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Reading green: New book celebrates history and beauty of St. Louis city and county parks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 25, 2012 -  It’s Memorial Day weekend, the perfect time for a healthful walk through Francis Park in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood.

Or, rest a spell and ponder the Mississippi River flowing by Bellerive Park in Carondelet -- or picnic under an artful gazebo at Tower Grove Park.

You could also row, row, row your boat at Creve Coeur Park, catch a fish at Veterans Memorial Park in north St. Louis County, or photograph a rainbow of butterflies at Faust Park in Chesterfield.

“St. Louis Parks,”a new coffee table book that celebrates both the beauty and the history of city and county parks, might just inspire you to explore some wondrous green spaces this summer.

Did you know, for example, that the city has more than 100 parks, covering a total of 3,250 acres? Or that Creve Coeur was the first park presented to St. Louis County -- as a war memorial in 1945? At 2,000 acres, Creve Coeur is larger than the 1,400-acre Forest Park.

“St. Louis Parks” (Reedy Press, 164 pages, $35) features stunning photography by freelance photographer Mark Scott Abeln and Steve Tiemann, a county park ranger. The text is by NiNi Harris, who has written extensively about St. Louis history and architecture, and Esley Hamilton, historian and preservationist for the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation.

The book includes popular gathering places, such as Forest Park and Laumeier Park, but also some quieter, lesser-known spots, such as Willmore Park in St. Louis Hills and Bee Tree Park in the southeast corner of the county.

“The book shows a balance of activities and all seasons,’’ said Hamilton. “The range of parks -- both geographically and in terms of what they offer -- is very broad.”

Hamilton said that among his favorites of the lesser-known county parks is Fort Belle Fontaine at the far north end of Bellefontaine road, which offers breathtaking views of the Missouri River and Coldwater Creek. The park used to be owned by the city, and some of the original stonework built during the 1930s remains.

“It’s also extremely historic,” he said. “It was the site of the first U.S. military installation west of the Mississippi, and Lewis and Clark camped there.’’

In the book’s foreward, Peter Raven, president emeritus of Missouri Botanical Gardens, describes parks as “superb adornments of our modern cities, a mark of civilization at its best and most social.’’ As Raven and the authors point out, the legacy of parks can be traced to forward-thinking civic leaders who more than a century ago ensured that open spaces for clean air and recreation would always be accessible to Americans as the nation’s population shifted from an agrarian to an urban society.

While the book is a pleasant and relaxing read, there are several well-placed reminders that parks exist and survive because of public support. The introductory section on county parks, for example, notes that the county’s 2012 budget initially called for the permanent closure of 23 parks. Though the parks remain open, funding for the parks department was cut by 14 percent.

“We started this project two years ago, and we had no idea at that time that our parks were going to be coming under budget threats,” Hamilton said. “This is going to be a good reminder to people of what’s at stake.”

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.