We need to talk about St. Louis. It’s one of the oddest cities I’ve ever visited. It’s quite possible to completely fill a weekend, as I just did with Jason and Randi, with some really good food and decent tourist spots – including one place, the City Museum, which is truly phenomenal and must surely be world-leading. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore how empty St. Louis feels. A city which, at its height, was home to over 850,000 people is now below 320,000. The urban landscape sprawls over big blocks and wide roads because that’s just how car-mad American cities were built, but barely any traffic passes through. There isn’t really any skyline to speak of, apart from the arch. Everyone we met was friendly, though, and it wasn’t uncomfortable to walk around… just odd. You really notice what the clouds do.
Suburbanisation is not like shifting tectonic plates or the weathering of sea cliffs – not some natural process which inexorably changes the land. It’s a human decision. If you want great cities, you need to live in them.
Anyhow, after a long evening journey through Illinois – which included hash browns at Waffle House! – we checked into The Cheshire. (Everyone pronounces this chesh-ire, to rhyme with fire, but obviously my readers know better.) I’d booked this the weekend before by scrolling through the few remaining places in St. Louis on my phone and picking the one which looked ‘nice’ without much further thought. It quickly transpired that the signals my brain processes as ‘nice’ are that of a full-on British-themed hotel, complete with Queen’s Guard figurines outside and rooms named after British authors and poets. (Disappointingly, we stayed in James Hilton.) In my defence, it was also very close to Forest Park, so a good base for a wander through this giant and lovely mix of woods and lawns.
One unexpectedly awesome thing in St. Louis is the World Chess Hall of Fame, which had a special exhibition about women in chess (Ladies’ Knight – yes, very clever) and included lots of cool chess-themed artwork. And I don’t even play chess. I don’t really drink Budweiser, either, but St. Louis is the headquarters of brewer Anheuser-Busch and they do offer free tours with free samples, so we also did that.
But the absolute best thing about St. Louis is the misleadingly-named City Museum. It’s not a museum, not really, but in fact a giant playground – indoor and outdoor – for adults and children alike. And it’s amazing. Made mostly from reused architectural and industrial products, an entrance fee of $12 buys unlimited exploration around a dense network of tunnels, caves, slides, trains, wire frames, ball pits, fish tanks, castles and even two small planes suspended in the sky. And along the way you might stumble across a café, sweetshop or a bar too. If anyone reading this remembers Kidstop, then it’s sorta like that, only if Kidstop were designed by benevolent crazy artists and played jazz music in the background.
The most wonderful thing about City Museum is the way adults and children interact. It’s a shared, peaceful coexistence: the adults aren’t just there as parents, it’s also crazy fun for them too. But for once, it’s a world built on children’s terms – they have genuinely more competence and skill, being able to run up, climb over and crawl under any obstacle quicker and more nimbly than a big person can. It’s hard to crawl on your knees or squeeze through holes in the floor if you’re old and lame and 26. One little boy even offered up directions when we looked helpless and lost. If I ever have children, I’m taking them to St. Louis so they can feel a smug joy at being children.
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