After five years of renovation, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri was reopened on July 3, 2018 under its new name “Gateway Arch National Park”.
From the time we heard about this name change we were not very stoked on it, mainly because while each of the other 59 places in the U.S. named “national park” had to go through an extensive process of proving its resources were worthy of protection, Gateway Arch’s legislation just basically says, “we wanna change the name so let us do it, the end.”
A bad precedent for the national parks system, yes? Because while the arch has been managed by the national park service for as long as it has existed, the NPS has always distinguished between different kind of parks by giving them different names that signify different designations—until now. With Gateway Arch’s renaming, the name doesn’t match the designation—the arch was never legally designated as a true national park. But only a real national park geek is going to read through the legislation establishing every other park and notice the glaring difference.
We are those geeks.
And, obviously, it matters to us. Because the national park service has to regularly fight for its life, balancing the corporate-henchmen-slash-Congresspeople that decide its future with the complex and fraught imperative of “conserving unimpaired”, dealing with the hordes that come to experience America’s national wonders and leave behind mountains of trash, graffiti, and literal poop while also seeking to educate, inspire and uplift, and do it all in ill-fitting polyester uniforms. THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE ARE HEROES. So if, as was the case with Gateway Arch, they come out against legislation to change a park site’s name, saying that they think the proposed name is inappropriate and they’d like to go a different direction, we side with the national park service. They’re the ones trying to keep this whole public lands thing alive in the first place.
Alas, Congress did not listen to the National Park Service, deciding instead to sign the legislation that would change “Jefferson Expansion National Memorial” to “Gateway Arch National Park.” For the record, we love the “Gateway Arch” part. The arch hardly ever got called by its first name anyway, and it’s pretty obscure and distinctly un-catchy. A more appropriate name change (for us and for the National Park Service [according to their statements] and for every single ranger we spoke to at the site) would have been Gateway Arch National Memorial, or Monument. Shiny and new for the unveiling of the big renovation, but still appropriate to what the site actually protects, which is history and a huge man-made structure NOT natural resources.
So we came to Gateway Arch with a smidgen of side-eye. Still, we were excited to see its new museum and updated grounds. The renovation really was beautifully done and, according to old reports, pretty badly needed. The old arch was sandwiched between the interstate and a railway, mainly accessed through a parking garage into which one could drive, walk along an underground passage, hop into the bitty elevator cars that transport visitors to the arch’s top, walk back to the garage, and go without ever having to step outside. City officials worried that the arch experience was essentially a drive-by affair; they wanted to draw people above ground, outside, and into the rest of the city.
The new park grounds do that beautifully. There’s now an expanse of grass and park area connecting the arch with the Old Courthouse, another part of the park that focuses on the history of the Dred Scott Case (which was won in the historic building). There are walkways, an event space and a wide land bridge that passes over the interstate. Inside, the new museum is terrific, detailing not only the history of westward expansion and pioneer life, but also (and in a departure from the old museum’s offerings) a closer look at the building of the arch itself, St. Louis’s role as a gateway to the West and, most importantly, a nuanced, clear-eyed and un-glossed-over look at the people who were forced from their land when European settlers grabbed it up.
We loved the museum and really loved the park movie about the arch’s construction, featuring dizzying shots of workers milling about with no safety harnesses whilst hundreds of feet in the air; we were miffed, though, that the park charges $7 to see the movie, even after you’ve already paid the park entrance fee.
More expected was the fee to ride in a tram car to the top of the arch, a thrilling (if claustrophobic) way to take in St. Louis, the Old Courthouse and the Mississippi from above. The arch really is a stunning architectural feat, taller than the Washington Monument, perfectly curved, flexible enough to withstand strong winds and visible from nearly anywhere in St. Louis.
The trams are actually run by the city’s transportation department and they feel distinctly un-national-park-y, mostly because they make you pose for one of those awful green screen pictures before you’re loaded into your tram.
There were a lot of things about Gateway Arch that didn’t quite sit right, mainly the way the NPS’s wishes were ignored in order to get the cachet of the National Park title, but also things like going through security before entering the museum (if you’re going up the arch, sure, but just to go in the building? I guess this is the future now because there’s a mass shooting every freaking week in this country, but it made us really sad), paying extra for the park movie (included in the entrance fee at every single other park), and the flimsy photocopied sheet that serves as a jr. ranger book here, even though $380 million was spent on the renovation project. All these signified to us a change that we’ve already been worried is going to come to the national park system—one where the concept of national parks is diluted, the mission of the park service is sacrificed to business interests, and the cost of visitation is raised, taking public lands away from the people and turning them into profit machines for concessioners and corporations.
I can’t blame Gateway Arch for this; it’s just the first in what are sure to be many changes as the national park service struggles to broaden its appeal and profitability in order to prove its viability. It’s fairly likely that the 418 sites administered by the NPS will someday ALL be named “national parks”, eliminating confusion over what gets which designation and hopefully boosting visitation to smaller sites. I worry, though, because despite soaring visitation at major parks, the NPS’s budget continues to be slashed, its lands opened up to drilling, mining and commercial interests, and its services kept running largely by volunteers. The people maintaining our most beautiful places and precious resources are underpaid, backlogged with work, and ritually ignored by legislators. The parks are too important for this kind of nonsense, and we hope to see the day where they are appropriately valued, listened to, and not taken advantage of.
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