Cities divided

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
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Trip End Jul 02, 2007


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Flag of United States  , Missouri
Monday, May 7, 2007

So begins the plummet south, deviating out of my neat east to west course. and almost immediately there is a change, and it feels more southern, whatever that means at this early stage.

The great rivers of America - the Missouri and the Mississippi - skirt the state on either side as they too plummet southwards. the wide river basins have left the land absolutely flat. flat and fecund and fertile. this is farming land. everything is green and rich hues of brown. and there is an excess of foliage everywhere. water is in abundance, and sits stagnant and squandered by the road side. birds stalk through it. heaps of rusted machinery and vehicles also sit dishevelled in the fields. gleaming newer models are at work, or stand at attention ready to plough, irrigate, to produce. it is a land of plenitude and excess.

once upon a time Missouri was a slave state, and spilled blood for the right to keep its slaves to work the farms.

Kansas City was one of the first places i penned in to my itinerary for this trip. It wasn't because of the jazz history or the bbq culture, although those intrigued me too. It was the launching pad for the careers and successes of Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney. Two very distinctive American artists and icons. And yet the only evidence of either of these two in the city is the blue neon words on a building: Kansas City Star. thats the paper Hemingway used to write for.

there is genius in the city, as usual you can find a hint of it in the free art museums, and in the stylisations of the public places and architecture. KC's sister city is Sevilla, and there is a strong Andalucian feel to one of the downtown areas. it also boasts of having more fountains than any other city but Rome. and more miles of boulevarde than any city but Paris. to me these claims ring hollow, but the fact that they exist shows something about KC pride.

a pattern has well and truly emerged. all these midwestern cities that had their time as a vitally important crossroad or hub for America. a truly international city. but for whatever reason - the decline of the railroads, the downsizing of the auto industry - that golden age cannot last. KC also is a hollow city with a decayed downtown, that feels eerily quiet at times. the people have expanded out - it is the peculiarity of a country that always felt itself to have too much space, that needed conquering - and the interesting pockets of city life are few and far between. there are buses, but the public transport systems of America are uniformly arcane or archaic or both. there are projects downtown to bring back life. stadiums, malls, hotels. they fill up like storm shelters. the world outside is avoided. it might be dangerous.

St Louis conforms to the pattern too. a hollow and resounding downtown, even in peak hour. even as the people are centrifuged out to the burbs, they talk in an almost competitive and proud way about east st Louis having leapfrogged Detroit on the list of most dangerous cities in America. I've never heard of such a definite and quantifiable index anywhere else in the world.

both cities are peculiar for being split by a great and unswimmable river. a river that has long been claimed by commerce and industry. and as they straddle the rivers, the cities straddle to states as well. so KC is mostly Missouri but also Kansas. and st Louis is mostly in Missouri but there is also the dirty criminal alter-ego in Illinois.

in the USofA when you seem to cross state border every few miles, this wouldn't be so interesting a phenomenon. but when your city has one leg planted in a slave state and one in a free state, things become a little more problematic.

an when the good folk of Kansas decide that creationism and evolution need to be placed side by side in school science textbooks as parallel theories, you have to wander which state and which half of the river has the more cause to be embarrassed. the slave days are over. Kansas is still working on the creationism-as-science thing.

as you approach Kansas neon lights cryptically advertise '5% beer'. in Kansas beer it is illegal to sell beer with an alcohol content greater than 3.5%.

St Louis has a grander tradition than KC, and could be said to have fallen further. its name, but not its pronunciation in American English, reveals a more authentically European heritage than KC can claim. and there is much talk of historic route 66 passing through here, and of the many other trails west across the country; the Mormon trail, the lewis and Clark expedition. but none of this matter so much because what STL has that no other city has, and what remains resplendent throughout the long history of decline, is the arch. a single gleaming arch, two hundred metres tall, that soars skyward, reaches its zenith, and then plunges elegantly back to the ground below. plenty of internationally recognised icons are over-rated. the arch itself defies expectation or comprehension completely. an otherworldly thing, surreal and incongruous against the grubby city skyline. a momentous feat of engineering, especially considering you can take a ride up the inside of it to the top. and look out over the city, or down on the void and those two impossible spindley legs that some how keep the whole thing and all its hordes of visitors suspended so high above the ground.

one other thing the two cities share, and it is no way peculiar to Missouri, but it is manifest there; the great and continuing generosity of the locals. in both cities i had places to stay and, quite separately, friends to make and meet. i was an impromptu dinner guest in KC and a 6am wake-up call in STL. and i was greeted with smiles and good food and food for thought.

i came to KC for the sake of two men no longer there, whose ghosts aren't even there except perhaps on a postcard somewhere. i came to STL because i needed to meet up with a southbound greyhound bus. and despite those inauspicious motives, another pattern emerges; i hope the bus and leave the city, and feel like there was more to see and things left undone, unsaid, untasted. i feel like i know less about Missouri than any other state of visited, and yet it and Ohio are the only states in which I've stayed in and sample two different cities.

and then the road again, and the green, and the south. 
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