by Michael R. Allen
After work, I headed over to the Metropolis-sponsored reading from Gaslight Square: An Oral History by my friend Thomas Crone. The experience was unique, to say the least: Thomas narrated his own reading with stories about the making of the book along with bits of history and gossip that did not make it through. His presentation summoned forth ideas about a history with a palpable intangibility. After all, the reading took place in one of the new houses on Olive Street that sits on the site of long-gone building where the famous events went down. Through the windows of the new house, all one can see are other new houses occupying the sites of building vital to one of the most culturally formative stages in St. Louis’ recent past. (The exception is the brick building that once housed Ben Selkirk & Sons auction house, newly rehabbed at the southeast corner of Whittier and Olive.)
Listening to Thomas invoke the history of this place in its stunningly reference-stripped incarnation gave me great appreciation for his work. While his account is not a thorough narrative of the events that went down, it is an essential record of impressions, memories, ideas and connections between his interview subjects and one place that doesn’t even seem like itself anymore. Without buildings or other landmarks, an urban place could very well die in collective memory over time. Those who directly experience a place during a particular incarnation won’t live forever, after all.
However, with Gaslight Square there is an enduring key to a place otherwise lost. Even away from the place itself and the author’s voice, the book offers a chance to help us know where Gaslight Square is — in many senses. Thank goodness the book exists!