Last summer, St. Louis’ signature monument, the Gateway Arch, reopened following a three-year, $380 million renovation of its museum and grounds. As the region’s iconic landmark, the Arch solidifies our city’s place in American history and, for more than half a century, has stood as one of the nation’s shining examples of architectural and engineering ingenuity. As one of the first visitors to the newly reopened monument explained with pride, “It’s something we offer the nation and the world.”
For the millions of tourists who swarm the Arch grounds each year, the monument’s appeal is found in the way it transforms a simple curve into an awe-inspiring experience of place. The genius of the Arch is that it is both traditional and modern, disarmingly simple and extraordinarily complex, unadorned yet elegant.
At 630 feet high, it is the nation’s tallest monument, standing higher than the Washington Monument and twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. It tells the story of our past, stands as proof of our present capabilities and symbolizes future possibilities.
What the average visitor to the Arch may not realize, however, is that it was almost never built. Originally conceived by civic leaders in the early 1930s, it ran into opposition from residents who argued it would make more sense to spend the money on projects that had a more direct impact on the lives of the taxpayers. They were concerned with potholes being filled, more teachers being hired and additional fire stations being built. Certainly, these were all credible, and perhaps more practical, uses for taxpayer funds than a gleaming bended beam of stainless steel.
Fortunately, the visionaries persevered. Although it took more than 30 years and a collaboration among politicians, the federal government and civic leaders worked together with landowners, real estate agents and bankers to bring the project to fruition. Their commitment and perseverance gave us more than a monument to American culture and civilization; they left us a lesson that continues to resonate today.
Yesterday’s leaders saw beyond the perceived impracticalities of the project. They focused on the “whys” when everyone around them was giving them the “why-nots.” They saw the potential, set aside their differences and came together for the common good. The result was a magnificent edifice, which we are blessed to have right here in our backyard in St. Louis. As proof, we have only to look at the collaboration that made the recent revitalization of the Arch possible. Local, state and federal officials worked together, and local taxpayers even ponied up, because it was the right thing to do.
The lesson is clear: We must each find and fulfill our grandest vision for ourselves. Whatever our dreams may be, we must have an expansive mind, an inventive spirit, a tenacious grip and a brave heart. We cannot let anyone deter us from our chosen path.
Many will say, “Take the safer road, the tried and true, a comfortable alternative, one that carries with it health insurance and a 401(k) plan. Change is difficult and scary, so why take the chance?” But as we learned with the Arch, the status quo is not always the best way to go. Neither what worked yesterday or what exists today is often not the best solution for tomorrow.
Modern challenges require new ideas and bold thinking. Regardless of the issues we face – crime, health care, immigration, economic growth or whatever – we are capable of building a 21st-century Arch as long as we learn to trust one another, to listen, to share, to respect and to compromise.
There will be trying times, no doubt, but I promise you, the view will be worth it when you arrive at the top.
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is assistant chancellor of International Programs-Africa, director of Africa Initiative and associate director of the Global Health Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a former president of Westminster College and served as dean at the Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University. He has a Ph.D. in economics.