Meet the 2012 Beacon interns
We asked our interns to introduce themselves by talking about where they loved to go (if natives). Our newcomer to the area we sent to City Museum, with no warning about what he would find.
Nick Fandos joined us in June; Neel Thakkar in July.
After buying a ticket at the City Museum, the first thing I did was ask for a map.
“We don’t have any maps,” was the reply. “No maps?” I thought. “What kind of a museum doesn’t have maps?”
I walked inside, straight into the jaws of a gigantic whale. The humidity made it smell damp, a little bit like a Rainforest Café.
This was about the time I began to realize that the City Museum was a strange place.
From the innards of the whale, I worked my way through the bowels of the museum, spending about equal time on my stomach as on my feet.
The experience was like walking around in somebody else’s dream, alternately terrifying and exhilarating. It takes a lot to scare me. Roller coasters never did it. But one look at some of the tunnels the 5- and 6-year-olds around me entered made my stomach turn.
There was no telling what would come next — the only logic was a kind of dream-logic, under which anything can slowly morph into anything else. How else to explain the school bus, suspended on the roof? Or the downed airplanes outside? The entire place seemed like someone’s subconscious made real.
As I learned later, that person was the artist Bob Cassilly.
It took me a long time to understand why Cassilly called his dizzy, subterranean creation on 15th Street the City Museum. I could have understood “City Park,” “City Playground,” even “City Jungle Gym” — but whatever else it was, the City Museum wasn’t like any museum I’d ever seen, no matter how many petrified beetles or antique doorknobs they kept up on the third floor.
In Chicago, my hometown, the museums are as neatly categorized as books in the Dewey Decimal System. Many of these pillared monuments sit on high lawns along the line of the lake. They are a far cry from Cassilly’s rehabbed warehouse on 15th Street.
But then, I don’t think Cassilly was trying to build a big-M Museum. Neither did he want a building that looked like a cross between a mausoleum and the St. Louis County Courthouse.
When you take it as a whole — the gymnastical delights of the first floor, the aquarium on the second floor, the absurdly specific exhibitions on the third floor (insects from just two places: Missouri and Ecuador, turn-of-the-century architectural curios, the circus, the beatniks and the world’s largest pencil and pair of underwear), all tied together by a 10-story slide beginning its descent just below a rooftop with the hanging school bus — the City Museum is an immensely enjoyable piece of performance art, both its name and appearance a playful, 10-story-tall middle finger to more traditional museums.
A traditional museum is professionally curated, aims for comprehensiveness and tries to teach you about others – other times, other places, other beings. They are built the way they are to produce a kind of shrinking of the self, the better to let others inside.
The City Museum’s endearing exhibitions are scattershot and charming for their amateurism. For example, in the third-floor archaeology section, the collector whose work is displayed writes: “I am an amateur or avocational archaeologist. Professional archeologists do not appreciate my work.” Or, the section displaying insects, which states the bugs are from “the U.S. and from a trip to Ecuador in 1996.” Undoubtedly the product of someone’s bizarre family vacation.
Most of all, though, the City Museum seems to want you to learn about yourself. After all, there isn’t much at the City Museum that you could find in a normal museum. Maybe the Missouri History Museum would take a few of the fancier doorknobs.
But up in the sky-tunnels outside, or caverns below, surrounded by kids anywhere from one-half to one-fifth my age, I found myself thinking about where I fit in.
Watching the kids around me, I realized that I was emphatically not one of them anymore. These days, I’m in college; I live away from home and every day I shave, cook breakfast, put on a shirt (collared, too) and drive to work. But as I clambered around, I also found another person. I found the person I used to be — a 5- or 10-year-old with permanently skinned knees.
As it turned out, no maps were necessary.
St. Louis more often looks backward than forward, and as a good St. Louisan, so do I. More alive to me are the faded photographs of shoppers pouring out of Famous downtown or the timeless streets of south St. Louis. There I can take pleasure in seeing signs left from the gilded past: the faded advertisements glimmering in late-afternoon light on old brick buildings, the cobbled riverfront, and the vibrant pavilions dotting Tower Grove Park.
Towering above all these things to me are the stately apartment buildings, storefronts, and Federal-style mansions of the Central West End. Simultaneously, the best-preserved old neighborhood in the city and its most modernly vibrant, the CWE represents the particular kind of naval gazing that I am most fond of. It is what I am most anxious to show off to friends and family who do not call the River City home.
