the foot of the bridge from 1927 to 1977 called the Chain of Rocks Fun Fair Park.

Thanks to the time and efforts of YouTube user "TheMrMac45", photos of the Chain of Rocks Fun Fair Park are displayed in his brief video on the frame and take in that sweet Falstaff concession stand:

Also watch this video to see footage and reporting of the auction of the rides and other assets at the shuttering of the park in 1977:

As stated in that video by the late park owners, 1971 was really the last good year the park had. Six Flags opening in the suburbs and rowdy vandals took the park down.

The negativity reached its most horrifying conclusion in 1991 with the gruesome rape and double murder of sisters Robin and Julie Kerry at the hands of Marlin Gray who was quoted by witnesses and the prosecution as saying "he felt like hurting somebody".  He was convicted and executed by the state of Missouri in 2005.

This mixture of personal emotions and understanding and dreaming of a past I was not around to see fill my head every time I walk across this bridge.

Walking up the approach on the Missouri side, it is hard to image, with a mere width of 24 feet, that there were two lanes of traffic.  You don't really get how dangerous that must have been unless you remember driving the bridge yourself, or until you walk it and imaging that tight squeeze between cars and of course the 22 degree band in the middle of the bridge.  I've never driven a bridge in the U.S. with a bend like that.  Walking it helps you relive the past.

Slow down!!! Turn left!!!

Your eyes are easily trained to look up and take in the rusty girders or down at the powerful, swirling river below:

There are momentos of the Route 66 era to catch your attention, as well:

photo credit: Built St. Louis

But the part of the bridge's history that is right beneath your feet is the one that I am most fascinated by. It is that of the gritty, dirty, fun and dangerous days of the 1970s-1980s when Chain of Rocks was closed to all but those willing to walk it...the amusement park was still there and shuttered and like a Scooby Doo set.  The bridge was hulking and dark and you could climb down its manholes to the pier.

It is obvious that when the bridge closed, it became a spot for kids to hangout and party, drink, smoke and listen to music a la 1970s/1980s fashion.  The remnants of this era of the bridge are still there, but are fading fast as time marches on and the elements and repairs take their toll on the signs of the times.

I'm not so naive as to think this was all just good ole teenage fun a la Richard Linklater's version of the 1970s in 1993's Dazed and Confused.

But if you read the fading grafitti you can get a sense of the times.  I don't think the 1970's and 1980's teenage grafitti will be as cherished by those in charge and responsible for the bridge's future, nor the general population, as it is by me, a child of the 1970s and a former K-SHE real rocker...but it is this history that sparks my interest and what I want to capture and add for future generations to see.  This is the part of the historic timeline of the bridge that will likely be lost...but at least there will be photos and memories.  Here's my tribute to the fading momentos of wasted days and wasted nights on the bridge:

 Head For The Mountains

 Just Say Yes

 Bet I can throw a rock and...

 Simple and Plain

 Satan Pentagram (later "sucks" was added below SATAN)

 Curt and Linda 4-Life

  Volkswagon symbol with "Bad Bug"

 Remnants of Monty Python

 Yo Adrian

There was a time when K-SHE 95 was insanely cool.  It has since been neutered but it used to mean something.

For those that like the weird, 1970s/80s St. Louis as much as I, watch the late, legendary Pete Parisi on his World Wide Magazine show strolling across the bridge.  You can see some of the exact graffiti that still exists, but Trailnet and Madison have cleaned and painted over most of it (with the best of intentions).

The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and Trailnet has had a most positive hand in its future and maintenance.  It is currently owned by the city of Madison, Illinois and they are good and kind owners, as they help host "eagle days" and other events inviting the public to enjoy the bald eagle populations that are in great numbers on the Mississippi.

I have hope that as the bridge ages and improves over the years it will be maintained by Trailnet and historical societies such as 'Route 66'.  The Old Chain of Rocks, unlike the New Chain of Rocks bridge is a constant reminder of American history good and bad and St. Louis' place as a great American city.

Walk it, ride it, enjoy it and most of all, take in the fading past of when Moxy, April Wine and Molly Hatchet were on the airwaves.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

St. Louis City Park Website

The thing that started me on a personal quest back in 2009 to visit each and every neighborhood in St. Louis and share my findings on this blog was the official St. Louis Website.

Being an admirer of maps, I kept looking at the bird's eye view of St. Louis thinking of all the places I'd never been or never heard of.  

I then starting poking around the city website a bit more as I was researching names and other places in the city.  The parks too began to intrigued me, as the city website had a comprehensive list of all the parks.  

