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  • Last month I visited St. Louis to watch a mirrored arch cut the sky in half.

    In town for a conference, hobbled by a bad ankle, I slowly made my way to the ancient shore of the Mississippi. The Gateway arch lanced overhead, flung up from the mad 1960s. It gestured to an old frontier and imagined a gleaming future.
  • Down the street was the astonishing City Museum. This occupied a former shoe factory, and was stuffed to the gills with awesome children's hands-on exhibits, honeycombed with tunnels and secret passageways. Kids romped all over the place. climbing free-standing structures and exhibits.
  • The rest of the museum was exhibits of the city's past. Not just exhibits about St. Louis, but literally made from the city's ruins. Rooms were filled with wall fragments, doorknobs, roof gargoyles, signs, furniture, toys.

    I walked through St. Louis decades, moving between rooms of lovingly curated detritus.
  • I crossed a boundary between appreciation and melancholy. The sheer creativity and hard work of the museum amazed me, and the Gateway arch inspired awe.

    But these were monuments (literally) of times past. I could not imagine today's America building another structure like that sublime arch. I left the museum to travel through a rust belt city, studded with empty, worn-out buildings. St. Louis recalled many other such relic cities, remains of a massively productive and thoroughly removed past.

    Each art deco wall panel spoke to me of my time's failings. The soaring arch reminded me of our shrunken space program. These urban triumphs were triumphs and reproaches, achievements mocking our decade's mediocrity.
  • Then I remembered the museum-climbing children. Perhaps they live far past both times, fully inhabiting a different century. Maybe they can create new worlds beyond the triumph of rust.
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