I go to school in Boston, a city steeped in as much history as any in the United States. The Freedom Trail, Revolutionary War re-enactments, important historical sights are on almost every street corner — history in Boston is certainly alive. But each site feels geared more to every American than every Bostonian. In St. Louis, for better or for worse, our history is ours. Tourists are welcome, but our past will never be a part of their character.
The challenge, I suppose, is how we use that legacy. History, certainly, can be a burden and, at times, a trap. The risk is feeling too much of an obligation to the past, the burden of holding on to tradition and legacy in the face of whatever is new and trendy. The Central West End is so important to me because it balances these two conflicting forces. It is not trapped by its history, but transforms the historical into a richer present. The combination of the two makes for something far more interesting and alive than either can be alone.
The Chase Park Plaza, envisioned as bringing New York luxury to St. Louis, was the primary movie theater of my childhood. My family went to the storefronts that once housed the city's finest department stores, restaurants and cafes. And those gorgeous mansions have become the glue that held together the art galleries, and tastes, and views of the neighborhood. My parents see these same things in a different way, and my grandparents, different still, and yet it is the same neighborhood, reinvented and reinvigorated.
If you want to see St. Louis past, stop by Maryland Plaza at 11:30 on any night, after you drop in Left Bank Books, or Rothchild's, or the marble lobby or the Chase. If you want to see St. Louis alive, do the same. Some of the city's most innovative restaurants, Liluma, Taste and Brasserie by Niche, and Pi, to name a few, all call the neighborhood home. So do some of the trendiest clothing stores, art galleries, and the International Chess Hall of Fame.
I use these examples as a way of saying that in the dozen or so square blocks east of Forest Park, looking backward is an aid to moving forward, which is perhaps what St. Louis, and I, could use a little more of.
Returning to St. Louis after spending most of the past year at college in New York City, I’ve had to readjust to some aspects of suburban life. Restaurants don’t stay open all hours. Public transportation cannot take me everywhere I need to go. And grocery stores are large enough to handle shopping carts and lose people in.
But despite these changes, there are definitely some things that I have missed dearly about St. Louis. For one thing, I never expected grass to seem so exciting. Everyone told me that New York could feel claustrophobic and dirty, but I assumed that Central Park would satisfy my limited outdoorsy desires. As it turns out, I am happy to have a few months to appreciate our greenery before heading back to the big city.
So, as I made my rounds over the past few weeks, I visited one of my favorite places in St. Louis: the Missouri Botanical Garden.
At 153 years old, the Garden doesn’t exactly qualify as a “hidden” gem of St. Louis, but it certainly stands out among our attractions. Whenever friends visit from out of town, they ask the inevitable: “So what is there to do in St. Louis?” I always respond by suggesting we go to the Botanical Garden.
And whether or not visitors are interested in horticulture or history, the Botanical Garden manages to draw them in.
The Garden offers more than 30 attractions, which range from areas like the understated Japanese Garden to the iconic Climatron to the historic Tower Grove House and labyrinth maze. I love wandering through the many gardens, getting a taste in each of the huge variety of plants.
I usually spend the longest time in the English Woodland Garden. While some might prefer the more formal rose or iris gardens, this expanse of winding trails, dogwoods, rhododendrons, ferns and wildflowers feels almost magical.
With the sound of a small brook running through the English wood, the peaceful atmosphere practically conjures Puck from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."
This is one of the many reasons I so often bring visitors to St. Louis here. The gardens not only display an impressive array of local and international plants, but also provide an easy backdrop for long walks and catching up with friends.
The Garden does not only appeal to adults, though. The Children’s Garden: A Missouri Adventure, offers kids an opportunity to explore plants and history through activities such as a limestone cave, a tree house and a prairie.
In the summer, the Garden hosts several special events. The 2012 Lantern Festival opened in May and runs through August, showcasing lighted Chinese works of art Thursdays through Sundays (Note: Admission goes up).
Visitors can also picnic on Wednesday evenings during The Whitaker Music Festival, an outdoor concert series that takes place through July 25. I hope to go to the festival this year for the first time — and perhaps I’ll even bring someone who’s visiting St. Louis. Either way, I’m sure the experience will only enhance my love for the Garden and make it even more a defining feature of my St. Louis.
The one place in St. Louis I have visited over and over again has been the St. Louis Zoo. It never gets old. If a friend came to visit me, this would definitely be on the top of the list of places to go. Not only is it free but it has so many great animal exhibits.
The first place I would go would be the great apes exhibit. My feelings towards the apes are mixed. At first, of course, I think, “Oh they are so cute.” But then, I look at them more carefully and I am fascinated (and somewhat fearful) of how human-like they really are. Nonetheless, I do enjoy watching them for long periods of time.