Per the city website, there are 111 parks in St. Louis covering ~3,250  I hadn't set foot in most of these parks, so in order to complete my personal goal of traversing every part of this city that I love, I knew what had to be done.  111 more blog posts were in my future.

I recently read an interview with guitarist Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth in the Guardian. A comment from Moore struck me and I couldn't agree more. The interviewer was asking him about his recent move from Connecticut to the UK. Moore explained that he is trying to get to know his new adopted home by digging into the history of his new home and said:  

"You should know where you live. I find that to be a certain responsibility.”

I couldn't agree more, and I am now in the habit of exploring my city, so I decided to go back to the city website and start understanding the elaborate parks of St. Louis. 

We are lucky to have all this green space.  The city doesn't necessarily "sell it" as a benefit of STL city living.  The park information on the city website was sparse at best and straight up erroneous at worst.  There is a lot of room for improvement in helping people understand what parks offer and where they exist.

Some parks listed might not even seem like parks at all, rather fields of mowed grass...with nothing to mark it or identify it as a city park.  Some parks are trashed, some are stunningly beautiful.  The park's department doesn't have a master plan to improve the park system.  It is done piecemeal.  It is up to the neighborhood to decide what it wants its parks to be.  The good side of that is if you organize and collaborate, you can have local control and tremendous influence on what your neighborhood parks are and can be.  The downside is that not all parks are cared for or funded equally.  The parks in the neighborhoods where the people care the least have parks that reflect that lack of care and sweat equity.  It's the St. Louis way.

I was able to build a personal perspective on what works and what doesn't.  Parks can be the beacon or centerpiece of a neighborhood, or they can be the worst eyesore and gathering place/dumping ground for city problems.  The parks range the full gamut and are as honest a representation of the current state of St. Louis as any.

I had countless conversations with people in the parks, I love the interactions that these visits bring.  The vast majority of my visits were positive and in some cases memorable and inspirational.  It is addictive talking to strangers about their place and part in St. Louis.  I was surprised how important some of our parks are to some people, especially older folks and fishermen.  The parks are part of their weekly routines.  It is a thing of beauty. 

The interactions didn't end there.

Another fringe benefit of this project was crossing paths with other like-minded city park lovers.  Of those, I was able to meet Sonia Emmons, Liz Kramer, Nick Speiser, Claire Wolff and Jeff Wunrow.

Jeff vowed to visit each park, take three photos and post to his Facebook page...111 parks in 111 days!  The others took a social approach to their project while exploring and documenting each park.  They are logging their adventures on their Park Picnic Project site described as "An ongoing project to visit, picnic in, and discuss every park in the City of St. Louis." is wonderful, enlightening and down right fun reading.  

Click HERE for an example from one of their park visits: Lyon Park; or read below to get a feel for the format.
Lyon Park: Picnic #9 
Date: Sunday, June 13th, 2014 
Who was there: Nick, Liz, Claire, Chris 
What was consumed: Drink: Beer, water; Food: Bomb pops, homemade hummus & dip, veggies 
Park assessment: This was one of our most heavily-used parks that didn’t have an event, surprisingly. There’s very little residential nearby, with just a handful of residences on the right side of highway 55. Most people seemed to come in cars, including two dog walkers and a couple playing catch on the ball diamond. A group of teenagers briefly walked through the park from down Broadway, and seemed to head towards the riverfront. The rolling hills were quite lovely, and the walking path was actually a little challenging with all the ups and downs. The fact that there were both ball fields and restrooms made it very appealing — it’s not a huge park but there are a lot of different activities that can be facilitated, including being an obsessive Civil War buff, and observing the activities of the Department of Defense. 
Pertinent research and facts: This is by far the most historically interesting park we have been to so far. Check out the history of the St. Louis Arsenal (and therefore the surrounding area) on wikipedia (we’re not historians here, ok!), plus the history of the AB Brewery (must pretend to be 21 to enter), and most importantly, the incredible story of a historical hero: Nathaniel Lyon (State Historical Society of Missouri and The Civil War Trust).  
Links to other reviews and descriptions: As always, Mark Groth! Also, tour of Lyon Park from the Civil War Muse. 
Picnic assessment: How is it possible that we picnic so often when it sprinkles on us? We were on a nice hill until the rain started to come down, so we relocated under a tree. All around delicious snacks and treats, and we had two picnic blankets for four people, so we were in great shape for space.  
Discrepancies with the city’s info: This park is most definitely not in Benton Park. It’s probably used by people who live in the Benton Park neighborhood, but it’s certainly in Kosciusko (or maybe you could say Soulard if you don’t want to think about people being in Kosciusko).  
Park recommendations:  Our biggest concern for this park is the impending relocation of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency's (NGA) relocation. As one of our parkers was formerly an NGA employee, we had a little discussion about the NGA and their activities. There is quite a bit of debate going on about where and how NGA should relocate, but when the relocation happens, both the historic arsenal site and Lyon park will likely be reconsidered completely. So — we hope that this park can continue to be used and the memory of Lyon preserved in some way, and that a solution that is good for the region is worked out! 
Nappability: On Sunday afternoon, this is a lovely napping park, as it’s quiet, smells a little like beer, and has some nice nooks and crannies for napping. 
Nearby features: As previously mentioned, AB, the Arsenal, and if you crane your neck, the river itself. 
Access: There was a really consistent bus running by on a Sunday: the #30, which lets out just in front of the Arsenal and therefore in front of the park. The #40 is also available on the west side of the park by AB. Walking access was poor, since you have to cross Broadway to get to the park from basically anywhere that’s not the river. There were bike racks, but it seems like it would be relatively unpleasant to bike to this park, given the speeds on Broadway in this section.
Awesome...and the photos are great too.  Note one section of their post called "Discrepancies with the city's info"...this is something I experienced as well...and hence the point of this blog post.

