St. Louis, Missouri
In addition to visiting state capitals, another major goal in our journey was visiting cultural capitals, icons, and monuments. One of the better-known monuments in our great nation is the St. Louis Gateway Arch, which was completed in October of 1965.
The arch, commonly referred to as the “Gateway to the West”, symbolically marks the spot where certain regions of the US meet. For one thing, it sits on the Mississippi River, which is almost universally recognized as the division between the “West” and the “East” of the US. My rule of thumb is if you live within two states of the Mississippi River, than you are technically in the “Midwest”. Any more than that, and you are definitely either a “Westerner” or an “Easterner,” at least within the confines of our wonderful country.
Furthermore, the arch also rests very close to the parallel 36°30’, the dividing line laid out by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which was designed to draw a clear boundary between the northern, free states and the southern, slave states. The Compromise was one of the many last legislative efforts to stave off the Civil War, and as with many of the other pieces of legislation passed during that same period, it may have fanned the flames of conflict further rather than doing much to resolve them. Because the arch stands so close to this line, it is not unreasonable to say that the arch also symbolizes the border between the North and the South, effectively making the St. Louis Gateway Arch the confluence point of the 4 geographical and cultural regions of the United States.
This symbolism is important for many reasons. One is that the arch was built during one of the most turbulent decades in recent history. It was the 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement was gripping the country, making the arch’s placement on that line of “compromise” very poignant. It also serves as a reminder that no matter what struggles we are facing today, they are - almost without exception – better than the struggles that we were facing 100 years ago. Because of this, I find the arch to be as much a symbol of social progress, unity, and opportunity as it is of industry and innovation.
The second reason that the placement of the arch is incredibly important is because it marks an unspoken, but nationally recognized, boundary of culture. The North and the South are the two regions of the United States that are spoken about the most in terms of cultural differences, likely because of the Civil War. The South is a culture of honor, which refers to a culture in which people avoid intentionally offending others and in turn, maintain a reputation for not taking intentional offenses from other people. Men are also expected to act chivalrous and treat women with respect. It’s not to say that these are not important things in Northern culture, but they carry far more weight in the South. The importance placed on honor, personal respect, and manners contributes to “Southern Hospitality,” because it would be considered an intentional offense to not be as hospitable as possible. Northern culture is much more competitive. Rather than knowing your place in society, it is about independence, individuality, and consistently striving to use all available opportunities to rise to the next level. Partly because of that mentality, Northerners generally do not have the same standard of manners that is starkly apparent as soon as you cross the Mason-Dixon line. It is this difference that makes it easy to understand why the culture of the north would clash with the culture of honor in the South.
The other large, regional difference is between the fast-paced culture of the East, and the more relaxed pace of the West. Historically, the Western frontiersman were some of the hardiest and hardest working people of their time, scrapping by on a living off of the land, whether it be raising livestock, growing crops, or mining. But somehow, despite the hard working nature of the pioneers, the competitive nature of the East did not translate to the West. Perhaps in part this was because most people made their living off of the land, and there was always plenty of it. The space was not crowded, so competition was less necessary, and it could actually work against you, since your neighbor might be the only one who can help you in a time of crisis. I believe that much of it had to do with the individuals themselves; those that didn’t care for the hustle and bustle of eastern cities became our western pioneers, those who dreamed of something more lying over the Mississippi River, somewhere in the Great Plains and beyond. That dream of the pioneers and their long journey west was why the placement of the St. Louis Arch was so significant.
Whether as an engineering marvel, or a symbol of culture and social progress, the St. Louis Arch has become one of our most treasured American monuments. It is imperative that we examine the origin and meaning of these monuments and symbols, as they illuminate who we truly are as a country, the ideals and history that we all have in common. Riding to the top of the Arch and gazing 30 miles in each direction, I was filled with pride knowing how different we are as Americans and seeing the beauty and unity of the nation that we have created.