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THE NEW FRONTIER: A CASE STUDY OF CULTURAL TOURISM W.Arthur Mehrhoff Evocative cultural symbols help to condition human perceptions of the existing social order and concepts of the future. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is just such a major national and local cultural symbol, a truly potent image, and therefore a significant object of study for those interested in the phenomenon of cultural tourism. In 1990, Americans commemorated the 25th anniversary of the completion on the St. Louis riverfront of the Memorial, popularly known as the Gateway Arch. In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt had established it as the first national historic site in the United States. 1 It represented several overlapping and sometimes contradictory purposes: to commemorate Thomas Jefferson and his purchase of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, to celebrate westward expansion and its pioneers, to provide jobs for a severely depressed local economy, and to boost property values on the city's historic but rundown riverfront. This enormous project replaced forty square blocks of decaying nineteenth-century industrial warehouses and tenements on the city's "front door," an area that may well have served as a setting for native St. Louisan T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," with its "certain half-deserted streets" and "sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells." 2 In addition to the 630-foot stainless steel catenary arch designed by Eero Saarinen, the Memorial includes the antebellum Greek Revival Old Court House (site of the Dred Scott trial) placed in a lush natural setting in the United States's first national urban park. The planning, design and construction of the Memorial spanned more than thirty years in one of the first major urban renewal projects in the United States. The country's tallest national monument was and remains an extraordinary feat of planning, design and engineering. Not surprisingly, the Memorial has also become one of the world's most popular tourist attractions and the symbol of St. Louis's civicprogress. Nevertheless, the very success of the Memorial in fashioning a new image for a depressed industrial center and creating a new social and physical environment on the historic St. Louis riverfront raises some complex and 252 W. Arthur Mehrhoff occasionally troublesome public policy questions about the uses of cultural tourism as an urban redevelopment strategy. It also posits a highly problematic relationship between cultural tourism and historic preservation. Does the Memorial, whose construction involved the demolition of deteriorated yet historic buildings on the original riverfront, really represent a national historic site? Is its local role as a tourist attraction and catalyst for development compatible with its lofty purposes as a national park? Is it not possible to commercialize and trivialize a cultural symbol to the extent that it becomes a caricature of itself, drained of its idealism? Finally, who should control the meanings of major cultural symbols like the Memorial, and for what purposes? A phenomenological approach lends itself well to the study of the many layers of meaning associated with a cultural artifact like the Memorial; one's own experiences provide an excellent starting-point for such analysis. I have experienced a strange, dialectical relationship with the Memorial that dates far back to my childhood. Its construction represented a major civic event that transformed the old riverfront area I had known during my youth from run-down buildings to a glorious spectacle. Later the Memorial figured prominently in my work as a downtown development planner for the City of St. Louis because of its vital importance as a downtown redevelopment catalyst and major tourist attraction. Still later, as a museum educator in the Museum of Westward Expansion at the Memorial, I became aware of the powerful tensions among the National Park Service, curators of the Memorial, and local civicand commercial interests regarding its physical and symbolic uses. I also found that tourists who stumbled into the Museum while waiting for the obligatory ride to the top of the Gateway Arch often became deeply fascinated and moved by the experience of artifacts and stories from the lives of nineteenth-century American pioneers whose adventures had begun on the historic St. Louis riverfront. Most of them only knew the Memorial as...


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pp. 251-261
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