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Commentary: Don't miss this chance to make the Arch better

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial commemorates the settlement of the west and distills that epic story into a single iconic symbol -- the Gateway Arch. Conceived in 1933, the Memorial began with a question: What should the city do about 40 blocks of historic riverfront buildings that were mostly vacant and deteriorating? The answer was obvious: commemorate all the history that happened in those buildings, history that fundamentally shaped our nation in the 19th century.

Throughout that century, the entire country was preoccupied with the settlement of the west. And when the task was completed, stories and legends about that achievement became a defining feature of our national identity. At first, those stories and legends were told in written and spoken words. But the 20th century brought vast changes in technologies for communication -- in how we re-tell the stories from our past. However, despite all these changes -- radio, television, the internet -- names such as Daniel Boone, Jesse James and Lewis and Clark remain iconic.

Now most of the 21st century lies ahead of us. Because of all those technological changes, individual horizons are rapidly expanding beyond our own towns, cities and country. On a daily basis, what happens everywhere on the globe is becoming increasingly real to each of us. Does this mean that famous names from 19th century American history will soon fade from memory?

Just the opposite. The more technology erases boundaries between nations -- thus weakening national identity -- the more people reach back into their history to understand more firmly who they are. Witness the exploding national interest in genealogy and historical re-enactments.

At this moment here in St. Louis, we have a remarkable opportunity to tap into this exploding interest in history. The international design competition for the Gateway Arch grounds and vicinity is the key. The competition has attracted the world's best architects, urban planners, landscape designers and artists. As you read these words, five competing teams of designers are finalizing their submittals for an Aug. 12 deadline. Then, on Aug. 17 those submittals will go on display for public review and comment.

When the competition was announced on Dec. 8 last year, it called on participants to meet 10 design goals such as "Weave connections and transitions from the city and the Arch grounds to the river" and "create attractions to promote extended visitation to the Arch, the City and the River." Perhaps the most important of the 10 goals was "Reinvigorate the mission to tell the story of St. Louis as the gateway to national expansion."

Way back in 1933, St. Louis decided to "commemorate (our) role in the westward expansion of the United States during the 19th century." We did so by clearing the riverfront and creating the first urban national park. In setting out to tell that story -- and the riverfront's pivotal role at the story's center stage -- St. Louis took on a two-part challenge. The first part was to lay out the story's details; the second was to synthesize all those details into an overarching theme.

The Arch as an encompassing symbol has succeeded beyond anyone's dreams. However, with the exception of Lewis and Clark's expedition and the Dred Scott case, the details of the story remain largely untold. And most of the buildings that embodied those details are long gone.

The result is that visitors are unlikely to take away from the Memorial any compelling sense of a coherent story -- of unfolding history, chapters in sequence, building one upon the other until they reach the climax of overall meaning that is captured in the Arch itself. A sense of having truly witnessed a foundational story is what is missing from the Memorial experience.

The competition -- "Framing a Modern Masterpiece" -- provides the best opportunity since 1939, when demolition of the riverfront began, to fill that gap.

Do not, repeat, do not let this moment pass without your personal participation. Get yourself down to the special exhibitions gallery under the Arch during the public comment period -- the week of Aug. 17 to Aug. 23 -- and study the designs, think carefully about them and start writing your comments.

When you write down your ideas, keep in mind the original purpose of the Memorial.

Rick Rosen is a former urban planner.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.