When the American Dream is dying for everyone, St. Louis might be the one to rise up

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A short perspective on St. Louis written by a Washington University educated PhD anthropologist was met with harsh critiques and dismissed as “anti-American”, confused, and simply dumb by commenters across social media in St. Louis. The story was first posted on Al Jazeera – English and is reposted here in full with the author’s permission (the added images are mine). You can read the article below, followed by my extended comments and more background on Sarah, then join the nextSTL Forum conversation.

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The view from flyover country
When the American Dream is dying for everyone, St. Louis might be the one to rise up
by: Sarah Kendzior

In St Louis, you can buy a mansion for $275,000. It has 12 bedrooms, 8 bathrooms, a 3-bedroom carriage house, and is surrounded by vacant lots. It was built in the late 1800s, a few decades before the 1904 World's Fair, when St Louis was the pride of America. In 1904, everyone wanted to live in St Louis. A century later, the people who live here die faster. A child born in Egypt, Iran, or Iraq will live longer than a child born in north St Louis. Almost all the children born in north St Louis are black.

Art Museum - SLAMIn St Louis, the museums are free. At the turn of the 20th century, the city built a pavilion. They drained the wetlands and made a lake and planted thousands of trees and created a park. They built fountains at the base of a hillside and surrounded it with promenades white and gleaming. Atop the hill is an art museum with an inscription cut in stone: "Dedicated to art and free to all." On Sundays, children do art projects in a gallery of Max Beckmann paintings. Admission is free, materials are free, because in St Louis art is for everyone.

In St Louis, you can walk 20 minutes from the mansions to the projects. In one neighborhood, the kids from the mansions and the kids from public housing go to the same public school. On the walls of the school cafeteria are portraits of Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama, to remind the children what leaders look like.

In St Louis, the murder rate is high and the mayor is named Slay but few think that is funny. In St Louis, things are cheap but life stays hard. In St Louis, an African-American man with gold teeth and a hoodie and baggy jeans rushed toward me in a mall, because I was pushing a baby carriage, and he wanted to hold the door open for me.

Ahead of its time

St Louis is one of those cities that does not make it into the international news unless something awful happens, like it did last week in Cleveland, another American heartland city with a bad reputation and too many black people to meet the media comfort zone. The city is treated like a joke, and the people who live there and rescue women and make concise indictments of American race relations are turned into memes.

A buildingSt Louis is one of those cities where, if you are not from there, people ask why you live there. You tell them how it is a secret wonderland for children, how the zoo is free and the parks are beautiful, how people are more kind and generous than you would imagine, how it is not as dangerous as everyone says. They look at you skeptically and you know that they are thinking you cannot afford to move. They are right, but that is only part of it. 

St Louis is one of those cities that is always ahead of its time. In 1875, it was called the "Future Great City of the World". In the 19th century, it lured in traders and explorers and companies that funded the city's public works and continue to do so today. In the 20th century, St Louis showed the world ice cream and hamburgers and ragtime and blues and racism and sprawl and riots and poverty and sudden, devastating decay. In the 21st century, St Louis is starting to look more like other American cities, because in the 21st century, America started looking more like St Louis. 

St Louis is a city where people are doing so much with so little that you start to wonder what they could do if they had more.

Rich are less rich

In St Louis, you re-evaluate fair. In St Louis, you might have it bad, but someone's got it worse. This is the view from flyover country, where the rich are less rich and the poor are more poor and everyone has fewer things to lose.

The symbol of St Louis is both a gateway and a memorial. The Arch mirrors the sky and shadows the city. It is part of a complex that includes the courthouse where the Dred Scott case was settled, ruling that African-Americans were not citizens and that slavery had no bounds.

ArchOn a St Louis street corner, someone is wearing a sign that says "I Am a Man". Like most in the crowd gathered outside a record store parking lot, he is African-American. He is a fast food worker and he is a protester. He needs to remind you he is a human being because it has been a long time since he was treated like one.

On May 8, 2013, dozens of fast food workers in St Louis went on strike in pursuit of fairer wages and benefits. "We can't survive on 735!" they cried, referring to their wage of $7.35 an hour – a wage so low you can work 40 hours a week and still fall below the poverty line. At a rally on May 9, workers from Hardees and Church's Chicken talked about what they would do with $15 an hour: feed their families, pay their bills. "If we can make a living wage, we can give back to the community, and we are part of this community," a cashier from Chipotle said.

In St Louis, possibilities are supposed to be in the past. It is the closest thing America has to a fallen imperial capital. This is where dystopian Hollywood fantasies are set and filmed. It is the gateway and the memorial of the American Dream.

But when the American Dream is dying for everyone, St Louis might be the one to rise up. In St Louis, people know what happens when social mobility stalls, when lines harden around race and class. They know that if you have a job and work hard, you should be able to do more than survive. They know that every person, every profession, is worthy of dignity and respect.

St Louis is no longer a city where you come to be somebody. But you might leave it a better person.

(story end)

My comments:

I especially enjoy reading commentaries about St. Louis from those new to the city. A new voice, fresh eyes, can provide a unique perspective, an interpretation of the place we call home. To be valuable, it has to be something more than an uninformed, biased dismissal (we'll take uninformed, biased praise gladly) of St. Louis. I read the piece by Sarah Kendzior for Al Jazeera with interest. My first take: it's an interesting perspective, a broad survey of a city's history and present. Then I read the reactions of other on the nextSTL forum. I was amazed. 

Not growing up here, I understand that I do not carry the same sensitivities about the city. I'm not saying that's good or bad. I feel it's OK to question whether clearing our riverfront and building the Arch was really a good idea. I get the sense that many locals disagree. And that's good. Different experiences lead to different sources of pride and varied values. What I always seek to do, however, is have a reasoned, informed discussion on the multitude of issues St. Louis faces. Some of these have aspects that are exclusive to this city. Others are national and international in scope.

