I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from July 2018, about visiting the Gateway Arch. Go Blues!
I am still not entirely convinced the Gateway Arch isn’t the tallest building in the world. I’m not sure there was a building in Mattoon taller than 100 feet — actually, there wasn’t — so the Arch, 630 feet into the sky, was just about as close to the stars as anything a little boy could imagine. That was how you always knew you were getting nearer to St. Louis and the baseball game coming in on I-70 West, when you could see the Arch appear in the distance, usually around Collinsville. My sister and I used to compete from the backseat to see who could spot it earlier. I couldn’t imagine anything higher in the sky.
It is truly amazing that the Gateway Arch exists. A massive public works project from the National Parks system that cost nearly $80 million in today’s money, it was built as a “suitable and permanent public memorial to the men who made possible the western territorial expansion of the United States.” The whole project took more than 30 years from conception to completion, a public monument meant to be more spiritual than practical. It was a simple and impossible construction, an absolutely crazy idea, a huge stainless steel arch right on the waterfront, the biggest monument in the country, twice the size of the Statue of Liberty. They built it because goddammit, we can.
Can you imagine such a federal project today? We can’t even hire an ambassador to South Korea. In town for William’s first game at Busch Stadium later this afternoon, we went to visit the Arch yesterday, and I found it remarkable how enjoyably stuck in the moment of its construction, the mid 1960s, it really is. Everything is sleek and refined and also a little jazzy, the last moments before the late ’60s came and blew it all apart; it is impossible not to think of “Mad Men.” (William said the place reminded him of The Incredibles, which I found an excellent observation.) The place feels built like it would become a Utopian place where all could gather equally, back when people believed in Utopias. Now there would be a special Mercedez-Benz-sponsored Premium Tier at the top where you paid a premium price and got to roam around away from all the riff-raff. The Arch exists in one of those last American moments before capitalism and consumerism took everything over: It is adorably chintzy and retro and wonderful.
I had not been up in the Arch since I was about William’s age, and it all came back in a rush. The claustrophobic elevator that shifts and slides its way up that infinite slope. The video beforehand, which tells the story of how they built this impossible thing, with all those grizzled men in hardhats smoking cigarettes and welding 500 feet in the air, with no harness or rope tethering them to keep them from plunging to the earth below. The endless, endless lines, the place impossibly crowded and disorganized no matter what time of day you go. Those little windows, the rectangular slits in the steel, in which you can see for miles and miles and miles and see nothing that is a thousandth as interesting as what you’re sitting in right there.
All told: It is probably not worth going up in the Arch other than to say that you have done it. Once you’re up there, it’s so jammed with people that you won’t want to be up there very long. We waited about two hours to get in, just to sit in that elevator for four minutes, be smushed shoulder to shoulder with strangers in a confined sloped space and look through a couple of windows and then be ready to be out of that hotbox. I’d love to someday go to some private event up there, though that would feel a betrayal of the egalitarian spirit of the place. I am glad we did it. But I was reminded why it had been 35 years since I’d been up there.
They just finished a years-long renovation of the public space below the Arch in order to connect it more to downtown itself after decades of being blocked off by a highway. They have succeeded in this: The whole area feels open and welcoming, and if I lived in St. Louis, I’d run there every morning and eat lunch on the lawn every day. (When it’s not 120 degrees anyway.) The optics of its opening were unfortunate, to say the least, with no African-American city leaders at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in a city that is 50 percent black, and that is sadly consistent with the racial history of the Arch itself. The world wasn’t as gleaming and sleek and perfect as it seemed back then, as it turns out. It never is. The renovation is nevertheless a positive one for the city: The Arch feels part of the town now, and this is a city that I love, and a city that needs every break it can get.
The Arch will always feel special to me, a shining example of human ingenuity and ambition, something for us to strive toward, to look at and remember we once believed ourselves capable of greatness. I know it’s not actually perfect. I know it’s not really that much fun to go to the top. But it will never not feel like some sort of ideal to me, something that shimmers infinitely upward, a symbol of what we once were and of what we could be again.
Plus: Now William can tell all his friends he went there and take 35 years forgetting how long the line is and how crowded it is up there and then going back up there again, and then remembering.