Downtown St. Louis
Downtown St. Louis by Nini Harris
By Jonas Weir
If anything unites us as Americans, it is our resilience. Perhaps no other city in the Union exemplifies American resilience better than St. Louis. For more than two centuries, this city has made it through times, thick and thin. It’s seen everything from Ulysses S. Grant’s wedding to a handful of World Series championships, and author Nini Harris tries to pack it all into one gorgeous coffee table book, simply titled Downtown St. Louis.
Nini is as qualified as anyone to take on such a tome. She’s spent her entire life in St. Louis and the past thirty years giving tours downtown. She’s like a human search engine for information about the Lou. Her tours include everything from Civil War history to detailed information about the city’s most architecturally significant art deco buildings. Downtown St. Louis puts her wealth of knowledge to work, providing a great story of the city loaded with fascinating factoids. There are detailed accounts of the first European settlers, tales from the late nineteenth-century brewery boom, and even a behind-the-scenes look at how the most recent downtown revival has taken shape.
Although the book was a labor of love for Nini, she’s not the only one who deserves credit for this accomplishment. The foreword from legendary St. Louis broadcaster Charlie Brennan contextualizes the book and sings its highest praises.
“I’m convinced as we more learn more about downtown St. Louis, we’ll develop a greater appreciation of this part of our region,” he writes. “In turn, we’ll retell Harris’s stories again and again, and by doing so, enhance the ‘esprit de corps,’ as Chouteau might have called it, for the city he founded.”
Charlie Brennan’s kind words and Nini’s painstaking research are not all that makes this book essential. The photos throughout the book cannot be ignored, and Reedy Press photo editor Don Korte did an amazing job of assembling everything from rare archival images to well-done modern photographs. Some highlights include a map of St. Louis at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, a broad shot of St. Louisans gathering to greet President Theodore Roosevelt when he arrived by steamboat, a photo of couples doing the Charleston during a 1925 dance contest, harrowing photos of a 1976 inferno that claimed part of western downtown, and pictures of all the present-day attractions.
Essentially, the book is a sum of its parts, and there really are no weak parts. Sure, some parts will appeal to different people. Chapter 1 focuses on the time before the Louisiana Purchase and might fascinate those enthralled with Colonial America. The second chapter moves through the Civil War and up to 1874. The middle of the book focuses on the industrial revolution and St. Louis’s first great influx of European immigrants. Finally, the last two chapters take readers through World War II and up to the present day, which will surely delight those who grew up in St. Louis way back when. Additionally, visitors who’d like to make the trip here might find some spots they’ll want check out.
Downtown St. Louis is a book for anyone with a connection to the city. It could serve as a research tool for kids working on school projects just the same as it might evoke memories from decades past. However, it most definitely instills a sense of pride in all Missourians who can lay claim to this great American city and, arguably, the crown jewel of our state.