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Cotton Belt mural could be welcome sign for new Mississippi River bridge

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2012 - If the new Mississippi River bridge were to open today, drivers would see a Missouri side defined by the long concrete face of flood wall and the hulking, rusted remains of old factories. But if a few St. Louisans have their way, a mural stretching across all 750 feet of the Cotton Belt Freight Depot facade will serve as a more vibrant welcome sign when the bridge actually opens in 2014.

The traffic from the bridge will transform what is an almost invisible piece of the landscape north of the Arch into a front door of St. Louis. The Freight Depot, adjacent to the Riverfront Trail entrance and former St. Louis tent cities, is the most prominent structure in the near-north riverfront area, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's a beautiful, private spot. You can go right down to the water and really feel why the city was built here," says one of the building's owners, Mark Schulte.

Helping him launch the painting project, which is still very much in its preliminary stages, is Tom Nagel, a recent Mizzou graduate working at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood Housein East St. Louis. Nagel is new to these sorts of projects, but he's been working to generate a strong supporting cast via social media and by giving tours to local creatives.

Since he was a kid, he's watched the pyrotechnics of St. Louis' 4th of July at the Rail Depot, glimpsing the fireworks through the cracks between buildings. Nagel says activity in the near-north riverfront isn't a rediscovery: it's giving an area of the city the love it deserves.

"We're trying to take people places where they don’t usually go. The city is the city; it’s not two halves."

The timing may be right. As Nagel, Schulte and his business partner Tim Tucker continue to kick around ideas, farther north at the Trestle Great Rivers Greenway is sending its own message about future development by painting the elevated railway facing I-70 an eye-catching splash of green in an industrial area somewhat devoid of color.

Indeed, Schulte sees himself as part of a community that has a chance to help remake the riverfront. Many of the properties in the area are in friendly, responsible hands, he says.

"Emerging collaboration or efforts for the most part seem to be working in harmony, if not always in coordination."

With the potential brought about by the bridge and other projects like FarmWorks, Schulte believes in the possibility of a mixed-use riverside district from water to highway.

Built in 1911, his building is still in good structural shape; it's set to again be the site of the grassroots Artica arts festival (Oct. 13 and 14). The Rail Depot served from 1913 to 1959 as a fixture on the Cotton Belt train line, linking Arkansas and Texas when the country was still ruled by rail. One of the ideas floated for the mural, above the building's snarling copper lions, is a huge pink cloud of cotton, a juxtaposition illustrating an area in transition, at once mindful of its past and provocative about its future.

Though the building is vacant now and pock-marked with colored scrawls of graffiti, the mural's proponents see that gritty chromatic artistry as a harbinger of things to come.