Archive for the ‘St. Louis’ Category

Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.

March 26, 2008


What can I say? We’re library geeks. This stack is some of the materials Marion and I currently have checked out from the Chicago Public Library. By our standards, it’s a modest pile. Marion is a voracious reader; I’m a guy with good intentions. Inevitably, my eyes are bigger than my literary stomach, and many books return unopened. Again, what can I say?

We’ve always been library geeks. In St. Louis, librarians knew us and our children by name. We used to get invited to librarian-only parties. [To balance things out, I’d like to say here that we also used to get invited to staff-and-musician-only parties thrown by the crew of the Broadway Oyster Bar.] Daughter Claire has picked up the torch; she works in a library.

Growing up in St. Louis, I was blessed with access to an excellent library system [it was recently ranked second in the nation, in fact], and I discovered it early. Many of the city’s branch libraries were grand beaux arts structures, with ornate columns, profuse ornamentation, grand stone staircases and massive, heavy doors—especially to an eight-year-old on the skinny side. Beyond those heavy doors was a quiet sanctuary, elegant, ordered, cool in the summer and invitingly warm in the winter. And books. Mountains of them. Miles of them. All free for the taking—well, the borrowing. Even though I didn’t know the term business model back then, I wondered how they could possibly do this. Obviously, I was equally naive regarding taxes.

I only knew that they somehow did manage to do it and that, with my library card, I was in the club.

Anytime you have a great idea like this, everyone wants to take credit for it. As Wikipedia tells us, “Many claims have been made for the title of ‘first public library’ for various libraries in various countries, with at least some of the confusion arising from differing interpretations of what should be considered a true ‘public library’.” In ancient Rome, Greek and Roman scrolls were available to readers in the Roman baths; but these weren’t lending libraries—scrolls couldn’t be checked out.

benjamin-franklin.jpgIn the United States, Boston lays claim to the first town library, established in 1636. But most give credit to Benjamin Franklin for creating the first lending library. You have to wonder where he found the time. One of the nation’s founding fathers, he was also a printer, an author, satirist, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.

For all the press Gutenberg gets for his printing press and how it brought books and knowledge to the masses, books were still very expensive, especially in America, and not readily available even to those of moderate means. In 1731, Franklin and a group of friends formed the Library Company of Philadelphia. It was set up as a subscription library; individuals bought shares, and the money was used to buy books. Members could then borrow books, making it possibly the first lending library. It is still in existence today, now operating as an independent, non-profit research library.

But with the Internet, do libraries still matter? Do books, for that matter? One word answer: One of the most successful businesses on the whole worldwide web is a book store. And yes, the marketing of books is changing. Life for independent booksellers like our friend Jun, who runs the wonderful Foto-Grafix Books in San Francisco, is more challenging than ever. But drop in any book store, independent or big box chain, and you’ll find people hungry for books. You’ll find us there too. Some books you just need to own, to flip through again and again. To just take pleasure in knowing that you own it.

You don’t have to own everything, though. In this acquisitive culture, I’m not sure everyone gets that. Our good friend Laura told us of discussing books at work. When she mentioned finding something at the library, her colleagues laughed. Not derisively—just in that confused, it-would-never-occur-to-me sort of way.

But that’s the beauty of libraries. They’re a great place to kick the tires on a new author or be pleasantly surprised by something that catches your eye as you get the library crick in your neck, scanning titles sideways. There’s also almost a perverse anti-ownership pleasure in knowing that others have read this book before you, and many more will read it after you do, part shared experience, part recycling smugness.

So, yeah, we’re library geeks. And perhaps geekiest of all, on more library visits than not, I silently thank Ben Franklin.




In praise of snail mail

March 12, 2008


Last week the New York Times reported on cable network HBO teaming up with the United States Postal Service to promote its new mini-series “John Adams.” In the process, they’re also promoting letter writing. Our nation’s second president and his wife Abigail were “prolific letter-writers,” as the article tells us. “They exchanged more than 1,100 letters from 1762 until 1801, dating from their courtship through his presidency.”

As part of the campaign, you can even send a free card, postage paid, to anyone you choose from a special Postal Service website. HBO is picking up the tab for the service.

john-adams.jpgThis brilliant marketing campaign got me thinking about the pleasures of snail mail. You know—real mail. I mean, I love the immediacy of email. It’s more than convenient—it also helps us feel connected. Often after exchanging a flurry of emails with a friend or family members, I feel as if we’ve been talking on the phone.

But there’s just something magical about real mail. If I drop a card or a note in the mail, even to these same friends with whom I routinely swap emails, invariably I hear back about how special it was to receive an actual piece of mail.

