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I am a writer, a mom, and a friend. In this blog, I explore all of that. Please join me in this conversation by leaving a comment on anything you've read. Or follow me on Facebook @ Beth von Behren (author).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Yes I Did Work at the Arch

As I came over a rise today on Page Avenue, I was able to see the downtown skyline, and the Arch, for a couple of seconds. I always forget that this high point exists on Page, so it always surprises and delights me. There is just something really wonderful about seeing the Arch, in the distance or up close. It is a marvel.

For two summers during college, I had a great job at the Arch as a motion-picture projectionist. They paid me prevailing union wages, which was good money for a college kid, and I didn't really have a lot to do other than start the film, switch reels, and manually rewind the film.  So after closing the theatre doors and starting the automated projector to play "Monument to a Dream," I often wandered around the place. Sometimes, I found myself sitting on the steps under the Arch, just staring up at it.

From every angle, the design is captivating. As a non-mathematician, I often wondered that it didn't just fall over. I read an article in the Post-Dispatch once in the early 80s that depicted with graphic detail what would happen to the Arch if downtown became ground zero during a nuclear attack. It would essentially fold backwards into the river with the force of the blast.  Short of a cataclysmic event, however, the engineers who designed it expected it to stand for hundreds and hundreds of years.

More recently, the Post-Dispatch has investigated and reported on some serious care-taking issues at the Arch. One article, "Corrosion Goes Unchecked," was accompanied by photographs of rust and pools of water at the base of the legs that maintenance crews try to keep cleaned up. This occurs in an area workers can access. Other corrosion, higher up and on the outer side of the stainless steel skin, is more difficult to reach.

The problem was first noted in 2005. A structural engineer told the Post it was possible that corrosion inside the steel walls is “bleeding through failed welds and staining the glimmering outside surface." It could be an aggressive corrosion, the article said, but there is no way to know because no maintenance records exist. The 2005 report recommended regular photographs be taken to document the problem over time, but apparently this has not been done.

There are plans in place to overhaul the Arch grounds, build access to downtown across Interstate 70, and add amusements and other things to the riverfront. But the anchor for all this is supposed to be the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, that structure we lovingly call the Arch. It doesn't take a genius to see the futility of planning to improve the grounds if you don't first make sure the Arch will remain standing.

My two summers working at the Arch coincided with the first two years of Fair St. Louis, then called the VP Fair. The early years of the Fair were problematic. In 1982, severe rain and huge crowds reduced the Arch grounds to a gigantic mudslide. People waded in the reflecting ponds, killing the goldfish. The grounds were covered in trash and broken glass. The irrigation system was damaged.  Trees and grass had to be replaced, at a cost of about $120,000 (in 1982 dollars). Eventually, civic leaders promised to repair the damage and put plans into place to make sure it didn't happen again.

Our boss at the time, the park’s superintendent Jerry Schober, wrote a letter to Arch employees. The complete contents of what he said are now lost to time, but the part I remember is this: "I know how much you all love this park." The funny thing is that I didn't realize how much until I read his letter. I do love that park. I think most St. Louisans love it. Ask any native and he or she is very likely to have a story about the first time they took the tram to the top, or the first wedding they attended under the Arch, or how wild the river looks from the top of the staircase when it's at flood stage. Or maybe they will tell you, as I would, about the Chuck Berry concert under the legs of the Arch during that 1982 VP Fair. Any native will tell you they love this city, they love Chuck Berry, and they love the Arch.

Fixing the corrosion problem may not be easy.  The original engineers made no plans for exterior maintenance access.  Use of scaffolds, cranes, ropes, or a helicopter all have serious drawbacks.  Here's what I think: We are a smart species. If we could figure out how to build such an amazing thing, we can figure out how to fix it, and we can figure out how to pay for it.

I remember seeing the partially built legs of the Arch when I was four years old. My children have never known a time when the Arch wasn't there to welcome them home from a journey. I would like to know that my great grandchildren will be able to tell their children stories about the first time they rode to the top and what a majestic and beautiful thing it was.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Man in the Wheelchair

[Parts four and five in my Opinion Shaper career - transferring this column over here before it its deactivated on the Suburban Journals Website]

OPINION SHAPER: Man in wheelchair offers lesson in government

OPINION SHAPER: Man in wheelchair offers lesson in government

We live in an era when people from different political perspectives spend a lot of time squabbling over who's right, who's got the higher moral ground, and what's better for our nation and our planet - bigger government, less government, higher or lower taxes, etc.

I know what I feel personally, but I admit that I don't always have the answers or a solution to what ails us.

I do, however, know when I see something that works. Today, I saw a man in a wheelchair in the grocery store. He seemed to have some kind of muscular condition. His arms were bent at the wrist, and he didn't seem able to use his hands. He also wore some kind of breathing apparatus, and he needed assistance in the store. I saw him several times, and I noticed people were helping him, which was cool, but not what got my attention.

As I left the store, I saw the guy again. He was tooling along in his motorized chair, by himself, cutting through the store's parking lot and then through a restaurant's lot, to get to the sidewalk on Olive. I drove slowly so I could watch his progress.

He had a backpack on his chair but no bags, so he clearly did not buy very much, but he was speeding along, enjoying the 88-degree weather and the sunshine, rather than taking any number of public transportation vehicles that are no doubt at his disposal. He must live close, I thought. Then I checked the sidewalk to see if it had wheelchair access. It did.

In fact, all along Olive there are sidewalks with wheelchair access. They all looked fairly new. I work in city government, so I know how much it costs to rebuild a sidewalk. And then it hit me: We did that. We built those sidewalks. As a nation, as a society, we decided a few years back that we needed to make our world more user- friendly, more accessible to folks in wheelchairs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was initially passed in 1990. I looked it up. Here is just a little bit of what the original bill, which was updated in 2008, says under "Findings": "Some 43,000,000 Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities … Historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate [these] individuals … [who] continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including … relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities."

These were the findings of Congress, which essentially said: Shame on us. But here's the best part: "The Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency … to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous…"

This part reminds me first that we are a nation and second that as a nation, we have ideals, beliefs and goals designed to ensure our common prosperity. The problem is we can't agree on how to achieve that. The fight has gotten so loud and so negative that it looks increasingly like we may never agree on anything again.
So maybe what we need to do is remind ourselves of what we have done in the past, what we have achieved when we worked together on a common goal.

Together we decided, as a nation, that even though it was going to cost an awful lot of money to rebuild sidewalks and make them handicapped-accessible, it was the right and smart thing to do.

Together, we made it possible for the guy in the wheelchair to get outside, enjoy the nice weather on a beautiful fall day and experience just a fraction of the independence that the rest of us take for granted every day. We did that. We did that together. There is something to be learned from that.