EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — The panoramic view of the shimmering Gateway Arch and St. Louis skyline is stirring. But for this struggling city, the debut of a new riverfront park offers a vision of far bigger things.
Decades in the making, the 34-acre Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park opening Saturday transformed a once-scrubby patch of riverfront land into a thing of beauty. It's also what architect Eero Saarinen wanted when he finished the arch 44 years ago — a complement to his masterpiece across the Mississippi River and a vantage point from which visitors could marvel at it.
"We refer to it as the new jewel on the Mississippi," said Mike Buehlhorn, executive director of the Metro East Park and Recreation District. "This is a huge dream. It's just awesome, I don't know how else to say it."
And it couldn't have come at a better time for East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks Jr., who hopes the park — named for the man who pushed for it for years before dying in 2004 at age 91 — draws tourists and precious development to the city and its riverfront.
"I am terrifically excited about what the development is ... it gives you the absolute best view of St. Louis as you will have anywhere on the planet," Parks said. Yet, "I think the greatest benefit has yet to be seen," through potential development such as condominiums and hotels.
East St. Louis, once a thriving home to glass makers and other industrial companies, withered into one of the nation's poorest cities after the decline of factories in the 1960s. It's a place where potholed streets resemble lunar landscapes, where more than 35 percent of the roughly 31,000 residents live in poverty.
The deed to City Hall once went to a man to cover a multimillion-dollar judgment over a jail beating before the city got the building back on appeal. In recent years, five locals — including the head of the local Democratic Party — were convicted of scheming to buy votes.
But the city also was the adoptive home of the late Katherine Dunham, a famed dancer and choreographer. Track legend and Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee was born and reared here, and a youth center now bears her name. Late jazz great Miles Davis grew up here, as did NFL Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow and Tennis Hall of Famer Jimmy Connors.
Now the park, with a four-story overlook and a mechanical geyser, represents a beacon of hope for urban renewal, supporters say.
Buehlhorn, from the park and recreation district, and others believe the overlook could draw several hundred thousand guests each year, perhaps many of them seeking a respite from the Casino Queen, which along with a Cargill plant are two of the park's neighbors.
Supported by concrete columns the size of a giant redwood trunk, the overlook amounts to a continuous, rectangular ramp, highlighted by stainless steel railing, winding its way to the observation deck 43 feet in the air. There, a statue of Martin takes up the edge of a stone bench, his leg folded as the likeness gazes at the arch.
On the park's other end, past the tiered seating for events including fireworks shows, is the 14-year-old Gateway Geyser, which a few times a day from April through October puts on a 15-minute show, shooting water skyward nearly as high as the 630-foot arch.
Days ahead of its debut, a walk to the top of the observation deck offers a glimpse of what awaits visitors. A tugboat pushes a string of barges lazily up the sun-drenched yet ruddy Mississippi, past the gleaming arch and the rest of the St. Louis skyline.
Below, pastel-colored walkways cut through and around the park sporting freshly laid sod and more than 100 light posts.
"I'm just amazed I have the honor to see this through," Buehlhorn said with a nod to Martin, the man who wouldn't let his vision die. "It was his dream to get this open. I'd like to think we did it in a good fashion for him."