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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Battle of St. Louis: Fighting Our City's Inferiority Complex

St. Louis has an infamous inferiority complex. Most date it to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, an object of local fixation and a perfect demonstration of the great heights that the city fell from. We were once an international destination--all eyes on us--and now we're a plaintive Midwestern backwater.

Most of today's renewed crop of St. Louis boosters recognize that the nature of the inferiority complex is, by definition, internal. Its our own residents, city and suburbs alike, pounding St. Louis into the ground, not people from other cities. (Well, Chicago is jealous of our Cardinals, and Austin, Texas seems to have a superiority complex, but it's really just those two).

Many St. Louisans grow up with an internalized indifference, dislike, or even hatred of their own city. Some of them move far outside the city and don't look back (or their parents did so a generation ago).

Like...this guy, a student of St. Louis University (in 2003) who penned a petty piece on his hatred of St. Louis, aptly titled "St. Louis: how I hate thee".

Here are some lowlights from that editorial. It's worth noting that it is one of the University News' most commented articles, even today, and most of those comments are either lukewarm or brutally negative themselves.

I'm no anthropologist, but, as a high school history teacher of mine noted, every society has culture--even Affton. Culture like cruising Lindbergh Boulevard with neon license plate holders; culture like the monstrosity of a movie house called Ronnie's and its sea of waist high pre-pubescents wearing clothing and make-up that would make a hooker blush (my friend dubbed these youngsters "prosti-tots"); culture like having every major road and highway within a 50-mile radius of St. Louis clogged with bumper to bumper traffic that makes the opening scene of Office Space look like a documentary. Forgive me if I'm unimpressed.

Hyperbole, much?

I suppose I post this because I've grown tired of fighting people that can't see the positive and the potential of St. Louis. Yet it's difficult to exist in St. Louis without some pre-existing database of words, phrases, and neighborhoods in your head to counter the next "why do you stay here?" commentaries.

To that effect, I knew there would be someone in St. Louis's vast online journalism community that could sum up their love for the city better than I can. Or at least do so less wordily.

That's why I wanted to post these three uplifting St. Louis articles/commentaries that really fly in the face of the critics. Read them and weep--with tears of joy for our much-maligned, but, I feel, kickass city that I feel is truly becoming a great place to live.

The first is a well-put blog post from St. Louis Magazine. The second is a lengthy article in that same publication discussing the movement of "Creatives" to St. Louis and includes more boosterism than I think I have ever read in something written about St. Louis. And the last is a particularly snarky, yet no less inspiring (and early--written in 2002!) defense of St. Louis from haterism by our own Riverfront Times.

Kicking Against the Myth of "St. Louis, Misery
St. Louis Magazine - Look/Listen Blog
Stefene Russell


We have a great contingent of place-sensitive, brilliant, creative people who are doing that work here locally, too. When seen through this filter, St. Louis is anything but miserable. Tiny ripples are starting to reach shore; PSFK, "a trends an innovation company" that runs a daily news site, has been doing a "Report from Middle America," series, and today's post focuses on Black Bear Bakery. This weekend, scores of those young bloggy creative types will be gathering in the West End to protest the possible demolition of the San Luis Apartments with a "Valentine's Day Love-In." They may just save that building, and more: the astrological alignment that the Broadway hippies saing about in "Age of Aquarius," will actually occur tomorrow! Now, that's having some major mojo on your side, at least if you're organizing a love-in. Change, I think, is continuing to blow through the air, but I think it will be a while before the list-makers figure that out.

The Rise of the Creative Class
St. Louis Magazine
Lynnda Greene


Educated, imaginative, enterprising people of all ages and persuasions have migrated to St. Louis over the last decade to join an already vibrant, if largely subterranean, creative ecosystem. Here—amid the historic architecture, patchwork street life, distinct neighborhoods, diverse ethnic populations, city parks and grungy warehouses—they find a creative freedom that they’ve experienced nowhere else. Fueled by a jury-rigged spirit of optimism and ingenuity, they love this city shamelessly. They’re determined to restore its glory—and, if we’re careful, they just might succeed.

Best of 2002 - St. Louis
Riverfront Times
Randall Roberts


Losers, crybabies and unsettled souls love to blame St. Louis for their frustrations, as though something as nebulous as a city could be held responsible for a human being’s unhappiness. “Everything would be better if I were in (enter name of hipper city here). There’s so much more action there. I’ve got my choice of two dozen vegetarian restaurants, hundreds of international markets. Amazing shows every night! A rock scene. An art scene. House and techno scenes. An amazing theater scene. Hotter boys. Sexier girls. Get this: (insert hip city here) has a store devoted only to Asian incense! Weird!”

