My education on the travails facing St. Louis was a swift one. On a road trip there for a wedding last weekend, several family members, seeking some beer with which to amuse the group, ventured across the street from the hotel to a Circle K gas station. Each six-pack came to them one-by-one through a drawer from an attendant behind bulletproof glass, a security provision deemed necessary even on this unassuming commercial strip right off an interstate. Next to fried ravioli and Budweiser, St. Louis’s lingering image is one as perhaps the most complete representation of the crumbling of Middle America, a sign of what might await downriver for the rest of us if we’re not careful.
The population of St. Louis is down to about 300,000 from a high of 850,000 in the middle of the 20th century. Streets and buildings frequently nestle behind gates, the divisions of a third-world city brought right into a metro whose urban evolution has followed the same trends. Its many brick facades, I learn, are now often the most prized part of a house, and many get removed and shipped off for use elsewhere. Unlike many Rust Belt towns, St. Louis’s fate wasn’t tied to the rise and demise of a single industry; its struggles stem from the gradual decline of a range of industries and a steady stream of buyouts by larger multinationals. I now understand why Jonathan Franzen named one of his early novels about his hometown The Twenty-Seventh City to note its decline from a great American metro to a middling status. (My copy made this trip with me, but I never opened it.)
St. Louis also lacks the perversely romantic ruin porn of Detroit. Its greatest testament to urban planning failure, Pruitt-Igoe, is now partially repurposed and partially a vacant field. Pruitt-Igoe was to be the modernist model for how to build public housing: 28,000 units designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the celebrated designer of the World Trade Center in New York. Less than twenty years later the whole thing was demolished. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe is often billed as a failure of architecture; Charles Jencks, an architecture critic, called its demolition “the day modern architecture died.”
It’s certainly true that the complex suffered from shoddy construction, and that architecture alone cannot make good citizens in the way some of the more absurd modernist dreamers in that field liked to believe, to ruinous effect. But the greater tragedy of Pruitt-Igoe stems not from its design but from an environment that doomed it to failure: a crumbling economy, blatant segregation, poor city management that destroyed St. Louis’s tax base, and a political climate that had no desire to see public housing succeed. For those who defend those systems, explicitly or implicitly, the architects are a convenient scapegoat. The failures of Pruitt-Igoe endure, its ghosts appearing on the streets of suburban Ferguson in recent years.
As with Detroit, there is still plenty of growth and commerce around St. Louis. It enjoys a large ring of well-off suburbs where plenty of people, including some members of my family, have settled in to happy lives. But it is also an ideal study in how major trends, from economic centralization to government division, can be the lasting difference between cities that are challenged but thriving and those that have come to exemplify the worst of contemporary America. The St. Louis experience offers a compelling case for regional governance and an indictment of a range of incentives and policies, whether malignant or merely misguided, that created the divides of a power in decline.
I don’t want to linger on the negatives for too long. St. Louis has a dramatic arch, and two Grade A large city parks that date to its World’s Fair days, complete with a zoo and a botanical garden. The City Museum, which I explore with a couple of relatives after the reception, is a true marvel, a playground for all ages in the shell of an otherwise vacant old building, the wreckage of a shrinking city repurposed into tunnels and slides and other stray sources of amusement. I’ll be back here in the future, and I hope to find a few more worthy sights. But on this weekend I settle for rolling in and out in a heartbeat, with long drives across downstate Illinois and Iowa to slow down the time along the way. Rarely is it memorable, save for windows into the less dramatic but equally damning rural decay that line the four-lane rivers of commerce that have replaced the Mississippi as the lifeblood of these towns.
* * *
Some two hours north of St. Louis, on the banks of the Mississippi, sits Hannibal, the boyhood hometown of Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain. He didn’t live there long, but this town of 17,000 left an indelible mark on one of America’s most celebrated writers. Like any small town that has had a brush with fame (and many that haven’t but would like to think they have), Hannibal is all in on its famed son, with Twain kitsch and a full cottage industry around him on full display. We enter town down rather dismal, run-down streets amid a rainstorm, but downtown Hannibal is cute and well-kept, and the Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which sprawls across several buildings and blocks, is worth the $12. We get a full overview of Clemens’ early life, and the town smartly keeps its emphasis on his early years which were so formative for his two best-known works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Those two icons of American literature are clearly children of Hannibal, and each of the major figures in those books had direct real-life parallels.
Beyond Hannibal, Twain’s fortunes have risen and fallen over time. The museum acknowledges the controversies surrounding Huck Finn, both for its transgressive language at the time of its publication and its contemporary fall from grace for its repeated use of a word we now consider vile in polite speech. A panel in the museum shows dueling quotes from writers on this flap, with Toni Morrison blasting anyone who’d shy away from an accurate account of historical language and Jane Smiley suggesting that, if Huck Finn is the book that sets the context for discussions of race in America, it’s letting us set an awfully low bar.
Both points can probably be true. There are certainly more effective and searing testaments to the reality of racial conflict in America than the writings of a white man from over a century ago. The problem comes from trying to see Huck Finn only through that lens: it’s a major theme in the book, yes, and there’s certainly something to Huck’s growing understanding of racial divisions that readers can learn from, perhaps especially because Huck is by no means privileged but can still see injustice in front of him. (An exhibit in the Becky Thatcher House does a good job of laying out 19th century Hannibal’s class boundaries for a young audience.) And Twain also deserves judgment by the context of his day: sure, some language no longer resonates, but he was a dedicated and consistent champion of racial equality at a time when that was often a bold take. He wrote a book-length diatribe against the atrocities of King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, and he blasted injustice around the world, from Boers in South Africa to servitude of Pacific Islanders in Australia. He also oversaw the rehabilitation of Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation through the publication of his memoirs, a vital corrective to a Southern narrative of Reconstruction as a failure and Grant as a bumbling and corrupt commander-in-chief. I have little patience for armchair critics of a man who consistently used his station to combat injustices everywhere.
Twain endures because he embodies the best of the American narrative. He is often wickedly funny, an astute observer of American reality using a vernacular, that, if sometimes less accessible now, was a vital step in literature’s move away from endless highbrow blather to something accessible to all classes. His realism was for everyone, and dedicated to a democratic spirit. He burst on to the scene documenting the freshness of American thought against stodgy Europeans in The Innocents Abroad, and he set his country to overcoming such ugliness as slavery and racism, which he himself had benefitted from as a child. In this vein, his great characters are adolescents: not yet fully formed, burdened by family history and their instincts but still capable of greatness or redemption no matter their backgrounds. Tom and Huck speak to the possibility of boyhood, and Twain’s nostalgia for his early days when a small-town American childhood blurred very real class lines. That formative experience may no longer be possible in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and if that is indeed the case, it’s a major loss.
A dive into a Hannibal childhood stirs some agrarian corner of my soul, itself grounded in an early-life sojourn in a town of 4,000 where I formed my first memories. As with Twain, that small town was my sandbox for my first steps into writing. This road trip’s final day includes a push through the land I associate with those early years: the hilltop farms and meandering coulees and oak savannas of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The towns here seem better kept, better able to avoid the shabbiness on display in Iowa or Missouri or, for that matter, northern Minnesota. On a golden early fall morning, I don’t much mind getting stuck behind a house on wheels as I wind up and down these verdant hills. These hills are reminders of a time when I, too, had no sense of the divides I can’t help but see now, and remind me that the dream embodied in Twain’s characters isn’t useless nostalgia, but a dream of how things could be.