Sunday, March 21, 2010

St Louis VS Chicago - The St Patrick's Day Brawl

I can imagine the laughter our readers from the North are holding back right now. It's true, Chicago is well know for it's Irish community. There are still whole neighborhoods (Beverly) that cater to the Irish family and traditions. The St Patrick's Day celebrations that originate in Chicago are taken so seriously the city famously dyes the Chicago River green. (Yes, that's pretty cool, but work with me here - they're laughing at you right now) As far as American cities tied to St Patty's goes, Chicago is probably near the top, right behind Boston. As for St Louis, I'm not sure that anyone outside of the region would know we even have a parade, let alone two. I mean, sure, they likely assume we have at least some sort of celebration... Maybe we dress children up like leprechauns and pull them around in wagons or, maybe, let all the traffic lights stay at green all day... One thing is for sure - there'd be no point in dying the Mississippi River. That dark shade of brown isn't going anywhere.
Ok, so we don't do anything super cool like Chicago's green river. But we both, historically, have Downtown and local Irish neighborhood parades (we have Dogtown while Chicago has the Southside parade). There's got to be something cool and unique about our celebration, right? For you, the dear reader, I thought I'd better find out. For purely scientific reasons I decided to participate in both St Louis parades; The Saturday Downtown parade and the Dogtown neighborhood parade on Wednesday. Unfortunately, I participated in my research [read: beer drinking] a little too much to completely fulfill all of my required experiments. But, in the spirit of people underestimating St Louis, let's compare the Chicago and St Louis celebrations anyway!
Let's get the craziest part out of the way... Did you know that Chicago doesn't actually have a parade on St Patrick's Day (StPD)? That's right! Their Downtown Parade is on the Saturday before StPD just like ours is, but the Southside parade is on Sunday. Score one gigantic point, St Louis, for having your neighborhood parade on *actual* StPD. Now, I know for a fact this wasn't always the case.
Back in the pre-aughts (or 90's) when I was in high school, Chicago definitely had the Downtown parade on the day of. How can I be so sure? Because every kid and their best friend, Cameron, skipped school to go to the parade. Sadly no one I knew had a 60's model Ferrari to drive Downtown in, but we did have the Metra and it goes pretty fast. Also, you can drink on the Metra - and we did. Actually, we drank at the bars downtown too! I was, at the most, 16 and surely didn't have a fake ID. How the hell did we get away with that? I can only assume that all the children skipping school and getting absolutely trashed is one of the reasons Chicago changed up it's day of parading. Either that or they agreed Sundays make better hangover days.
As for St Louis's Saturday parade, it's definitely a family affair. Not that people aren't getting way beyond buzzed. There is definitely a party in the streets. Many a college student was beyond comprehension when I walked up to the just started parade.
The parade itself is fairly pedestrian... They do have a few Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade style balloons. You know, the one's that always seem to be 10 to 15 years behind the times. This year I'm pretty sure I saw both Garfield and Power Rangers balloons. Being that this is a StPD parade, you better believe the creepiest of creepy traditions was in full effect. No, it's not the teenage stepdancers although I do think that's weird. It's the little girls dressed as stepdancers!!! It's like they've been growing them in really humid basements. Just look at that curly hair! And the make-up? Why?
I know, I know. It's a tradition and I'm sure one many girls are proud to take part of. And truth-be-told I think its a pretty cool display to watch. I just don't get why they bring the toddlers along and make them dress up like that. It's beauty pageant creepy. Of course they have that in all StPD parades so that's nothing new. What is seemingly different about St Louis's StPD parade is that you can claim roadside parade-route plots!
I'm not sure how it's done or organized, but people practically build forts out there on the sidewalk. Seriously, it's like a rudimentary home. The party tent I hung out in was heated and had two private port-a-potties. And it wasn't some company that set it up. It was just a family! Apparently all they did was rent some bathrooms, told them where to drop them, and then the morning of the parade set built a small home around them. I promise you it was awesome and more than made up for my stubborn insistence that it was no longer winter. I would have frozen my ass off out there. As for Chicago, I'm pretty sure they'd shoot you if you did something like set up a party tent on the sidewalk. Or at least send the bagpipers over. So what's the verdict? Major points for dying the river, Chicago. And thanks for letting people build temporary shelters on the sidewalk, St Louis. Verdict: Tie.
Wednesday's actual StPD parade in Dogtown is a whole different story. It's very much in a neighborhood. And an Irish-settled neighborhood at that. Why is it called Dogtown? Well, when some Irish minors settled there they used dogs as security. Also, apparently during the 1904 World's Fair, a visiting tribe of natives from the Philippines kept sneaking over and stealing the Irishmen's dogs for food. Don't judge. You would've too if you'd seen the dogs I imagine the Irish were keeping.
