Local author NiNi Harris shows passion for the city in 'Downtown St. Louis'

At age 13, author NiNi Harris was given permission to take the Gravois No. 10 bus (which back then ran through Grand) downtown, where she would spend her day exploring the area and soaking in all downtown has to offer.

“I’d go downtown on Saturdays, and I would often spend a whole Saturday roaming around downtown just enjoying the environment and soaking in the place,” said Harris, 63.

Born, raised and still living in the same South City home, Harris’ love for the city grew every weekend after that first trip as a teen, culminating in her latest book, “Downtown St. Louis” (Reedy Press, 200 pages, $35). An account of the history of downtown St. Louis, it features poignant photographs and historical vignettes.

“I feel like I have been working on this book since I was 13, but I didn’t know it,” Harris said.

Aided by Harris’ firsthand experience with both the static and fluid nature of downtown St. Louis, the book tells the story of a metropolitan hub that maintained its nature amidst drastic changes in its population and industry.

“Here is this fabulous, constantly evolving, changing downtown that is extraordinary to look at,” Harris said. “It has served all these different roles simultaneously of being a place for personal sagas and a great national saga.”

With regards to such a national saga, Harris is most adamant (and proud) of the St. Louis USO and its wartime efforts — the organization had served more than 3 million guests by Christmas 1944.

“Throughout the United States, among a whole generation of Americans, there (is) a reservoir of goodwill towards St. Louis because of the great work done by our USO during World War II,” Harris said.

St. Louis’ other notable contributions include Lincoln’s use of the city as an asset during the Civil War, the 1904 World’s Fair and Charles Lindbergh’s flight in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.

More important than singing high praise for downtown, however, is Harris’ message to readers: We work and live and play and eat downtown, but the history and architecture of the area go unnoticed. It is silly to fail to appreciate such beauty when it is in our own backyard.

“This is extraordinary, and we should be celebrating it,” Harris said. “We dwell too much on things we have lost here.

“You look at one street — just a block apart, we have Louis Sullivan’s first skyscraper in the Wainwright Building and a block away is his third with the 705 Olive building and then across the street we have a gem that’s waiting for new use in the Railway Exchange ... and then a couple of blocks in the other direction we have Philip Johnson’s just wild jumble of geometric shapes in the Laclede Gas building, and that’s a fabulous combination.”

Aside from writing “Downtown St. Louis,” in a effort to ensure that St. Lousians do not forget the city’s heritage, Harris is headed to White Haven, the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. There, the Old Courthouse Players will present her radio play “My Dear Julia.”

The play uses the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Julia Dent Grant and other family and friends to tell the story of the couple’s lifelong romance. The Grants met in St. Louis, were married in downtown St. Louis, and returned to the city periodically through their lives.

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Alex SiegmanComment