On October 5th, I had the privilege of joining the leaders of WashU’s Material Monsters to explore the city of St. Louis from a new, two-wheeled perspective. As a self-described “material reuse and research initiative,” Material Monsters is organized by a group of architecture students in the Sam Fox school with a passion for “investigating the intersections of art, architecture, design and environment.” That Saturday, I gathered with a group of twenty or so students to go on their Bubble Butt Bike Blowout, which involved an afternoon-long bike tour around St. Louis, meeting with community leaders to discuss the city’s infrastructure, and homemade pasta on the Hill.
We spoke with a historian in the predominantly Italian Hill neighborhood about the ethnic issues that divide its social landscape, an artist and former construction worker at the Missouri Botanical Garden about sustainability and environmental art initiatives, and a restaurant manager in the Grove about issues of gentrification and urban renewal. We ended our afternoon with a visit to Grovefest, one of the biggest block parties in St. Louis (where there are many).
As an aside, I never knew how much I wanted to be a part of a bike gang until I became a part of one on this trip. There’s something indescribably awesome about riding through the streets of St. Louis with a pack of eco-friendly friends.
For one of our activities, we convened in Tower Grove Park to draw our personal mental maps of St. Louis. By looking at each other’s maps, we could see which areas of St. Louis WashU students visit the most. For most, especially freshman, this included the places that were most accessible by public transportation or walking, such as the Loop, the Central West End, and Shnucks–which isn’t a neighborhood but by its frequency on these maps deserves to be its own national landmark. Upperclassmen with cars and a greater working knowledge of the city tended to explore a little further, in areas like Soulard, Cherokee Street, Tower Grove, and downtown. Nevertheless, there were some parts of St. Louis that people rarely explored, such as the areas immediately north and further south of campus. We discussed why we may or may not be more inclined to visit certain areas, exploring both the geographical layout of St. Louis and physical roadblocks that may impede accessibility, along with sociocultural barriers.
Though I had to turn in my original map at the end of the activity for an upcoming exhibition Material Monsters is planning on doing with our work, I decided to recreate the map both for your benefit as prospective students and just because it was so much fun to do. Looking at the map, you can see by the places I’ve highlighted in dark green the trips I take and places I travel everyday, in light green the locales I frequent about once a week, and in orange, about once a month.
I’d like to think I’m well-traveled in St. Louis, but when I look at my map, all I can see is the many places I have yet to visit. At least the bike ride showed me how quickly a WashU student can get to most places in St. Louis by biking, especially my personal favorites, Tower Grove and Cherokee Street. I never used to go by myself, thinking that it was too far away for me to access by bike–now I never have to deprive myself of their spectacular restaurants and art galleries again, knowing that if I just push my pedals a little harder than I normally do, I can get there within twenty minutes.