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An urban bicycle journey serves up delights and questions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 25, 2012 - If the weather cooperates, I'll spend one Memorial Day weekend morning off on my bicycle, riding with a group of friends and acquaintances who get together to pedal from St. Louis County to various destinations in the city. Last weekend, for example, we headed for the farmers' market in Tower Grove Park. This week the plan is to head for the Riverfront Trail, which we'll pick up at about a mile north of the Gateway Arch.

One stop we often make on our weekend outings is Citygarden, the two-block-long urban design masterwork now maturing on the Gateway Mall. Its boundaries are Market, Chestnut, Eighth and Tenth streets, but its pleasures challenge the boundaries of the grid, simply because they form memories that remain with you long after you've left downtown and have gone home. With its dancing waters and frolicking lights, its outdoor gallery of contemporary works of art, its extraordinary plantings and welcoming pathways, it serves as the architect of experience, a place of wonder difficult to describe but quite palpable in the moment when you cross a street and enter into it.

Friday, a denizen of Citygarden called with the news that -- along with passersby, downtown office workers, kids showing their parents how to have fun, dog walkers, lollygaggers and so forth, -- a couple of mallards had discovered Citygarden's watery resources and had landed in the pool adjacent to Joe's Chili Bowl, the park's resident restaurant. There's no telling how long the ducks will remain, but I'll encourage the bike-riders to detour once again to Citygarden and, if the ducks are there, to give them a honk.

This is a bona fide urban experience, a visit to Citygarden. And reading this, you might contend my observations about it and about the city in general are washed with a rather tacky coat of boosterism. Perhaps that is so. I love cities, and I love St. Louis. And while I am not indifferent to the joys of a weekend in the country, I prefer environments of masonry because I know it is in cities that civilizations were born and nourished and continue to be. I am not unaware of problems and inequities.

Along with the pleasures of cycling and getting a little exercise and some fresh air, I proselytize with the intention of providing my friends a sense of the pleasures presented to us by our city, its resources, its value. At the same time, I want to acquaint them with our problems and challenges, with the hope that we all will work to address them.

Citygarden is a good place to cast an urban spell. In its three-year history, the sculpture park has received national attention for its humane pleasures as well as prestigious awards recognizing the dynamism of its planning and execution. The real test, however, is how folks at home regard such a development, and the answer to that is, generally I believe, with enthusiasm. Oh, and another thing. There sometimes is also an astonishment experienced by those who suffer from a regional malady, a lack of self-esteem, an unspoken belief that if it's born in St. Louis it really can't be very good. In all seasons and in all kinds of weather, Citygarden is involving and one of the best places I know to recharge a run-down sense of pride in our region.

From Citygarden, the plan is to head east, down toward the magnificence of the Gateway Arch, an amazing resource, now in the early stages of an ambitious renewal and revitalization. From that neighborhood, we'll continue on to the Riverfront Trail, picking it up just north of the magnificent old Union Electric power plant, and continuing on it to Branch Street.

From there, we'll ride west through the neighborhoods of Old North St. Louis, with Crown Candy Kitchen -- the ice cream parlor that served to save a neighborhood -- as our destination.

Crown Candy, the Arch, Citygarden -- all are reasons to be proud of our region and to cheer its potential. But as is true of so many human journeys, literal and existential, the urban road is bumpy and the vistas are complex, sometimes serving to delight, all too often urging us to look away, either in fear or anger or regret or impotence. St. Louis is no exception.

In a journey through the north side of the city, only the rosiest of colored glasses could conceal the epidemic of neglect and decay eating away at human and material resources. A glaring example is the clearance of a village of homeless people that evolved beside the Mississippi River in astonishing proximity to downtown. Where have all those people gone?

As the ride might continue, the blank stares of once proud buildings remind us of the effects of a careless, throw-away culture, always on the go, gobbling up resources as it proceeds to places of imagined peace and security.

Memories can be made by taking rides such as this one, rolling out on a Memorial Day weekend. What better way could there be to see both miracles such as Citygarden (and its visit by a couple of on-the-wing ducks) and the transcendent beauty of the Arch, and to understand they exist in the same community as the residues of wastefulness and indifference to poverty and suffering.

My hope is we all will take a ride this weekend, on a bike or some other conveyance, and to create Memorial Day weekend memories neither dimmed by pollyannaism or suffocated by depair, but constructions of realism, memories that acknowledge victories and failures, memories not passive but motivational, memories that serve to inspire.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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