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Beacon blog: Rolling along the river; crossing boundaries

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 9, 2010 - I’ve made it my personal business in the past year or so to introduce some of my students at Washington U. as well as some St. Louis County friends to the terra incognita that stretches east from Skinker Boulevard to the Mississippi River and beyond. Delight in cycling enlivens these adventures, but some pedagogical wheels are spinning too, responding to students’ and acquaintances’ lack of awareness of the deep and wide resources of the city of St. Louis.

On Saturday a small but intrepid group set off for a journey that began at the Danforth Campus just west of Skinker and made its way to Illinois. We pedaled through Citygarden and down to the grounds of the Arch, then north past the LEED platinum-green William Kerr Foundation building on O’Fallon Street, then – picking up Trailnet’s Riverfront Trail – we passed by the sprawling tent city that houses many of our homeless and dispossessed fellow human beings at the river’s edge. For some who ride bikes by here, this encounter is their first with the human effects of the world’s worsening economic tragedies.

When we got to Branch Street, we picked up the restored elevated railway trestle. It provides a grand approach to the bike lane on the south side of the McKinley Bridge. As we wheeled over to Illinois and peered down at the churning river’s majesty, I was transported by the powers of free association to thoughts of Samuel Clemens and “Life on the Mississippi” and “Huckleberry Finn,” but then more immediately and specifically to a play by Ron Powers I’d witnessed the night before at William Roth’s Gaslight Theater.

Powers lived here in the ‘60s, wrote for the afternoon paper and has become a Twain scholar. His play is part history, part imagination, and the production was quite moving, especially for someone who respects the audacity of dreams and the fragility of memory.

My hope here, however, is not to review of the play but, in best free-associative fashion, and with seriousness of purpose, to encourage you to rediscover St. Louis, your city, which is so much more than a bit player in a play about Mark Twain but is truly a heaving, churning, sweaty, enormously wealthy, poverty stricken, charming, conflicted, distressed, resplendent metropolis that at this moment has the muscle to rise from the seat of complacency it settled into in the last century, and to stand proudly again, with vigor and promise.

I don’t want to sound like Babbitt, spilling out platitudes and slogans that take us nowhere. But a few paragraphs back, I mentioned Citygarden, the Arch, the Riverfront Trail, the Kerr Foundation (which, in the interest of full disclosure, helps to bring you the Beacon), the tent city, the trestle, the McKinley Bridge bike lane, and St. Louis’ regional siblings in Illinois. All this adds up to progress and proclaims the possibility of a genuine rebirth. To wit:

Citygarden. In so many ways, defines urban vitality 24/365. If you haven’t been, you should. It’s required for active regional citizenship.

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The competition jury is out, literally, but it looks as if, one way or another, we are going to better connect the island of the Arch grounds to the mainland of St. Louis, and to improve our city exponentially.

Homelessness. Not a point of pride but a challenge to us all. We need to address the ills the recession visits upon us, and to look our homeless neighbors in the eye, rather than avoiding their gaze, and to listen to their stories.

Boundary Crossing. We should cross real and metaphorical rivers and consider how we can erase rather than emphasize differences and boundaries, such as Skinker Boulevard.

Having begun that work, we should reward ourselves some way. Our bike group did so on Saturday. Tossing caution into the blue and the gold of that resplendent morning, we wound our way through the shoals and rebirthings in North St. Louis and placed our orders at Crown Candy Kitchen. While we were there, I realized that Crown is so much greater than the sum of its B.L.T.s and fresh banana-malts parts. It is a model, and along with all the food and fun it dishes up, it also teaches profound lessons in resiliency, optimism and the will not only to survive but also to thrive.

There could be no better place than Crown to celebrate the complicated joys of urban life, and the pleasure of experiencing them from the saddle of a trusty bike.

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.