Anyway, this parade feels much more like a whole neighborhood decided to come out of their houses and walk down the street throwing green beads. In fact, most of the "floats" are just 4 generations of Mc-whatevers showing off their finest Irish sweaters. Oh and there's also the creepy stepdancing children. We can't leave out the creepy children. Still, this event makes you somehow feel much more involved with the parade. Maybe it's the neighborhood. Maybe it's the people. But one thing is for sure, this is the parade to be at if you want to be drunk. There's a lot to do after the parade is done and because it's a work day, it just feels like you're being bad. People seem to go all out.
That part actually isn't too different from the Southside Parade in Chicago. It's, by far, the most disorderly. So much so that they don't even have one anymore! That's right, cancelled. After 2009 the Irish powers that be decided to not have it anymore because it was getting too out of hand. Wow. Didn't see that coming. So, this one's easy. Dogtown parade plus two for having it on actual StPD and plus 4 for actually having it. Negative 17 for not having one at all, Chicago. For shame.
Who would have thunk it? St Louis with a superior StPD celebration... It barely makes sense! But then again, does anything make sense when it comes to Irish tradition? Leprechauns, banshees, blarney stones, Darby O'Gill (best movie EVER), creepy baby stepdancers... I'm sure Chicago is pretty disappointed in itself for failing this very scientific matchup, but honestly, the river looks green year-round. I'm sorry... I really didn't want to be the one to say it. Please don't send the bagpipers.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Daily Grind

The commute to work... I'm going to guess it's the worst part of your day, but that's because I also assume you don't work for the DMV or live with Kathy Griffin. In posts of yore I've mentioned the St Louis traffic "sitch." Yeah, it's still non-existent. But get this - Since then, it's gotten better by an entire Interstate. An Interstate 64 to be exact.
While St Louisans still call this stretch of concrete by it's original name (Highway 40), they didn't call it anything but bulldozer food for the past two years. MoDOT ripped up the whole thing and started anew in 2007. Here's the thing - the city quickly grew accustomed to taking alternate routes, and the traffic *still* ran smoothly, sans the occasional accident. But since the I-64 reopening in December of 09, we have a whole slab of fresh concrete to burn oil on. Imagine the luxuriousness of driving to work now! You can practically name a St Louis highway lane after your dog and you'd only have two other people to sue for copyright infringement.
Lucky for me, I don't even have to get on the highway to get to work. In fact, I live two miles away from where I work (Habanero) and I don't even have to go through a single stop light! Nope, I take a secret and unlikely route. One that a co-worker awesomely called a portion of, "the batcave." I now go an extra 5 mph through that section. You're probably saying to yourself, "He totally means that little street that no one knows about that runs under I-55 by Chouteau's Landing. You know, the one by the fenced empty lot?" And you'd be right! Congrats! You win a pictorial tour of my quite unique drive to work! [Prize value: 2 blog points. May be redeemed at any Arch Observer House Of Sarcasm. Now with 20 locations!]
First stop: Beautiful Soulard! Heading towards St. Peter + Mary + Paul - Mary Church the sun is always highlighting that awesome steeple as depicted in this quick pencil sketch I made.
Once I cross Broadway and get closer to the river things get horribly industrial. It's actually quite depressing considering the great things that could be done with such prime real estate. And I say "real estate" because there isn't much there in salvageable buildings if all the industry were to suddenly move out. It's pretty much a wasteland of empty parking lots, concrete blocks and corrugated metal. Would you be so kind, Google maps?

View Larger Map
The one saving grace of this part of the drive is the very clear view of the Arch as bounce my way down the cracked and potholed streets. Number of traffic lights in this area: Zero. Number of stop signs: Two. Next stage: Batcave!
Arch In The Distance
NannaNannaNannaNanna... As you can see in the following photo, the Batcave is nothing to look at. It's not the smoothest ride either to be quite honest with you. What it most certainly is, though, is the most dramatic part of my ride. I'm not ashamed to pretend that I'm driving through some sort of time/distance transportation tunnel - hence the little burst in mph. To leave my "secret" tunnel I bust a right on to Chouteau Ave where I'm magically whisked away to the mystery that is Chouteau's Landing/the-run-down-area-you-see-on-your-left-from-the-highway-as-you-enter-St Louis.
Chouteau's Landing is a funny place. Actually, how St. Louisans pronounce "Chouteau" is what's funny. I'm going to give phonetic spelling a shot here: SHOH-doh. Or, if I were to make a lame joke out of it (which I absolutely will), it's pronounced the same way I'd the answer the question, "Do you like Charleston Chews?"