Next would be the penguin house. Even though it’s cold and smells like fish, I love to watch the penguins swim around or just stand against the back wall looking at the ceiling. Every time I am in the penguin exhibit, a little part of me hopes that one of the penguins will jump over the glass wall or that I could be sneaky and brave enough to reach over the glass to try to pet one.
The elephant and big cat exhibits are great as well, but my favorite thing to see are the flamingos. I love flamingos. They aren’t exactly the most interesting animals to watch at the Zoo, but I always spend at least 10 minutes on the pavilion deck watching them. I love their bright pink color with their black tipped wings, and watching them wade through the water on their long skinny legs. I’ve always wanted to swim across to their little island and hang out with them.
Usually, whomever I am with has no interest in looking at them for as long as I do. In the summer, the shark and stingray exhibit is a great addition to the Zoo. It costs a little extra, but for the chance to pet the stingrays and sharks I am wiling to pay the $3.
The Zoo is a classic St. Louis attraction. I don’t think I will ever grow tired of wandering around and looking at the animals.
As a kid, I was always interested in the people around me: my family, my teachers, afternoon passersby on my street. As I grew up, my interest transitioned into a desire to know these people, and to tell their stories. That's what I hope to do as a journalist, and as an intern at the Beacon this summer.
The street I grew up on is in Spokane, Wash. I lived in Fontana, Calif., briefly, too, and then ended up attending high school in Edwardsville, Ill.
Staying relatively close to St. Louis when I went off to college let me extend my time near the city. Having only lived in the area for four years, I'm still discovering new parts of the city all the time. So far, my favorite place to spend an afternoon is the Zoo.
Hopefully this summer I'll find something more off the beaten path, but for now, it's my absolute favorite. I have a soft spot for little kids and orangutans, so I fit right in. On a day when it's not blistering hot, a walk through the exhibits and past the animals is a great way to pass the time, as well as learn something.
I never miss the apes, the stingrays or the penguins (even if it's just to cool off for a few minutes). I’ve dragged my friends from college to the Zoo, even though we should’ve outgrown it by now. Despite our age, we always seem to end up staring in wonder with all of the shorter attendees.
It’s not about what you do. It’s how you do it.
I’ve never been a big fan of … well, anything that everyone else was into. You could spend an entire day showing me the best tourist spots in the city and I wouldn’t find it remarkable.
As I write this, I've lived in St. Louis for 21 days. I have yet to go up in the Arch. I have yet to sit down and have a slice at Imo’s Pizza. I have yet to watch a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium — and if you knew me, you would know that’s never going to happen.
I’ll admit I’ve already enjoyed a day at the St. Louis Zoo with my fiancé, and I’ve walked the Delmar Loop a few times. But I’m not here for crowd-swarmed atmospheres or unhealthy “have-to-have” dishes. I’m here to experience a lifestyle change, one that’s different than what fit my schedule back in Carbondale.
For the last two and a half years, my college student newspaper, the Daily Egyptian, was my life. I loved all aspects of working at a newspaper: reporting, graphic design and photography.
But that lifestyle has downsides. I was drinking four cups of coffee a day, sometimes more. Ask any of my co-workers. I always had a cup of coffee in my hand. I used to say drinking coffee should be a prerequisite for journalists and that I was graduating SIUC with a major in journalism and a minor in coffee.
This all caught up to me. I quit all forms of caffeine graduation day. So I’m not here for the coffee. I’m not here to live the same lifestyle with which I came. It hasn’t been easy. I can smell the coffee bean aroma drifting out into the streets each time I walk past a Starbucks.
It’s also strange to have an open schedule. No detours on my way to work to grab a cup of coffee? At first I wasn’t sure what to do with all this free time. So, I read this article Stop Being A Slave To Starbucks and it suggested I find another energy source. I joined a gym and started getting a good night’s sleep. It made a world of difference.
So, my No. 1 St. Louis destination is simply anywhere and everywhere I haven’t been before, as long as the experience is a positive one. So tell me about the hidden gems, the breathtaking architecture tucked away or the restaurants just off the beaten path.
I’ve heard the Shakespeare Festival is a perfect way to spend an evening, and I’m sure I’ll be out there soon when I find the time. I can’t wait to spread out a blanket in the grass, enjoy a picnic dinner with family and friends and watch "Othello" in the park.
I’m new to the area so I want to hear from you where I should go next. Just please — no Starbucks or any local coffee shop. And no Cardinals games.