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Commentary: The Arch, the river and can-do spirit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 11, 2010 - You'd have to be an aesthetic Scrooge to disparage the beauty of the scene that swept before a group of us standing on the east bank of the Mississippi River Friday afternoon.

Furthermore, it would take a total political naif not to dig the enormous power of the group assembled to take questions from the press about the Gateway Arch.

That exquisite monument was radiant in the slanty late-autumnal light. Temperatures of unseasonable warmth warmed the crowd of officials and their interrogators, with Eero Saarinen's majestic sculpture as their background. Although one of the questions was churlish, the temper of the convocation otherwise was civil. It was as if most all of us were elevated by the audacious beauty of the view, and awed, as much as Americans allow ourselves to be, by the collective muscle of the officials standing together in the Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park in East St. Louis.

The subject at hand, after all, was how improvements would be made to connect the Gateway Arch grounds to neighbors separated from it so abrasively by unnatural barriers in Missouri.

Of equal consequence and increasingly evident necessity was a discussion of how we might transcend, rather than ignore or fear, the waters of the Mississippi and embrace East St. Louis in a way that would be beneficial to all, and would be, in its way, as socially revolutionary as it would be morally obligatory.

Michael Van Valkenburgh was among the group assembled for the press. His firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., Brooklyn, won the competition for the redesign of the Arch grounds. It is his firm's responsibility to bring a plan that in architectural, material and psychological strategies would erase the boundaries that separate the Arch from city and from the region.

MVVA was declared the winner in September, beating out four other teams. The proposal shown to the public in the summer was partly speculative in details, but more than likely, in essence anyway, is close to what will emerge next month. The promised delivery date is Jan. 24, four months to the day from the official announcement of MVVA's victory.

What is in the plan was less on the minds of the assembly than how the $300-plus million will be raised to pay for it. This has been a lingering question, and the difficulty of transcending that obstacle came home to me at a dinner party recently, when a local potentate who is drowning in InBev bucks, muttered about the ridiculousness of spending all this money on "landscaping," proclaiming as well that we cannot afford to do the Arch project anyway.

That "Why Do; Can't Afford" attitude emerges all too often in this region. Although it is part of the iconography of a not entirely legitimate caricature of the establishment, this attitude, when its ugly head is reared, can frighten off would-be supporters and contributors. As well, its appearance results in the erection of gigantic obstacles to the cultivation of a civic atmosphere redolent of possibility and of responsibility, rather than resignation and inferiority, and diminishes the chances of our restoring to the regional soul the buoyancy of optimism. Further, it deflects us from a commitment to inclusiveness, an inclusiveness that is a coalition of social, economic and equitable characteristics.

Tom Bradley, the superintendent of the Arch; Mayor Francis Slay; Missouri History Museum chief Robert Archibald; lawyer Walter Metcalfe Jr.; and others have spent years mulling over the problem of the isolation, in its many manifestations, of the Arch from the city and the bi-state region.

The Malcolm Martin mini-pugwash demonstrated that those leaders are not mulling this over in regional isolation. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth L. Salazar has already enthusiastically endorsed the plan and has pledged support for it. He spoke first Friday afternoon, and officials who provided ringing, sometimes lyrical endorsements of the two states plan of their own followed his re-endorsement.

St. Louis Mayor Slay and his East St. Louis counterpart, Alvin L. Parks, spoke; so did U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Secretary of Transportation Raymond H. LaHood. Salazar, as interior secretary, is the government official ultimately responsible for the health of all national parks, including the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the full given name of the Arch and its environs.

The words they used were noble words: legacy, heritage, transformative, inclusive. Parks was the most eloquent of them all. He spoke of the necessity of thinking of the Mississippi River not as a wall of water but as a ribbon that binds together the cities, counties and states of the region.

To push the ribbon metaphor further, something resembling the creation of a well-tied-together package seemed nascent on Friday afternoon. If it holds, this binding together of art, nature and raw political clout would create the hopeful potential of success.

While for some the collective result would look like a miracle, it would be, in fact, more substantial: a project of enormous proportions and equally enormous benefits. And it would have been accomplished not by alchemy, but as a result of industry, ingenuity and talent, and through an attendant revival in the region of an attraction to the exhilaration of risk, rather than an aversion to it.

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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