The Thinking 

When Downtown Is Donetown

December 22, 2016



At the Famous-Barr Department Store, now long gone, in St. Louis

ALAN writes:

This comes under the heading “What Americans Have Surrendered.”

At the St. Louis Public Library, the staff association newsletter of December 1961 tells us:

“That we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year can be plainly seen throughout the Library.  Almost every department has been busy decorating for the holiday season…  …a lovely Madonna card display….Christmas posters in the windows….red and silver candles…”

1966:  Christmas trees are decorated in multiple Library departments.

1967:  “The Christmas tree, trimmed with red and gold satin balls hung from velvet bows and lighted with miniature colored lights….gave a festive air” to the annual Christmas Breakfast, after which staff members sang Christmas carols around the big tree in the Library’s Main Hall.

1968:  “Christmas decorations in the Education Department this year included a crèche lent by” one staff member. “Some of the little wooden houses and figurines were brought from Germany many years ago by his grandfather….   Children visiting the Children’s Room are amazed by the popcorn and cranberry strings on the old-fashioned Christmas tree.”

1969:   “The usual Christmas beauty of red and green, tinsel and holly, candles and bells, and of course a beautiful Christmas tree, were all in readiness” for the 275 people who attended the Christmas breakfast.  Following tradition, the singing of carols around the huge Christmas tree in the Main Hall made a perfect ending to the breakfast.”

1970:  Decorations included “pine ropes and boughs, candles on the tables, and of course the Christmas tree…..  Traditional Christmas caroling in the Main Hall had a new dimension this year—being sung to the accompaniment of an auto-harp and a flute…..”     

1972:  A “truly Christmasy atmosphere” was created with “candlelight and holly, under shining gold ornaments suspended from the ceiling” and Christmas carols.

In these passages that I have quoted from the Library Staff Association’s newsletter, note especially the words and of course a Christmas tree…  What do those words tell us?  They tell us that it was expected; it was traditional; it was essential; it was a part of their heritage, their culture, and their identity; and it was not up for negotiation.  None of those men and women could have imagined a December when their Library would not celebrate the national and cultural holiday of Christmas and display a large Christmas tree in its Main Hall.  If anyone had told them that they could no longer do that, they would have responded first with incredulity and then by concluding that the person issuing that instruction was either an idiot or an agitator on behalf of Americans’ greatest enemies.  Moral certitude is what Americans had in 1959 and what they lack today.

All of that is now forgotten or ignored with militant determination by that Library’s current administration, and the staff association was abolished years ago.

That is one thing Americans have surrendered.  Here is another:

December in the 1950s “Downtown St. Louis was a sea of shoppers yesterday…  It was the traditional opening of the Christmas shopping season, the day after Thanksgiving.   …the downtown department stores were jammed from top to bottom….”

A woman who worked in one of those department stores wrote 50 years later:

“One of the most beautiful things about the holiday season was when downtown was alive and well, especially at Christmastime.   …the preparation for the holidays was exciting.  The display people worked very hard….the windows were covered with curtains as the public waited with great excitement as to what this year’s display would be!  And when….the customers walked through our doors, they were all dazzled by the wonderment of Christmas.”  [ Laura Lawrence, Letter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 12, 2001 ]

I recall an evening in December 1970 when an elderly pharmacist I had known and I met by chance in a crowd of shoppers at one of the brass revolving-door entrances to a department store across from a popular cafeteria and a theater where Ginger Rogers danced on stage in the 1920s.

1998:  “Downtown used to look a lot more like Christmas,” a newspaper reporter wrote.

“For decades, department stores outdid themselves with their display windows.  Display directors…decked windows with chandeliers and crystal prisms…with red, green, and gold ribbon…..  Windows dramatized Santa’s workshop, winter wonderlands, and the Nativity.  Famous-Barr had windows on Mary Poppins and Mickey Mouse’s 50thbirthday.  Some were elegant, some theatrical and others whimsical.  And always, and everywhere, were bears and trains.

“’The windows would all tell a story,’” said a man who worked on some of those windows.  “’I remember all of downtown as very exciting.  All the department stores did wonderful windows….  It used to be a big experience to come downtown…’

“Families bundled up in overcoats and mittens for a shopping trip downtown.  They ate at restaurants.  They browsed and bought at the stores.  But the high point of the excursion was always strolling by the display windows…..

“’It was a glorious time,’” the retired display window decorator said.  [ Lorraine Kee, “Train display opens a window to Christmases past”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 9, 1998 ]

Indeed it was.  I could testify to that because I, too, was there when it was glorious.

Think about that:  Thousands of people crowding the sidewalks and the stores every December—yet there were no riots, they did not trample each other or form “flash mobs” or break windows.  The reason they did none of those things was that American downtowns were still run by patriarchal authority.

In response to an article about the pleasure of shopping downtown in the 1940s, a woman wrote:  My own St. Louis childhood embraced the forties and fifties,” a “golden era before everybody moved to the suburbs…”  [ Mary E. Kennan, Letter, St. Louis magazine, May 1982 ]

Another woman wrote:  “In the 1960s downtown had two outdoor markets…two or three dime stores, all kinds of stores and restaurants.  We had good times there, going to the shows.  People were all over the place…..”  [ Josephine Flier, Letter, South Side Journal, Dec. 21, 1977 ]

A man wrote:  “…as an old-timer who remembers downtown as a colorful, delightful, crime-free place to visit, it saddens me to witness what so-called ‘progress’ has brought about…”  [ Howard J. Hopkins, Letter, South Side Journal, Jan. 4, 1995 ]

And another woman wrote:  “It’s really sad how downtown St Louis has become.  It  used to be the place to go—spend the day, go to movies, eat dinner.  All the stores, restaurants, theaters, bakeries, businesses—it was the only way to go.  Downtown had it all.  ….What a waste this once-thriving metropolis has become…”  [ Betty Sadler, Letter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 6, 1998 ]

Today there are no animated windows, no train window, no department stores, no Christmas trees, no variety stores, no book stores, no drug stores, no movie theaters, and no crowds of shoppers or families with children.  Downtown is donetown because it is a compartment on the sinking ship called the city of St. Louis.

