This is a map showing the streetcar routes that existed in St. Louis in 1896. It’s pretty. It’s interesting to contemplate the vitality and upward trajectory that this map represents, and then compare it with our perceptions of the city today. I am not at all making the case that today’s transportation system is inferior to the one shown in the map, but it is quite different in its appearance, in its operation, and in how it fits into the culture of the city. Looking at this map and contemplating those differences, it is possible for me to believe, briefly, that the two eras have no connection to each whatsoever; 1896 St. Louis and 2016 St. Louis could be two distinct, entirely unrelated places. The vast majority of the people who used the 1896 system are forgotten, and much of the city they knew no longer exists culturally or physically.
In the last few years St. Louis has seen an exciting increase in new construction and progressive projects, along with a steady march of demolitions and restorations—change. I ask myself what these changes mean for St. Louisans’ perceptions of their city’s past. Are these changes at all the legacy of past St. Louis, or are they built on completely new foundations, even the foundations of other places—Chicago, Portland, Boston, Kansas City? Even the St. Louis of the past borrowed ideas from other places, but does today’s St. Louis neglect its own past because the pasts (and presents) of other places are truly superior, more interesting, or only because St. Louis is still largely in the dark regarding itself, still scrambling for pieces of identity? Where exactly do we find 1896 St. Louis in the St. Louis of today?