St. Louis' Shockingly Embarrassing Monument (For Now)

Here's the kind of image St. Louis loves to flaunt.

The Arch from East St. Louis

The Arch from East St. Louis

Nice, right?

Here's a less flattering view.

Aerial view of the Arch

Aerial view of the Arch

And here's two more photos of the Arch grounds taken from the Arch.

View from the Arch

View from the Arch

Another view from the Arch

Another view from the Arch

St. Louisans and Missourians are fiercely proud of the Arch, which I find odd, because it's one of the least engaging places in the entire city. It's like that fancy couch your parents bought for the formal living room. It's in all the Christmas cards, but you've actually barely sat on it. (Bad analogy alert.)

Howard Stern had some harsh words for the Arch after a visit to St. Louis in 2012:

From my hotel, I could see that Arch thing. I hate to say this because people take such pride in their city, but boy is that a disappointment. (Robin: It looks like the McDonalds sign.) It’s like an aluminum arch... It’s not even lit up cool. Like, any bridge in New York is cooler than that Arch. We have shitty things that nobody looks at that are better and bigger than that. It makes no sense. It doesn’t do anything, I don’t think. Someone told me you can go in there and ride on it... It’s kind of lame. I hate to say that. They so love that Arch. It’s just so not happening. They’ve got to get something better. I mean, it’s not even that beautiful... It’s in the most random place and there’s these ugly signs around it. Nobody’s put any thought into it.

I do think the Arch is beautiful, but other than that, I'm at a loss for compliments. To me, it's this big, static thing that -- at the end of the day -- encourages nothing more than looking and leaving. (And I can look at it from far more engaging places in the city.) The Arch grounds are strangely confusing to access by foot or by bike due to the "massive physical barriers that completely sever this prized public space from the rest of the city: To the west, I-70, a rumbling interstate offering limited and unsightly pedestrian access, and to the east, the Mississippi River, prone to flooding, and dividing downtown from blighted East St. Louis" (FastCo Design).

And did I mention the Museum of Westward Expansion? It's located beneath the Arch and described by some, accurately, in my opinion, as "Disappointingly bad, but free" and "No explanation of anything!" One reviewer writes:

You don’t learn anything here because there are no plaques explaining anything. There are some really nice displays like for example an old carriage, and I was like “what is it, tell me something about it!” Nope. Nothing. I’m sure they could have told me something about stage coach travel, but no. It is not a museum.

CityArchRiver 2015

I'm neither the first to notice nor the first to complain about this shockingly embarrassing American monument. How it existed in its current state for so many years is mind-blowing.

But change is on its way, for better or worse. By October 2015, the 50th anniversary of the Arch, St. Louis should see a one-block "lid" over the highway; an expanded museum with more (and hopefully improved) exhibits; a riverfront promenade with access for bicyclists and pedestrians; and new and improved spaces and pathways.

That all sounds good. Or does it?

Alex Ihnen, editor of the fantastic blog NextSTL, posted a detailed timeline of the CityArchRiver project from 2010 to present, and he argues, quite convincingly, that the "lid" as currently proposed disrupts downtown's city grid and even worsens access to the Arch.

Can it get any worse?

Even if the "lid" is a disaster, the Arch has so much room for improvement that I can't see being disappointed on every front.