A Tour of Industry With the Holy Ghost

by Stefene Russell     photographs by Thomas Fletcher

At the end of Branch Street, just beyond the highway overpass, there is an empty apartment building. One of the city’s most notorious graffiti bandits—RATFAG—tagged the entire top third of the building, the A's drawn as pyramids topped with radiant Illuminati eyes, like the back of a dollar.

Next door, there’s a church; there are always a couple of cars parked in front, maybe a truck and a handful of economy cars. Sunday mornings, the curb’s all parked up, and the sidewalk’s filled with people—men in brown pinstripes, little boys in tiny polyester suits, little girls in braids and barrettes, ladies in parkas and church hats sparkling with sequins.

This church rocks with the power of the Holy Ghost, and they advertise it on the front of the building. Sometimes in summer or spring, when there’s a window open, I swear I have heard a congregant speaking in tongues, syllables gushing out: see-tah nah-tah, ho-fi nee-tah! Shandala hallah hallah key, o-see me-ti hoo-ti mah tah!

When the Holy Ghost visits the Pentecostals, it comes as a bird made out of light, like the hard, clear rainbows thrown by chandelier spangles. When the Holy Ghost visits the Catholics, it’s also a bird made of light, but more like the golden light slatting through windows at dinnertime. When the Holy Ghost visits a Mormon wardhouse, it’s as a balding man in a short-sleeved Van Heusen shirt, with a pen in his pocket; he knows your name before you are introduced. That’s the Holy Ghost I grew up around, Spirit as inventory-checker, the gold-star-giver.

After I moved to North St. Louis, I discovered the Holy Ghost has subjected itself to some faith-based shapeshifting. But when no one is telling it what to do, it travels as a feeling, an atmosphere. If you are standing on a corner and suddenly have an attack of emotion—like catching sight of your old junior high boyfriend across the street at a bus stop, or the smell of cooking drifting out of a window, something greasy your mom made when your family was poor—and you feel weirdly sad, or buoyant, or kind of emotionally nauseated, that’s the Holy Ghost.

Near North Riverfront, there are hundreds of little pockets of feeling: nostalgias and sorrows and puzzlements. The Holy Ghost is everywhere. Like wildlife, it tends to hide itself in isolated places, areas you can’t get to without some trouble. Like wildlife, it needs a stretch of habitat not subject to trampling feet or subdivision covenants. Some of those places are easily called Holy, like a mountaintop in Tibet, gnarly old woodlands, or the Southern Utah desert. But you will also find the Holy Spirit in places that repel loiters, or are so bleak as to discourage stopping for pleasant reflection. The blankest stretches of Kansas. Unfashionable strip malls in small California towns, in the middle of August. Anyplace where there are multiple species of venomous snakes.

And this place, which, until you spend a bit of time here, makes no sense. Cobblestone streets end suddenly for no reason, or men in dark suits and name badges run you off when you get to close to certain fenced-in areas. There are also scrap metal lots, train yards, plastics-molding concerns, burdock and pigweed growing five feet tall, and businesses like Sang Fah Wholesale Chinese Grocery, Liberty Machine Works, Modern Screw, St. Louis Blow Pipe, Leaf, Inc., and A-Line Inc. (“Where You Can Get the Shaft”). There is a factory that cooks up giant vats of perfumes, dyes and detergents, and emits an odor so sweet and acrid it seems more like a color—industrial bubblegum pink—than a smell. On North Broadway, right across the street from Chili Mac’s Diner (where they still list Jell-o as “nervous pudding” on the menu) is the chemical company that is the U.S.’s leading importer of Indian opium. It is also the only company in the United States that can legally sell cocaine.

Generally, it’s not a place that goes out of its way to attract visitors. And those who are here—including the roughly 800 folks who live down here, next to sweeping-compound manufacturers and foam products distributors—seem to prefer it that way. Still, the city has been busy installing biking and walking paths for the past several years, and the bicyclists (as opposed to the bikers, which there are also plenty of) have to wind their way past truck lots and factories to get to the trails on the riverfront. You will very often see a clutch of Tour de France-looking guys in bug sunglasses and spandex, speeding down 19th toward Branch, toward the North Riverfront trail.

As those bicyclists follow Branch, whipping past the Holy Ghost Church, they never look up, probably never even see the dogleg onto 11th Street, though the wing of the Pentecostal dove points that way, like a street sign written in code. Eleventh is less street, more alley; It runs behind the church and the RATFAG apartments, but feels immersed in a completely different reality. The air smells like burlap and natural gas, and in the summer and fall, you can always hear crickets anxiously chirping, even at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Turn that corner, and you suddenly realize people live upstairs from the church—there’s a plastic kids’ playhouse, a lawn chair, a recently used ashtray in the tiny cement courtyard—and down the block, after you pass a grassy rise topped with trees and a billboard, there are two shotgun houses. Both have big signs that read BEWARE OF DOG, but the one on the left has a dirt front yard and flies an American flag; the one on the right has a French flag and rosebushes. They face a row of lots behind fences with razor wire looped around the top. There’s a giant rusting tank, grown over on one side by honeysuckle. Another lot is filled with truck cabs. In another, an unrecognizable bit of yellow machinery being grown over by weedy grass. At the corner of Dock and 11th, there’s a giant candy cane stuck in the ground next to the fireplug. Oddly enough, there’s also a dry, reddened spring of Scotch pine lying in the grass nearby, a leftover from someone’s Christmas tree, still here 10 months after the fact.

