Gate Debate: Forest Park & the Power of Peripheries

St. Louis's Forest Park: The distinction between entry markers and gates is not always academic.

St. Louis’s Forest Park: The distinction between entry markers and gates is not always academic.

As the Gateway to the West, St. Louis might well also be called the Gateway to Ardent Gating.

Arguably prescient of a national shift in civilian traffic from public space (parks, squares, promenades) to private (fitness centers, Apples stores, capacious motor vehicles) this gate-gusto has likewise contributed to a prevailing ethos of “keep out,” especially in areas in which the haves reside precariously close to the have-nots (and vice versa). The idiosyncratic and unforeseeable nature of many of these barriers often exceeds even the preeminent powers of Google Maps. On a recent sojourn from West Florissant, a major artery cutting through north St. Louis county and city, I was advised to make a U-turn not once, but twice, as my prescribed route west was waylaid by sudden cylindrical blockades and medians of patchy grass.

“St. Louis is a city of gates that do not normally swing wide,” explains Edward McPherson in a 2014 essay for The Paris Review. “The urban private street, or “private place,” is believed to be a local invention, dating to the 1850s. Private places are owned by their residents, who typically build and maintain the road, median, sidewalks, curbs, street lighting, and—most crucially—gates.”

The legacy of the “private place” pervades even in areas that, today, hardly could be seen to represent their residents’ best interest. In “The City Body At War With Itself: Street Blockages in St. Louis,” architectural historian Michael Allen examines how the city’s very urban grid has been insidiously, and irrationally, ruptured for decades.“Many St. Louisans take the occluded street system for granted by now. Locals expect iron gates and “Street Not Through” signs to stop their attempts to explore and connect. The insulation of neighborhoods spatially perpetuates the interior/exterior dynamic reflected in our fragmented government and racial segregation.”

And so it comes as no surprise that Forest Park’s ongoing plan to install gate-like signage at its periphery has not gone without controversy. The cautionary title of Robert Duffy’s August 2014 article, “Forest Park to get entry markers, just don’t call them gates,” said it well.

Commissioned and planned by SWT Design of St. Louis, these “entry markers” have secured private funding for 2016 construction at Wells and Skinker, one of the most congested entrances in terms of visitor volume. As one of the largest urban parks in the United States (covering 1,371 acres, compared to Central Park’s 843), Forest Park was built for a city with twice the population. Its 12 million visitors per year may sound like a lot, but pales in comparison to the throes who visit parks of similar or smaller size (35 million for Central Park; 20 million for Lincoln Park in Chicago). Much of this discrepancy can be attributed to St. Louis’s lesser status as a tourist destination, but part of it might relate to the park’s lack of cohesive spatial identity at points of access—begging the question of whether greater visibility to these many entry points might contribute to greater use.

Alex Ihnen’s late August piece “Forest Park to Get ‘Modest’ Entry Markers, Reminds Us Why Halprin Plan Was Great” examines how current plans for entry markers differ from those in 2001 from acclaimed late architect Lawrence Halprin, whose fantastic sculptural design was notoriously shot down around September 11 that same year. Ihnen bemoans the institutional limestone markers that have been approved 14 years later, as well he should. These “markers” remind one of a college campus or self-important business park; where once was whimsy and delight stands something stately but forgettable.

But maybe something is still better than nothing? Or, in a city with such a notoriously thorny relationship with gates, maybe nothing is best of all? Gates suggest a space off-limits, a space reserved for a select few. But without some kind of visual reference to distinguish its borders from contiguous terrain, the park can seem to blend in too much for its own good. Whether it is the manicured lawns of Washington University or the bustle of Barnes Hospital two miles east, the park’s periphery butts up against a host of competing topographies. The fact that 88 percent of park visitors arrive by car stands as another reason why conspicuous entry ways could offer value; driving north on Skinker, nothing designates the west side of the park save two modest green streetlamp flags across from Washington University. I have passed these flags on foot and by car numberless times, and never noticed them.

Might there actually be something to be said for entering and exiting the park and not realizing it? Do these liminal peripheral spaces afford their own kind of freedom, wherein passage into the park is not an “event,” but rather a seamless, natural occurrence? Based on the concept of the “The First 100 Feet,” similar to the Decompression Zone of a retail store, visitors are most attracted to parks bordered by “thick” edges—inviting onlookers to venture in and explore deeper. Ihnen references the “First 100 Feet” as just one reason that more distinctive gating would, in his view, be a smart move: “[G]ates as attractors and not just markers would be a great start. Today, some [Forest] park entrances are more appealing than others, yet none announce that you are entering a special place, a park of amazing attractions and beauty that serves as the heart of the region’s history and culture.”

Forest Park was built for all, and one of its keenest attributes is the number of attractions that have remained free and open to the public to this day. If entry markers, rather than “gates,” ultimately attract a higher number of visitors, then perhaps their relative banality is forgivable. But if they indirectly impart an air of sanctioned, private ground, some pedestrians might be dissuaded from entrance, rather than encouraged. “Privacy seems coterminous with tribal identity when barrier placements reinforce class and racial divisions,” Allen claims. But what makes a structure a barrier rather than a portal, and who gets to decide?

At the opening ceremony for the park in 1876, Commissioner Chauncy F. Shultz emphasized its populist vision: “I present to you, the people of St. Louis, your own, this large and beautiful Forest Park for enjoyment of yourselves, your children and your children’s children forever … The rich and poor, the merchant and mechanic, the professional man and day laborer, each with his family and lunch basket, can come here and enjoy his own … all without stint or hindrance … and there will be no notice put up, Keep Off the Grass.”

Let’s hope the spirit of this edict endures.