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Gem of a book shows off the city' jewel: Forest Park

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 23, 2008 -  About 130 years after Forest Park's June 1876 opening, enthusiasts of one of the city's most popular attractions can carry renderings of its jewels in their pockets.

Groups and cultural institutions devoted to making the park shine have collaborated to publish Forest Park, St. Louis (Scala 2007), a small book that features vertical and horizontal fold-out sections on the park's features, such as the Muny, the Science Center and the Zoo. Proceeds from Forest Park go to the Flora Conservancy, a volunteer group that works to maintain the park's arboreal aesthetics.

The colorful book opens with a panoramic spread of the park, showcasing its greenery, lakes and the dwarfing skyscrapers that fade into the horizon. The all-encompassing image inside the cover, which juxtaposes the park's Master Plan and blue sky with the city's skyline, sets the overall tone for what follows: While the book certainly exhibits the natural beauty of the park, each segment stresses the sociological context of its history.

Forest Park packs a hefty amount of information into its small, user-friendly format. The book explains that in 1993, via a public planning process, the city began developing a Master Plan to conserve the park's virtues while "satisfying the needs of the diverse group of park users." A partnership of the city and the nonprofit group Forest Park Forever helped complete the initial $86 million phase of the process by 2004. That work involved connecting the park's isolated lakes to form a sustainable water nexus.

"Forest Park is the soul of the city, and its survival is essential to the future of the St. Louis region," the book proclaims. Since the inauguration of the Master Plan, more than $130 million has been spent on restoring the park.

Cementing Forest Park's theme of cultural relevance, the book devotes one spread to park visitors. This section, entitled "People in the Park," is the personal favorite of Anabeth Weil, who helped compile the book and held leadership positions in groups that serve the park.

The Conservancy, formed in 1999, brought together people devoted to maintaining the Master Plan's landscape and educating volunteers and employees about horticultural techniques. Weil founded the Conservancy and served as Forest Park executive, under the city parks department.

The Conservancy made its mark in 2000 during the landscaping of Pagoda Circle outside the Muny. The original plan would have cost $650,000. But Weil, then Forest Park executive, said, "You're always a little worried at the public perception of spending that kind of money when you're a city employee," so she redesigned the plan, slashing the cost to $450,000. But Weil said that the process for the cheaper plan "lacked minority participation, which was against the city charter."

In a move that the project's donor and architect originally scoffed at, Weil completed the Pagoda Circle project for $150,000, using volunteers. Over four days, four groups of four volunteers planted more than 27,800 perennials.

"The success of the Pagoda Circle planting proved that these things can be done by volunteers," Weil said. "The donor definitely changed her attitude. She even came out and helped one day." The Conservancy now spreads its services throughout the city, working at Lafayette and Carondelet parks, among other places.

The Conservancy's use of volunteers to help maintain Forest Park may have led to an unintended consequence. Weil concedes that the transition may have jeopardized some paid park jobs, whose employees were transferred to different city departments. "Some jobs were lost. Not as a direct result but from budget cuts," Weil said. "I'm sure some of the rationalization was that they had some volunteers, but that was not the intent."

Weil retired from her full-time job in August 2007, but after six months of time off, she felt herself drawn back to the park that became the oasis of her long career. Weil works part-time for the Conservancy, with horticulturists and volunteers.

Proceeds of Forest Park will support the Conservancy's scholarship funds to educate parks employees and volunteers and purchase equipment supplies, and plant materials. Weil, listed as the working representative from the Conservancy and the Department of Parks Recreation and Forestry, lauds the collaboration between the Conservancy and the park's cultural institutions in creating the guide, which has become part of Washington University's recruiting materials.

What you need to know

Forest Park, St. Louis

8 pages (all of which fold out), hardback

Available at Park Institutions, City of St. Louis Park Department, and Jewel Box


Joy Resmovits, a senior at Barnard College, is an intern with the Beacon.