North Broadway is the main artery of St. Louis’ industrial riverfront. It leads to downtown, and to the highway onramp. Broadway embraces everything: virtue, sin, commerce, churches, bars, mattress wholesalers, drunks, preachers, and Sunday drivers in jury-rigged Roasters or muscle cars. Shady Jack’s biker bar sits next to the Gospel Announcer’s Union; E.H. Glueck’s wholesale nursery, which specializes in Christmas trees, sits across the street from a triple-X theater. There’s a sheltered workshop, and a place called Serenity Wellness Supplies, which (as far as I can tell) deals in products for incontinence, though just a few months ago, was Joker’s Tattoo Parlor. At Broadway and Bulwer, there’s a bar called Daddy’s Money, formerly the Broadway Bistro Zoo (The new owners kept the Corvette Summer mural, ditched the spaghetti wrestling on Wednesday nights). Turn right, walk down the street, and you will be face-to-face with Quan Yin, peacefully standing behind barbed wire among cement rubble and shipping containers.

Radiating off Broadway are all the streets describing the landscape of a much older St. Louis: Dock, Ferry, Market, and Prairie. Closest to Broadway are the scrap yards, whose fenced lots are mountains of junked cars, refrigerators, twisted aluminum extrusion, rebar, gutter downspouts, mailboxes, rakes, lawn trimmers, and copper wiring, and whatever else scrappers wheel down there in a shopping cart on any given weekday. Once, I saw some neighbor kid’s head poking up out of the ground like a gopher’s, and realized someone had scrapped the manhole covers; I’ve also seen two guys in an empty lot, going at a Laz-E-Boy recliner with an ax, freeing the metal frame from the upholstery fluff for scrap. (They had already disemboweled a couch.) Each street seems to be its own corridor of altered reality. You might see little domes covered in tarpaper; cobblestone streets; a small stretch of weedy prairie cut through with train tracks; the distorted shadows of old sagging power lines, thrown on the wall of a building, like twisted bars of musical notation; a row of white structures that look like giant, empty bullet casings; or a chunk of wood stuck in a fence, shaped like a tiny man, looking all the world like a caught mandrake spirit.

On Angelica—one of the few streets that runs through to the Mississippi river—you will find remnants of the days when a lot of cows and horses and pigs lived down here. The Stabilized Nitrogen Center, owned by Lange-Stegmann and AGROTAIN International, started as Lange-Stegman in 1925, when there were still stockyards here. It made good use of the waste products—manure and animal scraps—packing it all into burlap sacks as fertilizer and loading it on trains that chugged out to farms all over the Midwest. Now it manufactures a far tidier form of fertilizer: urea pellets made from natural gas, which look a lot like Sno-Melt. The Stabilized Nitrogen Center’s machines are outfitted with screens that size these pellets precisely, and they sell as much to golf course turf managers as they do soybean farmers.

Also on Angelica is Hermann Leather Oak Co., which has been here since 1881, and also took advantage of the leftovers coming out of the stockyards, in this case hides; at first, they just made harnesses for pioneers heading west. The company still makes harnesses—and bridles, saddle skirts, and pet leashes—tanning the leather with tree bark. It is a process that includes mysterious steps like “unhairing,” bleaching in fatliquor, drumming, wringing, and toggling. On their website, they say they would like to do business with you “not just because you love our products, but because you have made a friend.” If you look at the photo of their staff, including the Hermann who now runs the company, one tends to believe it.

Chuck Berry, who grew up not so far from here in The Ville neighborhood, once said St. Louis musicians are wilder than most, because St. Louis is a city that’s also in the country. Listen to Chuck Berry, or Miles Davis, who grew up in East St. Louis just across the river, or Josephine Baker’s marzipan hummingbird warble, and you know he’s right. (Actually, Josephine’s dancing argues the point more convincingly.) The North Riverfront is the place where you see that truth in material form. There’s a big silo near the river, surrounded by train tracks, where grain and grain derivatives get trucked out on company trains to be made into extruded cereals and snack crackers. Flocks of pigeons circle everywhere, eating the spillage. You can see where the birds like to go, because in the empty fields, amid the chicory, poke, and dandelion, you see sprouts of agricultural plants—corn, sorghum, wheat. This is where city birds eat domestic crops and turn them back into weeds.

