ST. LOUIS - The fireworks reflect on the nation's signature river, and that's very interesting. But it's more than that.

There's something especially marvelous about celebrating the Fourth of July in a quintessentially American Midwestern city that celebrates America year round. The Gateway Arch, symbol of the place, and the museum beneath it represent the nation at its swaggering best, symbols of a Western expansion that would define us in so many ways.

That we're talking about St. Louis - a city that's seen its share of rough times and that, like the country, isn't exactly in swagger mode right now - in a way adds particular power and poignancy to this year's celebration.

And the arrival 10 days later of baseball's All-Star Game, the summer classic of the national pastime, adds an all-American exclamation point.

These days St. Louis, as a city and as a tourist draw, doesn't have the best buzz. Once a thriving American metropolis, its population has shrunk to 350,000, down half a million since 1950, when Stan "The Man" Musial and TWA were both major players here.

(Boosters will remind negative nabobs that the population of the St. Louis metro area has stabilized at near 3 million. Realists will remind boosters that the soul of a metro area is the city at its heart, and that this soul is troubled.)

Downtown's retail district, aside from the old Famous-Barr department store that's now a Macy's, is no longer a retail district. Union Station, which tried to be a mall, is now essentially a food court and a construction zone. (Marriott, whose hotel adjoins it, is converting much of what was shops to a lobby, fitness center, and other amenities.)

A downtown condo boomlet designed to take advantage of the city's under-occupied commercial architecture - some of it classic - was a spotty thing even before the current financial situation and today is largely in limbo; a multipurpose "Ballpark Village" meant to accompany, enhance, and help pay for the Cardinals' new Busch Stadium next door is still a vacant lot three-plus years after the ballpark's 2006 debut.

Vast stretches of the city's north side, especially, look like what was left after a successful World War II bombing run on (choose your favorite target city).

And yet - like the seedling conifers poking through the rubble and ash short years after Mount St. Helens blew her volcanic top - there are signs of life, downtown and in places where decayed apartments, an obsolete hospital, and fetid public housing towers were mercifully flattened.

There is new housing, at a variety of price points and created largely without displacing earlier residents. And where folks settle, grass grows and children play.

"The rot," says Chris Hayden, "has stopped."

When he isn't helping maintain the Scott Joplin House, Chris Hayden shows visitors around this pleasant tribute to a remarkable musician and different time.

Joplin, whose largely forgotten ragtime compositions were reintroduced to audiences in the 1973 movie The Sting, lived from 1900 to 1903 in the modest red-brick building on what's now Delmar Boulevard, a short drive from downtown. Today, we're all invited to walk through the two-story home, designated a Missouri Historic Site.

Downstairs is a pedal-powered player piano, with ready-to-roll rolls of "The Maple Leaf Rag," "The Entertainer," and other Joplin classics. Up narrow stairs are rooms authentically furnished with pieces including an old upright piano.

"It was in this place when they came in here to renovate it" in the 1980s, Hayden said of the instrument. "It is a piano from the period, so it's possible he played that piano up there."

Speaking of music:

"It's known as a music city," blues singer and musician Eric McSpadden, fresh from a gig at Beale on Broadway, says of his hometown, "but it's not known like Memphis or Nashville."

That one of St. Louis' prime music venues is named for a Memphis street says something in itself: There is no single iconic "music street" here - no Beale Street, no Bourbon Street. This, in many things, is a city of pockets: ethnic and cultural and residential and entertainment pockets, some too small to qualify as actual neighborhoods.

And so, on this otherwise dull patch of Broadway just south of Busch Stadium - the Broadway Triangle, it's sometimes called - there is this pocket of live music bars, primarily blues but also some folk and rock, all with food: Broadway Oyster Bar, the Beale on Broadway, and BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups the most inviting, with token (if any) cover charges and, on the right nights, wonderful performers.

Farther west, in the Delmar Loop pocket near Washington University, are more music venues, including the Pageant and another, Blueberry Hill, that routinely has the legendary Chuck Berry (from St. Louis) duckwalking across its stage - the 82-year-old's next show is scheduled for July 15.

In very pleasant, successfully revived Soulard (this more a neighborhood than a pocket), home of the venerable Soulard Farmers Market (since 1843; "If you like crowds," says Steve Schweiger, who sells produce there, "Saturday's the day to come"), bars with music are peppered throughout. Just park the car and follow your ears.