And who doesn’t have a stash of old letters and cards tucked away somewhere? My colleague Lisa recently told me about writing a letter to her grandmother, or perhaps a birthday card, just remembering some of the many wonderful things the two of them had done together when she was growing up and lived next door to her grandma. By then, her grandmother had retired to another state and walked with the aid of a walker. She kept Lisa’s letter in the basket on her walker and showed it to everyone.

Another reason I like letter writing is I like rituals. I love to make martinis, for instance, even though I don’t much care to drink them. What I like about them is that they involve cool stuff and processes: Frosted martini glasses, cocktail shakers, twists or olives, shaking or stirring, depending on which Bond film you believe… Fortunately for me, Marion likes the occasional martini and I get to make it.

Mail has its own paraphernalia and processes. Cards, postcards, stationery [if you want to get fancy]… and the stamps! We always buy commemorative stamps. Always. And we always have the postal clerk haul out all the various kinds available to choose from. There’s also the whole chain of events that gets set into motion when you drop a card or a letter into the mailbox. Maybe I paid too much attention to those movies they showed us in grade school, but I think about the journey that piece of mail will make as I send it. Then again, with the way people obsessively check tracking numbers on packages when they ship something, maybe that’s normal.

The beauty of postcards. The range of postcards out there is nothing short of amazing. From the typical tourist cards to humor to absolute works of art. Of course, a favorite of mine are unintentionally funny promotional cards. I once got a postcard from a relative on vacation in Florida that had obviously been sent out of familial duty. It was a free card provided by the motel where she was staying and featured the self-serve washers and dryers that the motel considered a major selling point for making it your home away from home. Said relative didn’t have an ironic bone in her body, but plenty of practical ones—so for her, the card filled the request for one. For me, it was hysterical, better than any carefully chosen palm tree scene could have been.

The real beauty of postcards, though, is their finite writing space. Sometimes you want to just drop a quick line to someone, make contact, but an entire sheet of paper is daunting. With a postcard, you can dash off a few lines and you’re done. And the person on the other end still feels really good and really special when it arrives. Or you can do what we more often do, writing small, filling the entire writing space and even spilling over under the address.


For a while, anytime we hit flea markets, I would look for old postcards, mostly vintage cards of places I’d lived, St. Louis and Chicago. And I specifically sought out cards that hadn’t been written on. I would send these to friends who had also lived in these places. Typically, these cards run anywhere from a buck to a few dollars, cheaper than most greeting cards. And way more fun. Preparing to write this post, I flipped through my stack of old postcards. I think maybe it’s time to revive this practice.

Art free for all in St. Louis

September 5, 2007


The National Endowment for the Arts has a wonderful tagline that you’ll occasionally hear on PBS or NPR broadcasts: A great nation deserves great art. What a beautifully succinct argument for supporting the arts.

I can’t remember a time when art wasn’t a part of my life. To hear my mother tell it, I pretty much drew from birth on. When I was about ten or so, I got my first camera and—while I continued to draw from time to time [and did some painting, some printmaking, some ceramics, some sculpture]—found the medium that would supplant all others for me.

But art is more than something I occasionally dabble in. It is part of who I am, part of how I view life and the world. I taught college art for a while. I far too infrequently shoot and exhibit what I call my serious photography, very different from what I shoot for this blog. I judge cities and decide whether or not to visit them based on the art there. Indeed, I could not imagine living someplace without regular access to great art. If I had to name one event that set this part of me in motion, it was my first visit to the St. Louis Art Museum.


In the fifth grade, I was transferred into the gifted program in school. Besides ratcheting up the level of work we did in the classroom, they took us places—to plays and the symphony, for example, and most important to ten-year-old me, to the art museum.

Suddenly, a whole world outside my working class neighborhood opened up to me. And best of all to perpetually broke young me, it was free. It’s engraved right there on the architrave above the main entrance: DEDICATED TO ART AND FREE TO ALL. I took full advantage of this open invitation, sometimes taking the bus there with my friend Ray, but more often going alone. I even dragged my mom and brother there one summer. My mom humored me, my brother not so much. But I had already claimed it as my own, so I didn’t care.

At first I was drawn to the painstaking realism of the artists of the Renaissance up through the mid-nineteenth century, in awe of their ability to produce such lifelike images with paint and canvas. But eventually, over manymanymany visits, I came to embrace—in turn—Impressionism, modern art and, finally, contemporary art. Now my interests flow in the opposite direction, with contemporary art being far and away the most exciting to me, and the old masters having to work pretty hard to catch my eye.