The Riverfront trail runs 11 miles along the Mississippi. Half of that is taken up with this industrial area, what they call “the working river,” a quaint phrase for this tangle of shipping warehouses, brick smokestacks, giant piles of salt, and rusting rebar. The trailhead is next to the old Power & Light Building, down by the Arch. There’s an underground festival called Artica that happens here in the fall, just at the foot the Cotton Belt Building, where Jeremiah the Amish Hobo used to live; on the first day, there is a procession to the Mississippi, where people dress in costumes and take tiny handmade boats made from wood, bread, anything that will decompose, and launch them into the river.

Three miles down is from the trailhead is the Merchant’s Bridge, built in 1889, still constantly clacking with railcars, and the first official Underground Railroad site in Missouri. In 1855, Mary Meachum, an African slave, gathered nine other slaves, with the plan to launch them in a skiff across the river to the free state of Illinois. Four escaped. Five did not, including three slaves owned by Henry Shaw, founder of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Every May, a group of actors in period costume re-enact the escape, including a posse of police and slave-owners on horseback. Though you can dial up a historical lecture on your cell phone at the official site (which is now called the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing) you can’t get down to the river—the cement steps have broken into three pieces, like busted-up dollhouse stairs. And the planters on either side are all grown over with weeds. When FedEx moved away from the riverfront a few years ago, it gave its old facilities to the city; and that’s where they are going to build a wall near the levee, with the names of all known slaves held in the city of St. Louis etched on its surface, and nine arched doorways, one for each person who fled with Mary Meachum.

There are ceramic birds on the floodwall and a poem painted on the levee. Bob Cassilly left behind a cement moon bridge and an angel on a Doric column. Arches like this would not bark away the Spirit; angels on salvaged posts, and arches that pay respect to the horribly wronged, draw in the Spirit, and more angels, including ones with mutilated feet that forgot where they were supposed to fear to tread.

Great Rivers Greenway is painting the Iron Horse, an old elevated plate girder trestle, and doing some fundraising, with plans of turning this into St. Louis' High Line. They are re-doing the Arch Grounds. There is talk of putting a “lid” over the highway, to encourage people to go down to the river. There is talk of a big re-do down here. A cleanup. A makeover.

Right now, the North Riverfront is still all backwards joints and non-sequiturs; despite the bike trails, the capital campaigns, the RFPs, this is still a place that’s mostly out-of-sight, filled with red foxes, sunflowers, railcar riders, and land wights. Under the Merchant’s bridge, on a post in front of the Pumping Station, someone has left, unexplainably, a tin of opened foil-wrapped bullion cubes, and scattered a few on the ground. There is one manic cricket, chirping to himself; under the shadow of the bridge supports, there is a couch, and behind it, spray-painted, the word FUR. On the asphalt path, there are three arrows that don’t point to anything. On a post: REMOVE ALL TREES. On a blank metal sign, written in blue paint pen, the word DALEK. Two trains whistle to each other in different keys as they pass each other on the bridge. And because it’s Sunday afternoon and a little chilly, and people are not out on the trail, some company upriver has opened a sluice, releasing a miles-long plume of detergent scum onto the surface of the Mississippi, all the little bubbles glittering in the sun like fish roe.

One day, there will be bulldozers down here, and cement mixers, wrecking balls, and city workers with sprayer tanks of RoundUp. To kvetch about such things is to risk seeming antisocial, or worse, like some precious aesthete who doesn’t know what’s good for economic growth, or good for people.

But the Spirit is good for people. And the Spirit doesn’t blow around in noisy, bleachy places. It likes biofilms. It likes animals with burrs in their fur. It likes light as well as shadow. It likes hellbender salamanders, and split cottonwoods. It likes the smell of menthol mysteriously appearing on the wind. It can only exist in a place where there are accidents and chance, privacy and mystery. When you realize that the Spirit is called the Tao, this is obvious.

Here is what this neighborhood will teach you: that the soul can’t show its face directly; and it can’t bear the sight of yours, either. In a few years, the Iron Horse Trestle will be filled with dads in Cardinals jerseys, and ladies with diaper bags slung over their shoulders, pushing double-wide strollers. They will stop every few inches to take a cell phone picture of their mugging kids and stiffly smiling spouse. The secret pockets of brush behind rusty chain link will be gone; the horseradish factories will be gone. The scrap metal companies will pull up and move across the river. There will be no urea huts, no rusting, Suessian towers of metal junk. Instead there will be media ops, ribbon cuttings, and recreation areas designated with cement slabs and vinyl pavilions, shading picnic tables made from recycled plastic water bottles, next to trash cans overflowing with empty plastic water bottles.


There is a set of red metal stairs on Ferry Street, detached from any structure, leading into the sky. That will probably be gone, too. But before those stairs are razed—probably claimed by the scrap companies, melted down and shipped to China—is where the Holy Ghost will look around at all the noise and cement and puffery, and realize it's time to step off and leave. It will pull all these swirling, random emotions into itself, and climb the steps to nothingness. It will hold its glass suitcase in one hand. The other hand, it will hold high, thumb stuck out. And it will leave this place bereft of atmospheres and feeling, and hitchhike back to heaven.


Copyright © 2016, Otis Nebula Press. All rights reserved.


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