Catfish and Crystal (Doubleday, 1960, out of print)
The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition (Free Press, 2001, $25.00)
Not so long ago, the A. Amitin Bookshop was closing in downtown. (Or so we thought.) In the "rare" book room were three copies of Ernest Kirschten's "Catfish and Crystal," a thick volume of St. Louis history penned by a one-time Post-Dispatch editorial writer. The store owner wanted $50 apiece; after a look of shock, the priced dropped to $35. Still! What a deal! These were originals, after all, first editions, St. Louis classics.
Sadly for him, by that point I'd already ordered one through Powell's, the excellent, Portland-based used bookseller (www.powells.com). The price through them? A thrifty $13.45, shipping included. And it proved a fascinating read, confirming what I'd thought after poring through a copy of this for a few weeks, back in 1999. Starting out with the usual allotment of fur trappers, Indians and traders of the 18th century, Kirschten authored a pretty readable account of the St. Louis ascent, with plenty of coming attractions at the dawn of the 1960s. Enough, at least, to suggest that good times were still ahead.
In fact, those last chapters in Kirschten's work where he's setting up the post-WW II version of St. Louis and its hopes and dreams are the most interesting to a modern reader.
The language of Kirschten's work is sometimes shockingly dated, with some terms thrown about that you would've thought out of circulation even in 1960. But that quibbling aside, it's a real treat to dig back to a time in which: the Arch was still on the drawing board; the Browns had just left Sportsman's Park, with the Cardinals still playing there; Gaslight Square was just heating up; and a variety of daily newspapers still existed, with TV news not a player. Different days.
Kirschten's asides on the temperament of St. Louisans sometimes ring true of our contemporary neighbors. Others are amusing in their "period" color. Take this passage: "The man buying a wrench at Central Hardware or a chess in the Union Market may not keep a close eye on politicians, although he knows they have let him down more than once. But he does expect the newspapers to sound the alarm, if need be. And if a legislator or an alderman is caught in flagrante, his constituents will be three-deep at the bar of the corner tavern, discussing his peculations like so many Schurzes or Pulitzers. But if the brouhaha about the missile gap gets too loud, a man can take a tranquilizer in St. Louis nowadays just as easily as in New York."
A variety of books make up the accepted "must read" literature of St. Louis. Maybe it's because Kirscthen was a newspaperman, rather than an academic, that his book doesn't register on those lists. Or "Catfish" simply disappeared from all radars, after too short a time in print.
It's not the easiest book to find. Even the Powell's search took two months, before "Catfish" washed ashore with one of the Powell's used-book buyers. But it's worth the look. Really. Take the time to find it if you want a one-shot dissection of the growth of St. Louis through the middle of the last century. You'll be treated to some flavored writing and many references to our collective, lost treasures.
While getting into the thick of "Catfish and Crystal," I also came into possession of the latest by James Howard Kunstler, the highly regarded novelist and essayist, who had previously released two books dissecting the urban vs. suburban battle in the US: "Home from Nowhere" and "The Geography of Nowhere." Taking in the two wildly disparate books at the same time was intriguing, for sure.
Instead of focusing solely on the demise (and in a few cases, rebirth) of American cities, Kunstler takes an international, scattered approach in this new work, with deep, historical essays and analyses on all of the following cities: Paris, Atlanta, Mexico City, Berlin, Las Vegas, Rome, Boston and London. Each chapter varies in approach and tone, though Kunstler's caustic wit and way with a phrase ("The Romans were the original Flintstones") remain constant.
For Paris, as an example, he digs well into the life of Georges Hausmann, the man largely responsible for planning what's regarded as modern Paris. His look at Mexico City goes even deeper, sketching out the shifting battles of Mayans and Incas and Spaniards. Almost too much info, presented too quickly, here. The concluding chapter, London, is similar to Paris, chalking the outline of how an agrarian, rural-comfortable nation like Britain came to regard the capital as indispensable. (The discussion of the origin of London parks, in particular, will interest anyone who's spent time in the city.)
The sharpest incisions, not surprisingly, come with his looks at American cities. Boston fares rather well though several infrastructure "improvements" of the last 50 years are given the typical Kunstler brush-aside. Atlanta, hailed in some quarters as a miracle of the modern South, is dismissed by Kunstler as the poster city of sprawl; his predictions of imminent collapse for the region surely don't sit well with the town's chamber of commerce. The chapter on Las Vegas, meanwhile, ups the ante even more. After giving some of the reasons for the Nevada city's initial, modest growth, Kunstler savages the development of the last 50 years, with plenty of venom all around. The builders, the casino operators, the elderly who flock there all of them are shot through.
There are times that you sense Kunstler wouldn't be happy with any particular project his assailing of "green space" during the Boston discussion is particularly eye-opening but he is consistent, you have to give him that. More than anything, he champions the thoughtful and the permanent, with nothing but derision for the pre-fab and the cheap.
As for a local perspective...well, we don't do great. St. Louis is alluded to exactly four times in the 252 pages of "The City in Mind." In the first reference, we're a "mummy's tomb." In the second, we're negatively rated, compared to the rebuilt East Berlin. In the third, we look as if "enemy bombers flew" over the city. And in the fourth, we appear no better than "the bombed-out capital of a former Soviet republic."
Kunstler's is an important voice in shaping the debate over urban design and planning in the US. Despite the rather harsh comments above, I'd love to hear that voice speaking here, if only for an evening. Maybe giving a few suggestions to go along the insults, too, if he wouldn't mind.