Soulard is near the original and sprawling Anheuser-Busch Brewery, a true St. Louis landmark. Tours (free; www.budweisertours.com) are available, and refreshing.

One last music pocket, and then we'll get off this: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra plays in Powell Symphony Hall, a grand converted movie palace across from another grand ex-movie palace, the Fox Theater, both on North Grand Avenue. The latter hosts concerts and touring Broadway shows. Together with other arts venues, they are the core of a pocket near St. Louis University called Grand Center - which is still waiting for some moneyed visionary to make it as commercially and aesthetically grand as it could be.

What else?

The most unmissable conventional museum in town for most people is the Museum of Westward Expansion, underground beneath the Arch. Along with telling a fascinating story, it's free and, more important, it's air-conditioned - and that's the last time we'll suggest that summer in St. Louis can tend toward the uncomfortable side, heat and humidity-wise.

(Riding up the Arch - fun, but not for claustrophobes or assorted other-phobes - and movies in the museum aren't free but aren't Disney-outrageous either. Information: 1-877-982-1410; www.gatewayarch.com.)

The funnest unconventional museum in town is City Museum. Kids love it because they can climb through and under and over things almost at will. Here's the kind of place this is: There's a baby grand piano out in the open without a "Do Not Play" sign. The museum's credo, says one worker, is "It's not art unless there's people on it." Among the exhibits: the world's largest underpants.

Adults will be fascinated by City Museum's salvaged architectural elements, including some by Louis Sullivan; they'll be just as fascinated by the sight and sound of kids of all ages and ethnicities actually having fun together at a so-called museum. Or they can leave the kids home. (314-231-2489; www.citymuseum.org.)

We're running out of space here, so, quickly: The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis mixes elements of Venice's St. Mark's and (to these eyes) the Great Mosque at Cordoba and adds mosaics worthy of Ravenna - and if you're unfamiliar with those references, just know that this is one beauty of a church. The Old Courthouse, near the Arch, has links to the Dred Scott trials. The Griot Museum of Black History (formerly the Black World History Museum) has wax likenesses, the best of them of local great Miles Davis. Most interesting thing in the Missouri History Museum, in Forest Park, is the stuff on Charles Lindbergh. Also in Forest Park, the Muny Opera does Broadway shows under the stars, and the St. Louis Zoo is the nation's finest east of San Diego - and you might get an argument about San Diego.

Doesn't seem as much like a dying city, now, does it?

Two more essential neighborhoods: The Central West End, with restaurants and wine bars and galleries so slick you won't believe you're this close to either Kansas City; and the Hill, the Italian enclave (still) made famous by native son Joe Garagiola's stories about Yogi Berra and home to very good restaurants of the Garagiola-Berra persuasion - and as sure as Stan is "The Man," it's guaranteed the Fox announcers will make reference at some point during the All-Star Game to the Hill.

And finally, the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is the botanical garden certain to persuade even people bored by botanical gardens (like a certain travel writer) that not all botanical gardens are boring.

Add riverboat rides, casinos, and the Laclede's Landing entertainment district north of the Arch, and you get the idea.

On July 14, major-league baseball's All-Star Game will be played in Busch Stadium. (It's also Bastille Day, but never mind that now.)

On the Fourth of July, Fair St. Louis will proclaim its vitality with daylong music, all free, that ends with an 8 p.m. performance by Train, the San Francisco-based rock group.

Hundreds of thousands will be there, and you can be, too. Fireworks, as they did in a warm-up show the night before, will thump and whoosh and crackle and bang and dazzle.

Swagger - that American swagger - will happen.

And the river? The river will just keep rolling along.

If You Go

Getting there

US Airways and American Airlines both fly nonstop between Philadelphia and St. Louis; a recent check found round-trip fares on either airline as low as $165 (subject to change). It's about a 900-mile drive each way via Interstate highways, primarily I-70.

Getting around

While some St. Louis attractions (including Busch Stadium, the Gateway Arch, and the Mississippi) are within walking distance of most downtown hotels, some of the city's best stuff is in the neighborhoods. The limited, but pleasant, light-rail MetroLink ($2.75) will get you to some and also connects to the airport; others will require a taxi or car. A taxi from downtown to Forest Park (zoo, museums) or the Hill (Italian restaurants) will run about $15 to $20.

