It’s been nearly two weeks since I hopped on to my bike and went for a ride. That’s what happens when you get a nasty cold and spend most of your time hacking up an endless supply of lungs. Then there comes a point where you just have to get out and go and risk a coughing fit as your cranking up a hill. It makes it a little more difficult but it’s doable. In my mind I have a list of routes or rides I want to take in the next few weeks. Some are inspired by Sidestreets St. Louis and others are just places I haven’t been in a while or been eyeing as I drive somewhere. One example is riding the full length of Jefferson. I will get to it soon.
In the meantime, this one was inspired by Sidestreets. It’s a neighborhood I forget exists and have never been to but I have driven past it probably a thousand times. If you live in and around St. Louis you may have done the same too. As I drive down Hampton and under I-44 and pass mid-century office buildings, fast food places and a tall hotel, I forget there is a beautiful, quiet neighborhood lurking behind the all the hustle and bustle of the busy thoroughfare. The neighborhood I am referring to is Clifton Heights.
In Sidestreets St. Louis, the chapter on this neighborhood is called, “Just A Regular Neighborhood”. It’s an apt title and I bet residents probably just want to keep it that way. I don’t blame them. In fact to me, it feels like a small town. There is the park and then there is a small business district that feels like a town’s Main Street with low-slung two story store fronts. There’s an old police station that is an Amvet’s Post. When I rode by they were preparing for a BBQ that would start hours later. The Richardson Romanesque styled building was constructed in the late 1890s. Across the street is an SEIU office building that appears as though it was a school built in the late 1890s but the front was torn off and replaced with a mid-century face that is complete with a clock. Today the clock is missing its hands. First the face was ripped off and now it’s the hands – it’s like it’s being dissected.
Anyway, it was a cool morning. Sunny. It was cool enough for a jacket at the start but as I warm up it becomes too much but I deal with it. Climbing hills will get me sweating. I start by Clifton Park. One thing about Clifton Heights is apparent – it is hilly. If you become familiar with St. Louis and it’s geography you realize St. Louis is fairly hilly. This is especially true in the southwest portion of the city. The north side is relatively flat though. The northside is more close to the Mississippi and Missouri confluence’s flood plain. The southwest takes you toward the Ozarks – the rocky and hilly portion of the state. This is something one may not recognize in a car but on a bike a hill is something you recognize and may dread. The park itself is situated in a valley and may be the lowest elevation of the neighborhood. The houses that surround the park look down into the park like an audience to watch the dog walkers or an overseer making sure no one hurts the ducks. They are set back from the street, some up on terraces, mostly wood-frame Victorian or Arts and Crafts houses built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The lots are large and it is treelined and shaded. It is quiet and serene. I almost forget that I am just a few block south of the highway. If I sit still and stop huffing and puffing I can hear the highway’s hum in the near distance. The streets don’t follow a grid around the park. They curve and wind around the park and lake. It’s a place in which you don’t feel like you’re in the middle of a city.
As I mentioned the park is the geographic low point and in fact, according to Sidestreets, the park and lake started out as a sinkhole. In fact there were clay-mining operations in that area so maybe it was from that? Maybe there are caves underneath? Anyway, the sinkhole was plugged and it was turned into a private park and eventually was deeded to the city in 1912 to be open to the general public.
While the geography of the neighborhood is unique, it’s architecture is unique too. St. Louis is known for it’s brick vernacular architecture but the houses that surround the park are mostly wood frame. There are brick houses but the wood frame structures stand out as odd in a brick city. The neighborhood also has a wide variety of architectural styles that span from Victorian Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival (and a few small Second Empire mansard roofed structures) to Arts and Crafts, bungalows, some tudor revival, and even some mid-century ranch styles. Then there are all the above that have been heavily modified and are a miss-mash of styles that relect DIY renovations and add-ons. There are grand ornamented jewels and modest square boxy houses that repeat over several blocks. There’s just a bit of everything and as a bicyclist exploring, it makes for some interesting riding as I slog and fly up and over the hills.
By the end of my ride, I realized I didn’t cough up a lung and felt pretty good overall. At the beginning I felt apprehensive but by the end I felt confident again. Sometimes when I’m sick and miss workouts or get off my routine, I feel like I may be thrown completely off the rails FOREVER – I’ll stop bike riding, or my diet will go back to unhealthy, or I’ll stop drawing or making art and lose my whole identity and way of life. It’s an absurd worry. That never happens. If anything it just is a short break where I reflect, plan, think and get ready for a new start. The thing is I just have to start, to just get back in the saddle again and push forward. I’m ready.