Monday, October 24, 2011

Devil in the Red City

I had a glorious day to myself this sunday, so I headed over to Wash U to explore. On the way, I passed by Forest Park, which is home to the remnants of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, aka the St. Louis World's Fair.  I made my way over to the Missouri History Museum, which had a great exhibition on the event.

I love Expos and World's Fairs for the historical and public diplomacy value found in such events.  From Devil in the White City, I came to learn about the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, but I admit I knew little about the one in St. Louis.  The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Expo celebrated the centennial of Jefferson's famous bargain with Bonaparte, and did so in regal fashion.  All sorts of neoclassical structures were built to showcase humanity  at the turn of the century in the realms of agriculture, trade, science and people.

The sprawling display featured all sorts of fascinating expositions like a City of Jerusalem exhibit, for a city still part of the Ottoman Empire.  There was a twice daily reenactment of the Anglo-Boer War with real vets doing battle once again.  And there were a plethora of BBQ tents, hanging under the "Flag of the Red Steer." Speaking of, apparently St. Louis claims that it eats more BBQ than any other city.  Other gastronomic curiosities unleashed at the fair include the ice cream cone, Dr. Pepper (10-2-4) and puffed wheat.

The event was termed an "Invitation to a foreign land," and it really was.  Camels and elephants were brought in to give rides.  Meanwhile, there were some 50 countries with pavilions at the fair.  The museum noted that the German expo had "[a] rich and diverse collection of exhibits to show the progress and aptitude of an imperial nation, showcasing technological advancement and participation in African colonization."

Furthermore, the Japanese and Chinese exhibits were immensely popular for the glimpse they gave to the Far East.  This was the first expo that China participated in, and offered Americans a chance to explore Chinese culture, foods and decorative arts.  Also, Japan participated and was met with much curiosity from an American audience trying to understand the Land of the Rising Sun.  The museum noted that both the Chinese and Japanese pavilions sought to capitalize on the interest in their goods by constructing traditional objects in nontraditional styles with Western influence and style.

I could not but think of the Shanghai Expo I visited last year, and the symbolism of all of it.  An America at the turn of the century that was brimming with promise and confidence, and poised to take on a new century, compared to a country wrestling with malaise and political paralysis, and corporated half-hearted attempts to take its place at the World's Fair.  All of this juxtaposed with a new country projecting its rise and welcoming the world to its shores.

The St. Louis World's Fair also had a real insidious underside that was seeped in imperialism, racism and colonial bigotry.  Over 47 acres  at the fair was a giant Philippines Pavilion to show off America's recently-gained colonial possession.  There were 6 encampments showing off Christian Visayans, Islamic Moros and "pagans" from Igoroto, Negritos and Bogotobo.  The sections were laid out to show off the various "stages of civilization" found, from primitive to Westernized Filipinos.

There was also a significant American Indian theme, that showed "evolutionary representations of cultural progress that led to 'enlightened' civilization."  There were mock Indian reservations held at what is now Wash U with representation from 20 tribes including Lakota Sioux, Osage and Navajo.  At the base were constructed replica dwellings, but towering high above the area was a US Indian school to represent were :Americanization" took place.

In short, there was a real air of patronizing exoticism throughout the fair that simply reflected its age.

Otherwise, an interesting note from the fair was that the first Olympics took place on US soil there.  The 1904 Olympiad wasn't much for an international Olympics.  The thing was so poorly run, that it almost ended the event.

With all that said, it was an interesting display of moment that was so very important at the time, only to be consigned to the pages of the forgotten.  The rest of the museum was interesting too, discussing the history of both St. Louis and Missouri on multiple levels.

After the museum, I drove up to study at the beautiful Washington University in St. Louis.  Wash U has a quintessential college campus feel  The university had been downtown, but the new campus was built just before the 1904 fair and was host to a large portion of the fair.  After the fair ended, the school moved in.  I met a family friend named Lindsay, who is in her senior year.  We hung out on a warm autumn day as daylight faded across the campus, then we went out for traditional St. Louis pizza at Imo's.  Imo's Pizza is a St. Louis institution, know for its circular pizza cut into squares.  The pizza is very, very thin, and covered with an ooey, gooey cheese blend called provel.  It was pretty good.  The crust is almost like a cracker, while the cheesy is less tasty than it is gooey.  Still have t-ravs, gooey butter cake and custard on my St. Louis gastrodiplo list. 

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