The interesting thing about this area is that it's home to many of the last original buildings and warehouses left over from the Arch grounds clearing. As discussed in the last post, most of the still remaining buildings are in Laclede's Landing. They do exist here too, but are basically just shells of brick and wood. This area isn't an entertainment district by any means. Except for a few offices and a plant of some sort still active here, the area is mostly abandoned. Sad right? So close to the Arch and downtown... All those historical buildings... Well, fear not!
Someone is making an effort to save Chouteau's Landing. Much of this project has been delayed, but some work recently began on some buildings facing the prime driving strip that is Broadway. But I'm not driving toward Broadway. I'm headed straight east to the river, and the only thing I can see in front of me is the graffiti wall.
And it is glorious. You can see it coming all the way down Chouteau, but it's hard to understand it's size until you cross the railroad tracks and get dwarfed by its magnitude. Ok, it's not THAT big, but it really is quite a sight as you get closer. Sadly, much of the good art by graffiti artists that know what they are doing has been covered by amateurish paintings of genitalia and stick figures. Luckily, this is just a small portion of the painted wall that apparently stretches much further south down the river. One day I'm going to pack a lunch, roll around in some dirt, throw on a huge backpack and walk down to see how far it goes. There's a possibility of some original artwork down farther...
Apparently, as few as 10 years back, there was some sort of yearly competition called Paint Louis that would draw the world's finest graffiti artists. I've found a few articles and video's of the original work, but there isn't much out there to get a full sense of what this event was like. That sort of makes sense if you keep in mind this mostly happened in the 90's. We were using printer paper that you had to rip the edges off of and the internet was still powered by Al Gore rubbing balloons on his hair. Here's one interesting tidbit; the original website for Paint Louis has been updated recently. It's now just a blog, but the main title reads "Paint Louis 2010." It's quite possible the original owners of the URL just let it lapse and someone else is just throwing a few posts up, but what if? I'd be so into it, but it would totally mess up my secret shortcut to work for a few days... Oh yeah, take a left!
Suddenly, there's a huge river on your right as you travel up Wharf St. I'm not going to leave you hanging here... It's the Mississippi River! This stretch leading up to the Arch is interesting for two things. If you wanted to, you could literally drive your car into the river. I'm not sure if it's original or what, but the whole bank of the river here is large brick cobblestone rubbed smooth from years of taking the occasional water beating. If you have a boat, you could launch it right here in the shadow of the Arch. Just think about the cool points you'd score if you were showing off to future in-laws or making a video for college admission application. Sorry... When I imagine scenarios I tend to movie-fy them.
The other interesting aspect of this stretch is the ample parking lining the road. And there are *always* people parked there. Not just empty cars, mind you. No, people just sit in them. And it's not like it's crazy scenic here. They could easily park down closer to the Arch and get even better views. Something weird is going on here... Sometimes I think it's prostitution related and other times I think it's drugs. It's probably neither, but it sure does make my drive even more exciting!
The last part of my drive takes me past the Arch towards the Eads Bridge. There isn't a time of day or visual angle that lessens how impressive and beautiful the Arch looks. Honestly, if you haven't been directly underneath it, you have no idea how huge it is. It's scale is deceptive. A now under-appreciated neighbor to the Arch is the Eads Bridge. Something many St Louisans don't know is that, before the Arch, the Eads Bridge was St Louis's main attraction. I happened to catch some old 1950's era documentary on KPLR a few months ago that highlighted St Louis's major attractions and I was amazed that almost all the focus was on this bridge I had been taking for granted. It was considered a triumph when it was finished in 1874 as the longest arch supported bridge and the first bridge constructed with true steel. I won't go too deep into the history of the Eads Bridge, but this wikipedia article is awesome. To prove to the public that it was safe they led an elephant across because it was thought at the time that an elephant wouldn't walk on something if it wasn't safe. Silly 19th centurions.
Finally, I swing a left onto Washington avenue and make my way to the parking garage near my office at Laclede's Landing. Easy-peasy. Total traffic lights crossed: zero. Total stop signs: five. Total time traveling: four minutes. Total arbitrary number better than other people's drive: twenty-three.
Of course, if we score that Google Fiber super-speed internet, I may never have to leave the house again. I could just internet to work. That thing has so much bandwidth I could probably fit an arm in there. Eh, I think I'd make the drive anyway... I mean, how many other people get to pass that close to the Arch everyday?
By the way, you should seriously take a look at the new city website on getting Google Fiber to St Louis. The business alone that it would draw to the city is worth investing a few minutes of your time getting the word out. Plus, it would please the Google God. You wouldn't want to feel that smite. His wrath is mighty, but decorated almost daily.