Even if these things were not true and even if people today could still “go downtown” at Christmastime to see beautifully-decorated display windows with animated figures and toy trains, it would not be the same as it was for St. Louisans in the 1950s when downtown was in its glory years.  The “magic” that older people like me remember from those years is gone forever.  That “magic” was magic precisely because it required imagination and anticipation.  Those Christmases with those animated department store windows took place in a particular cultural setting.  That setting has been erased.  The “magic” that children and grown-ups alike found in that cultural setting is gone forever because it was destroyed by older generations; not destroyed on purpose, but destroyed effectively nonetheless.  The principal means of that destruction, I contend, was the colorful new toy called television, the greatest imagination-killing device ever invented.  Push-button entertainment around the clock does not require imagination or anticipation; it precludes them.  Going downtown at Christmastime was a family event and something extraordinary.  The father was in charge.  Push-button entertainment does not require paternal authority; it nullifies it.  Kiddies can be taught to push buttons, and they learn fast, which is one reason why America today is a kiddie culture.

Today, all of that magic is gone.  I walked through downtown and around one of those huge department store buildings a few days ago.  Two of its large display windows were boarded-up.  All the others were covered by hideous blowhard advertising aimed at trendy airheads and intended to create the illusion that there is still anything of merit to be found downtown.  A chain-link fence now surrounds the building, and workers in uniforms and wearing masks are excavating the abandoned, eviscerated corpse of what once was a block-long, block-wide department store with 9 floors and 32 expertly-decorated Christmas display windows.

In December 2003, a friend and I stood at the train window and I took 8 pictures.  It did not occur to us at that moment that it, too, would soon be gone forever.

“One consequence of worshipping diversity,” Lawrence Auster wrote in 2006, “is not that you end up with the riches of diversity.  It’s that you end up in an empty space, with the once-cheerful [ Christmas ] lights turned out.”  [ “A Nation of Grinches”, VFR, Dec. 10, 2006 ]

He was writing about the removal of a traditional Christmas tree from the Seattle-Tacoma airport.  But his words apply equally well to downtown St. Louis:  A man engaged in local historic preservation stood on a street corner downtown in midday, looked around him in all directions, and saw nary a sign of life.  It was, he said, an unnerving moment.  That was 10 years ago.  Today it is worse because there are more vacant store-fronts because more and more stores closed.  Decades earlier, that corner had been buzzing with life at a department store, a large Woolworth’s dime store, a bank, a private subscription library, and specialty retail stores.

One of your readers visited several towns in France and saw numerous vacant buildings but few signs of life.  We arrived in these towns in the middle of the day and the streets were empty…”  [ “Empty Streets and Patriarchal Laws”, TTH, May 13, 2015 ]

He could have been describing downtown St. Louis, where it is rare to see more than a few people on the sidewalks. Seldom will you see any families walking there.  For that matter, seldom will you see any grown-ups.  You will see yuppies coming down from their loft apartments to walk their dogs, “the new children”, as your visitor to France noted correctly.

Meanwhile, worker ants engage in re-landscaping certain blocks—make-work projects equivalent to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The only crowds to be seen downtown are the unemployed and unemployable.  One day in November just before noon, 9 police cars and 3 emergency vehicles converged on a block downtown when people began falling over in the street—a consequence of their choice of drug-of-the-week.  This episode took place on the edge of a small city park that a St. Louis newspaper in 1963 described as a quiet haven where office workers could relax, talk, eat lunch, and enjoy classical music broadcast from the nearby Central Library.  A photograph published in that newspaper in 1959 shows more than 30 men and women—all of them white, most of them office workers—seated on benches around the fountain in that park at midday; the women are in dresses, the men in white shirts and dark trousers.

The park is still there but there is no fountain, no benches, no flowers, no classical music, no white office workers, and no trace of the good manners and self-restraint they carried with them.  Instead, there are panhandlers and layabouts whose presence is defended by feminized churches and a shelter run by a Christian Protestant do-gooder.  When people complained about the vagrants and petty thieves loitering in the park, the city responded by building a fence around the park to keep them out.  Brilliant move.  Now they sleep and loiter on the sidewalks around the park.

In December 1950, a businessman in St. Louis was outraged when he read press accounts of Communist attempts to outlaw Christmas in Russia.  His anger inspired him to act:  He erected a live Christmas tableau on the property of his automobile dealership in south St. Louis.  There was a life-size Nativity scene, and he brought in real animals—sheep, a burrow, a pony, a cow, and a calf.  Thousands of families came to see the life-size representation of the Infant in the Manger.  On Jan. 6, three wise men arrived on camels.

He intended it as a rebuke to Stalinism and a blow for Christianity.  It was surely that, but more fundamentally it was a defense of Americans’ liberty and individual rights.  It was a statement of opposition to being bossed around by thugs acting in the name of Communism.

Where are men like him today?  Where are men who are capable of being roused to anger not by the banning of Christmas in other nations but by the expulsion of Christmas from their own cities and municipal libraries?  Where are men who will decide not to be bossed around by thugs acting in the name of diversity and tolerance?  Are there any men left who are not compromisers, appeasers, and apologists?  Are there men anywhere on this planet who agree more sheepishly than feminized American boy-men to surrender what their ancestors created?



Famous-Barr Department Store Christmas window

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