Saturday, April 4, 2009

Lunchtime Walkabout

On Friday I made good on my promise to myself to stop paying ridiculous prices for mediocre produce, and went to Soulard Farmers Market on my lunch hour. It’s in one of the oldest sections of the city, a French-steeped enclave of three-story, Mansard-roofed, all-brick wonderment. For $10, I bought 10 pounds of potatoes, three pounds of Fuji apples, two pounds of sweet potatoes, two zucchini, seven bananas, a dozen brown eggs from chickens that don’t live in cages, and a beef stick.

Back in the car, enjoying my salty, meaty snack, I realized I’d only been away from the office for half an hour, and wasn’t ready to go back. There’s been some stress there lately, and I need my midday break more than ever. Also, Terry Gross was interviewing Leonard Cohen on the radio, and there was no way I wanted to miss that.

And that’s how I decided to go lunchtime walkabout. Be a tourist in my own town.

I pointed my car north on Broadway and started driving. Office buildings and freeway entrances quickly gave way to 18th-century warehouses with antiquated loading docks facing the street and company names painted on their brick flanks in massive block letters. There were a few “gentlemen’s clubs,” a motorcycle chop shop called “Biker’s Paradise,” a tattoo parlor, and many more warehouses. Then the brick buildings gave way to more modern structures, and I got bored and decided to turn west.

I spotted a beige-colored church and made my way toward it, doglegging to find a way over the highway between me and it. Holy Trinity, a German Catholic establishment dating to 1898, and still in great shape. I thought about going in, but felt more inclined to keep driving.

I spotted another church, and as I got nearer, I could see windows broken, including some in the huge rose window that is now only partially stained glass. The shutters of the belfry in disrepair, even some of the stone newel posts out front worn down to nubs from their original cone-shaped prettiness. But even with all that, church buses, a healthy building next door, signs of a community.

Another church, another meandering drive toward it. Plywood sheets over most of the places where stained glass used to be. The lettering on the sign out front indicating a soup kitchen, maybe. No buses, no real signs of life, German etched in stone and the year 1896.

And that’s when I started to cry. Not bawling, mind you, just weepy sadness, thinking about the people who built these places, the hope they must have had, the slow slide into decrepitude that must have led to the plywood, the death of countless communities all over this area of the city.

I was married in a church not far from these – St. Stanislaus Kostka, completed in 1880, built by Polish immigrants, and saved during the 1970s by a community of stubborn Polacks who poured their hearts into renovating the church and building a community center – with little help from the Archdiocese. They all live miles and miles away, and they come into the city every Sunday, and many other days, to celebrate Mass, hold Easter egg hunts and meetings, and plan for the future.

Why? How? So many churches in the area are dead – what made this one, and the first one I saw, different? Was it the collective temperament of the community? One charismatic leader? General histories are available online, but timelines and blurbs can’t possibly capture the alchemy that must have been necessary.

I knew I was near St. Stanislaus, but I wasn’t sure which direction to turn, and at any rate, my time was up. It was enough to know it was there, and feel grateful that it lived. I found myself going south on Jefferson, still a bit sad, but refreshed.

1 comment:

  1. When I saw the photo, I thought you were going to be writing just about St. Stanislaus. What an interesting trek you made.

    It is sad to see the communities that were once vibrant now empty and boarded much as I have learned, I will never understand this. Thanks for taking us along on your drive!


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