Staying there

Many of the usual hotel chains are represented downtown, though in recent years there has been some label-swapping. A sampling:

Three within steps of Busch Stadium and the Arch are especially recommendable: The Hilton St. Louis Downtown (formerly the Marriott; doubles from $159; 1-800-445-8667; www1.hilton.com); the Westin St. Louis (from $229; 1-866-716-8137; www.starwoodhotels.com); and a solid bargain, the Drury Plaza at the Arch (from $105; 1-800-378-7946; www.druryhotels.com). Big conventions especially love the nearby Hyatt Regency St. Louis Riverfront (ex-Adams Mark; from $146; 1-888-964-9288; www.stlouisriverfront.hyatt.com ). Within walking distance and offering value-luxury (but linked to a casino, which may or may not be to your taste): a new Four Seasons (from $195; 1-800-819-5053; www.fourseasons.com/stlouis). The very nice Renaissance St. Louis Grand (from $159; 888-236-2427; www.marriott.com) is closer to the convention center than to the Arch, but if the price is right, the few extra blocks will melt away. Note: Two veterans, the Marriott Union Station (formerly a Hyatt) and the historic Wyndham Mayfair, are planning major renovations; check for updates.

And a couple of notables away from the center and worth considering: The again-elegant Chase Park Plaza, convenient to Forest Park and the Central West End buzz (from $189; 1-877-587-2427; www.chaseparkplaza.com); and the stylish Moonrise, in the Delmar Loop scene (from $159; 877-872-1122; www.moonrisehotel.com)

Dining there

St. Louis is a very good restaurant town. If the visit is short, downtown options are adequate - but much of the interesting dining is away from the center in neighborhoods such as the Central West End, the Hill, and Lafayette Square.

Places we know and like: Charlie Gitto's downtown pasta house (207 N. 6th St., 314-436-2828; there's a namesake on the Hill) is a longtime favorite for casual Italian. More formal, Tony's (410 Market St., 314-231-7007) still sets the bar in the city for splurges and marriage proposals. The trendy loft crowd is drawn to Mosaic's trendy fusion plates (1001 Washington Ave., 314-621-6001). Hard to pick a favorite on the Hill, but here are three: The dressy Dominic's (5101 Wilson Ave., 314-771-1632) never fails; the bocconcini alla Tony at Gian-Tony's (5356 Daggett Ave.; 314-772-4893) is a worthy diet-blaster; and locals I trust swear by Cunetto's House of Pasta (5453 Magnolia Ave., 314-781-1135). Near the Hill and always full of hungry regulars, Trattoria Marcella (3600 Watson Rd., 314-352-7706) will seduce you with its impossibly tender fried calamari and dreamy ravioli. Amid the Thai places in Grand South Grand (near St. Louis U.), seek out an Afghan storefront called Sameem (3191 S. Grand Blvd.; 314 664-3940) and try the pakowras, for starters. Picking one on the Central West End is a challenge - you can merrily graze the Euclid-Laclede corner cluster, for example - but our current fave (if you can find it) is contemporary Terrene, 33 N. Sarah St., 314-535-5100. Around Lafayette Square is lively, lofty 1111 Mississippi (1111 Mississippi Ave., 314-241-9999). We couldn't get there, but credible critics adore Niche (1831 Sidney St., 314-773-7755) - which serves its pork loin with (ready?) scrapple! And an obligatory mention for dessert or an anytime self-indulgence: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a true icon (6726 Chippewa St., 314-481-2652). Yes, it's that good.

Fair St. Louis

Friday, July 3 (all shows free): Magnolia Summer, 6 p.m.; Counting Crows, 8 p.m. Fireworks.

Saturday, July Fourth (all shows free): Nat & Alex Wolff, 1 p.m.; Dueling Pianos, 2:30 p.m.; the Feed, 3:30 p.m.; Jon Hardy and the Public, 4:30 p.m.; the Incurables, 5:30 p.m.; Green River Ordinance, 6:45 p.m.; Train, 8 p.m. Fireworks.

Information

St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, 1-800-916-8938; www.explorestlouis.com. For specific information on the Fourth of July and riverfront events: www.celebratestlouis.org

- Alan SolomonEndText