The city reached out to us to collaborate on the city parks website.

It was another one of those St. Louis big city/small town moments that I've come to cherish over the years.  If you have like interests, you will eventually cross paths; you will have the opportunity DO something greater than what you can accomplish on your own.  This is a strength of St. Louis.

Enter Cari Cleeland, the City of St. Louis Web Content Specialist/Writer.  She was tasked with updating the park data on the city website and asked to set up time to meet and discuss possible collaborations. 

We met at Fritanga in McKinely Heights, noshed on fried plantains, and discussed the project.  Cari explained that she wanted to update the park data, locations, maps, resources and amenities...including photos.  She wanted to know what info was inaccurate.  She asked us for feedback on what content to add.  We spoke about inconsistencies, and shared stories on our visits.  It was healthy, productive and fun.  I was happy to see everyone offer their photos, experience and knowledge for strings attached...the greater good.  It bodes well that the city has reached out to citizens and bloggers to help get the good word out on our wonderful city.  Cari has a tremendous amount of energy and got the park pages updated beautifully with new photos and accurate information.  It is an incredible refresh.  You have to check it out.

Congrats to the city, congrats to Ms. Cleeland, congrats to my fellow park explorers.  This city is getting better day by day, and it feels good to be part of the positive energy.

Thank you.

So, want to see the major upgrades to the city park directory?  

Click here to view an example of Berra Park on the Hill.  

If you like those changes as much as I do, more good news is on the horizon.  The pages for each of the 79 neighborhoods will be upgraded as well by Cari in the near future.  She will be adding refreshed content and photo galleries to help people see how beautiful this city really is...maybe the next generation of STL explorers will be inspired to start their own adventures!

The next chapter of this story is related to Forest Park, my final park profile....stay tuned.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fox Park

Fox Park is one of 111 St. Louis parks.  The 2.69 acre park was placed into ordinance in 1917 and is located in the Fox Park neighborhood.

The park is located just south and east of the intersection of California and Shenandoah Avenues:

The park has seen much investment and hard work over the years.  There is an active park committee dedicated to improving the park.  This used to be not such a nice place, it is getting better year after year as more eyes/ears and sweat equity are directed toward the park, the center of this great neighborhood.

In full disclosure, I was a co-chair of the park committee for ~3 years, so I have a lot of experience with this park.  You can read all about my adventures and thoughts from February, 2013.

For the purpose of this post, and to remain consistent with the other 110 or so park profiles, I'll keep this focused on the "passer-by" method of documenting the park.  What would you see if you visited for the first commentary.

So, Fox Park has the only Cardinals Care baseball field in South City.  There are a total of 18 Cardinals Care fields throughout the two-state Metropolitan region.  Ten are in the suburbs and small towns, five in North City, two in Forest Park and then Fox Park.

There is also a basketball court and playground.

The brick park pavilion is probably the centerpiece of the park.  There is a nice "general field" for soccer, etc near the California side.

There are some nicely landscaped areas and new trees planted to provide some definition to the different areas of the park.

A couple things I will say is that there is a planned "spray pad" section just south of the pavilion that should break ground any day now.  There is also a group of volunteers raising money and resources for a much needed dog park.

The recent opening of the Purple Martin, a neighborhood bistro, has activated a critical corner right across from the park.

The park is in good hands, the neighbors have invested a lot of time and effort on making the park a nice place.