And yet these same unsatisfied souls have never been to a production by the Black Rep, have never been to Lo when Astroboy’s spinning house, never grooved to the Hot House Sessions at the Delmar, never rocked with the Fantasy Four at Lemmons. They haven’t experienced the sublime joy of In Soo’s shrimp moo shu. They’ve never listened to the amazing DJ Needles on Q95.5, don’t even know what the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is, let alone that Tadao Ando’s creation has been touted as one of the most important new American buildings of the decade. No, they’ve never cruised on a Saturday afternoon down Martin Luther King Boulevard, as revealing a St. Louis history lesson as there is, have never sneaked onto a downtown roof -- which isn’t that hard to do if you pay attention -- at 5 a.m. with your honey and watched the sun rise between the legs of the Arch.

Feeling uplifted? Don't let it stop here. Link me your own inspiring write-up in defense of St. Louis, and I'll post it here. You don't necessarily have to be the author, but make sure to give credit where it's due!


heathropolis said...

Awesome! Thank you for posting the Randall Roberts piece - I was just looking for that in the RFT archives.

STLgasm said...

Randall Roberts' article has stuck with me since I first read it. I mean, does that piece almost bring you to tears or what?

Anonymous said...

After living in Long Island New York for a year I've come to love St. Louis more than ever. I loved NY and everything it had to offer. While I was there I never found myself slinging mud at 'The Lou.' I would battle those who would tell me that StL is a 'fly over' city. That there was nothing to do there. I would go through the litany of items that made my home most excellent. Different neighborhoods that offer distinct lifestyles, the city's nationally, if not world, renowned institutions, and it's low cost of living.

Amongst all the naysayers I worked with a woman who's from Brooklyn. When we met she told me how much she LOVED St. Louis. Rosemary lived in StL for a year in 1980. It seems that her husband had a job that required them to move a lot. Anyway, all she could say about how much she loved it and that if it weren't for all of her family in NY they would have stayed in our fair city.

I've been back for a year now and I can honestly say that StL will forever be my home. I got out of St. Charles 3 years ago and am glad to be rid of that place. StL isn't perfect. There's a lot of work to be done. I get a sense that change is coming. It's going to take a lot of people to make change but if the blogs that I read are evidence, we're headed in the right direction.

NM-Attempt said...

Great post.

I can't find it online , but William H. Gass (still living in St. Louis) has a great piece called "Our Town: St. Louis Author William H. Gass Concedes Our Obvious Flaws, But Says: 'I Would Not Wish To Live Anywhere Else." It was published in the Post-Dispatch in July 1994, though I think it might have originally been published in a national in-flight magazine. An early paragraph:

St. Louis' insecurities far outrun any rational cause and lie deep inside the city's history: its sense, for so long, of being second class, its borderline personality, neither north nor south nor west nor east, its church-heavy culture, conservative and scared, its military economy.

And later:

Above all, the secret is the ease of everything. In minutes I can be on the nine-mile bike path through the park; the Art Museum is also only a good walk away. It is 15 minutes to the ballpark and the rest of downtown; the symphony takes the same time; in 20 I can be parked by the Arch. This is the tourists' part of town, with Laclede's Landing, the restored, oldest section of the city, and the great Eads Bridge, a triumph of cast iron, nearby. Even among works of art, the Arch is a miracle, and, if you want to be moved to your shoes, simply sit awhile under it through a bit of summer moon. It is the light, again, sliding like oil down its elegant thighs.

If anyone can find that essay, certainly share a URL. This is much different, but we just published a newer Gass piece specifically about the Arch:

Cheers, and thanks for the great post.

Stephen Schenkenberg
Editor-in-Chief, St. Louis Magazine and

Matt M. said...

Thanks for the comment and the link! I am an STL Magazine subscriber. I have really loved both the blog and the magazine for their civic pride as of late. Keep up the good work yourselves!

STLgasm said...

This pretty much sums up how I feel about this city:

For those who expect have their stimulation spoon-fed to them, St. Louis is not the place. I think it's a blessing in disguise-- St. Louis weeds out the unimaginative meatheads with no sense of exploration to dig beneath the surface. St. Louis is a living museum-- every nook and cranny offers something special and interesting. It's not for everyone, but for those who "get" it, it's an exciting and intriguing place to live. For me, I'd much rather be part of a city that's a work-in-progress. I would never feel the satisfaction and fulfillment of watching any other city grow and reinvent itself as much as I do for St. Louis. It's an easy city to love as long as you have the creativity to appreciate its seasoned past and visualize its limitless potential.

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