We were in St. Louis last weekend and went to the museum. It’s still free [except for major special exhibitions, and even those are free on Fridays]. And it still has the same magical effect on me.

The St. Louis Art Museum [long modestly known as the City Art Museum] was one of the few permanent structures built for the 1904 World’s Fair. Built atop Art Hill in Forest Park [a glorious city park larger than Central Park], it was designed by architect Cass Gilbert. He later went on to design the Woolworth Building in New York and the United States Supreme Court.

St. Louis has a not totally undeserved reputation for being a conservative city—not politically so much as in its rather practical world view and general unwillingness to spend even a nickel frivolously. When pressed for the need for electric street lights in Forest Park, an old German mayor famously responded, “We got the moon, ain’t it?” But in 1907, the city’s practical citizens passed a very forward-thinking tax to support the art museum and seven years later, expanded it to build a zoo. As a result, this mid-sized city has one of the best zoos in the world and a gem of an art museum with an excellent collection, both free.


The National Endowment for the Arts is right: A great nation deserves great art. So does a great city.

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Downtown St. Louis’ second act

July 4, 2007

Originally posted 7/4/07

In the most recent census, the population of the city of St. Louis actually increased after decades of decline. I’m speaking specifically of the city proper now—the metropolitan area has shown steady growth all along, but in recent years, the city had been bleeding population to the suburbs. it had been losing businesses too—the compact but beautiful downtown was becoming a ghost town, with perilously high vacancy rates in the office buildings that weren’t just plain empty. Amazingly, the convergence of these two daunting problems [common, by the way, to far too many mid-sized American cities] is leading to a single, elegant solution—one that has even garnered the attention of the New York Times.


So what is bringing people back to the city? The reinvention of downtown as a residential community. Vacant and near-vacant office buildings are being converted to lofts and condos. More important, people are snapping them up and moving in. Restaurants and various neighborhood services are following. One of the pioneers, City Grocers, has even spawned competition—two of the local supermarket chains are opening stores downtown, something I’ve argued that they should have done years ago. There are bars, clubs and art galleries sprinkled around the area. And some of the businesses do still remain, adding their own energy to the mix. The overall result is that downtown St. Louis is becoming not just a neighborhood, but a fun, lively, very urban neighborhood. Other cities have tried this approach—and are trying it now—but for some reason, it is really taking hold in St. Louis.

One of the hubs of all this cool new development is Washington Avenue, the former garment district. Even when much of downtown was on life support, this area was already making things happen. Artists and photographers were renting entire floors of former clothing factories and warehouses for cheap. Soon, young entrepreneurial promoters were renting storefronts and converting them to live music venues and lounges. People started flocking downtown for more than just Cardinals games. Eyes were opened.

Washington Avenue remains at the heart of much of the development. And one of our favorite places for a weekend bite to eat is there—Crêpes in the City. It’s only a part-time restaurant, tucked inside Washington Ave Post, an office services and supply center that offers photocopying, UPS shipping, rental mailboxes, Internet access and a full service coffee bar. Washington Ave Post also offers its wall space to local artists and participates in the First Friday Downtown Gallery Walks.

crepes.jpgCrêpes in the City adds just one more element to this cool patchwork quilt of a business. On Fridays at lunch and Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 2pm, Mary Gonzalez and her partner José set up a crêpe station with three electric crêpe griddles much like those you’d see street vendors using in Paris. And there the Peruvian-born duo turns out a delicious assortment of savory and sweet crêpes. The crêpes themselves are light and paper thin, the fillings fresh, inventive and generous. No wonder happy diners quickly fill the handful of tables inside and on the sidewalk out front.

To some, this half-copy shop, half-crêperie might seem like an odd setting for food. To me, the cobbling together of all these elements into a business is part of its charm. Of course, this kind of casual, let’s-give-it-a-try-and-see-what-happens entrepreneurial spirit is at the heart of many of St. Louis’ more interesting businesses and endeavors. Enjoy it while you can at Crêpes in the City—Mary and José are talking about taking the crêperie full time a couple of blocks up the street sometime this fall. I can’t wait to go there when they do.

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St. Louis art quartet plus one

June 27, 2007

When a city has a new art museum open, it’s a big deal. Since 1993, St. Louis has had four open. On our recent road trip, we visited all four of them in one day. It helped, of course, that they are all in the same neighborhood.


Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Opened in 2001, The Pulitzer Foundation doesn’t consider itself a museum, Rather, it is “a museum-like facility with galleries that are open to the public two days a week.” It focuses on 20th century and modern art, including many pieces on loan from the collection of Emily and the late Joseph Pulitzer. Yes, that Joseph Pulitzer. The work on display was a who’s who of the periods covered. It was also kind of a name-that-artist pop quiz: There are no labels on the walls, the idea being one should concentrate on the work itself rather than names and labels. Or as their site puts it, “The Pulitzer encourages a direct and contemplative viewing experience with the artworks, both as individual objects and in the context of the exhibition and the architecture. Labels and text can aesthetically interfere with this immediate visual experience.” They do make brochures available.

The building itself, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is an amazing visual experience, austere and clean, perfectly designed to put the art it houses front and center. It also makes extensive use of natural light.

But for me, the star of this museum [okay, sort of museum] is Joe, a giant torqued spiral of weathering Cor-ten steel by Richard Serra. Commissioned by Emily to commemorate her late husband, its canted, curving walls are disorienting as you move to the center of the sculpture. Once inside, though, you feel as if you’ve entered a monumental, serene sanctuary. I had already wanted to see the huge Serra retrospective currently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Having visited this piece, I really, really, really want to see it.

camstl.jpgContemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Opened just two years later and right next door to the Pulitzer, this museum grew out of St. Louis’s Forum for Contemporary Art, which itself had evolved over several years, locations and iterations. The Contemporary is a non-collecting museum. It displays only temporary exhibitions. This allows it to present not just contemporary work, but work that is absolutely current. If their two current exhibitions, Katie Holten: Paths of Desire and Shoot The Family [unflinching but still loving photographic family portraits] are any indication, this is an excellent model for a museum. The building, by Brad Cloepfil, principal architect of Allied Works of Portland, Oregon, is an exciting environment designed—as the architect put it—as “an intentional vacancy that achieves meaning through the art itself.” It is a museum I look forward to visiting again and again.

The other two museums we visited are both on the campus of St. Louis University, a few blocks from the Pulitzer and the Contemporary, in the blossoming midtown arts and theater district.

Museum of Contemporary Religious Art. Even though this museum opened in 1993, before we left St. Louis for Chicago, I’d never visited it before. The word ‘religious’ was the deal breaker for me, especially since it is part of a Jesuit school. I pictured lots of crucifixes [crucifi?] and pietas, only not even Renaissance or Baroque, so not exactly my cup of jasmine. Turns out I was wrong. They’ve had shows by Keith Haring. By the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. They’ve had the largest ever U.S. installation of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, filling the entire former chapel that is now home to this small museum with silver mylar rectangular balloons and using powerful fans to move them around in the space [we saw a smaller installation at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh—it was so involving, so much fun]. And the museum clearly embraces all religions. They once had an inflatable reclining Buddha sculpture, lifesized [if such a term applies to sculptures of sculptures]. The staff would occasionally deflate and reinflate it. The museum director said that watching it deflate was as close to watching someone die as he had ever come.

The exhibit we saw, mostly smallish paintings by pioneering German abstract painter Oskar Fischinger, didn’t exactly rock my world. But their complete lack of overtly religious imagery opened my eyes to another little gem of a museum in St. Louis.

St. Louis University Museum of Art. The impressive Beaux Arts home of this museum was originally built in 1900 as the home of the St. Louis Club. As impressive as the building’s grandeur from another age was the current exhibit—Elusive Light: Michael Eastman Retrospective. The St. Louis photographer’s super-sized, voluptuous photographs of Cuba, Europe, America, horses and landscapes sing with color and light. The architectural shots celebrate elegance and decay.


Oh, and the cost of this museum mini-orgy? Zip. Even at the Contemporary, where we loitered at the entry desk expecting to pay the five bucks the website said we’d be charged, the staffers chatted amiably with us for several minutes before finally sending us off with a cheerful, “Enjoy the museum!” Of course, free is big in St. Louis. The St. Louis Art Museum, whose building and splendid collection began with the 1904 World’s Fair, lives up to its slogan, “Dedicated to Art and Free to All.” And the St. Louis Zoo, one of the finest in the world, is also one of only maybe four free zoos in the nation.


Art Bonus. In addition to seeing four new [to us] museums, we also managed to catch a fun gallery opening at Mad Art, a gallery that has opened in a former 1930s Art Deco police station [again, thanks, Claire!]. Graffiti artist Peat Wollaeger works mainly with stencils and spray paint to create his images. Mountain Dew became interested in him after seeing viral videos on his website. They commissioned him to create artwork for more than 70,000 16-ounce aluminum bottles. For more information, visit Peat’s website.

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