Regarding the commentary itself, the one real glaring error that should always and repeatedly be challenged by St. Louisans is the depiction of the Dred Scott case. The author mentions, “the courthouse where the Dred Scott case was settled, ruling that African-Americans were not citizens and that slavery had no bounds.” This is not only not true, it is the opposite of what occurred here. Briefly, the Scotts chose to petition for their freedom in St. Louis because there was a legal community here supportive of their cause. The first case went against the Scotts, but was dismissed. The case was retried and a St. Louis jury declared that the Scotts should be free people. That’s our history. That should be our pride. The Missouri Supreme Court overruled the jury and eventually the United States Supreme Court affirmed, going further and stating that the Scotts weren’t citizens under the Constitution and therefore had no standing to petition for their freedom in the first case. St. Louis was ahead of its time.

The rest of the piece is a pasting together of observations and facts. While many chose to dismiss the content because they find the writing lacking, I think the choppy style basically works for a thousand word introduction to a city for an audience with likely zero knowledge and little frame of reference to call on. Broadly, I found the criticism of the piece to be sophomoric and devoid of substance. Charges that the whole piece is “anti-American” or that a fifth-grader could write better, reflect more on the commenter than the piece itself and are only scapegoats for substantive issues. Perhaps, more detrimental to a conversation on substance, is the defensive assertions that statements in the piece are meant to be exclusive of St. Louis. “You can walk 20 minutes from the mansions to the projects.” It’s true, that’s not the question, and the author doesn’t posit this as an “only in St. Louis phenomena”. How is one to write about anywhere if required to place everything in the context of the breadth of humanity? (“There are poor people in St. Louis.”, but, but they’re not as poor as poor people in _______ ! )

There are a number of rewarding phrases and juxtapositions in the piece for those looking for a different perspective.  “an African-American man with gold teeth and a hoodie and baggy jeans rushed toward me in a mall, because I was pushing a baby carriage, and he wanted to hold the door open for me.” Far from perpetuating a stereotype, this disassembles it. It also resonates with me. Not too long after moving here I was on a bike ride in the city and was wearing bright yellow shoe covers. At a stoplight a woman rolls up next to me, very close, and rolls down her window. I’m ready to get yelled at. She does yell, “What the hell is them things on your feet?!?” She said they look like duck feet. We laughed about it.

"St. Louis is no longer a city where you come to be somebody. But you might leave it a better person." St. Louis really was the new city of the world a century ago – people came here from everywhere to make it big, people of all types were drawn here. This really was the future. Today it's not. This doesn’t mean people aren’t drawn here, but it’s true that people aren’t drawn here on the scale of Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver, Seatlle…let alone as they were just more than a century ago. The facts of today’s St. Louis seem to be what rankle locals the most. But facts don’t determine the future, they inform the present.

“(St. Louis) is the closest thing America has to a fallen imperial capital.” This would be even more evident had we not cleared the Arch grounds, Mill Creek Valley and half of north St. Louis. Perhaps Detroit is the fallen capital, but the arc of St. Louis history makes a strong case. Other fallen imperial capitals: Rome, Venice, Beijing, Istanbul, Vienna… What’s wrong with being a fallen capital?

St. Louisans have begun to realize in a systematic way, that the city and region need newcomers. The metro area has one of the highest percentages of native-born residents in the nation. The economy is stagnant. No one likes to hear someone trash their home. But this piece doesn’t do that. It’s simply a different perspective. The knee-jerk defensiveness serves no purpose and precludes any fair discussion.

A fair reading finds a lot of positive in the piece. “Atop the hill is an art museum with an inscription cut in stone: "Dedicated to art and free to all." On Sundays, children do art projects in a gallery of Max Beckmann paintings. Admission is free, materials are free, because in St Louis art is for everyone… (You tell people St. Louis) is a secret wonderland for children, how the zoo is free and the parks are beautiful, how people are more kind and generous than you would imagine, how it is not as dangerous as everyone says… St Louis is one of those cities that is always ahead of its time… But when the American Dream is dying for everyone, St Louis might be the one to rise up.”

In St. Louis we’re not supposed to talk about multi-million-dollar homes next to those living in poverty. In St. Louis we’re not supposed to notice that black children born in the city face a challenging future. In St. Louis we’re not supposed to talk about Dred Scott or the 1904 World’s Fair. In St. Louis we’re not supposed to admit that our city has an incredible history. Or perhaps we’re just not supposed to let others talk about these things.

More on Sarah Kendzior:
From PhD to Life: Transition Q & A: Sarah Kendzior
Savage Minds Backup: Interview with Sarah Kendzior
About Sarah Kendzior (publication bio)

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  • JackofallSydRyans

    I appreciate the verve regarding the possibility of a robust riverfront sans the Arch but the reality in St. Louis, for the past five decades, has been decay. Only now do we see the financial and creative components joining forces in the city’s renaissance.

    I do see the city at the beginnings of a comeback. As the tech savvy professionals move back here to take part in the technology employment boom we are experiencing I feel it will only increase the positive momentum we are experiencing.

    • Alex Ihnen

      “I appreciate the verve regarding the possibility of a robust riverfront sans the Arch but the reality in St. Louis, for the past five decades, has been decay.”

      So? Are we to conclude that the decay was inevitable? That destroying many parts of the city (riverfront, Mill Creek Valley, Chinatown, etc., etc.) had no negative affect on decline? That there were no other options? If so, how to justify what will soon be $1B spent on a park and monument over that past five decades? No better way to spend that money in the face of decay? To paraphrase a woman in the film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, “How is it possible that a city allow its people to live in poverty while building such a monument?” Any discussion of different choices on the riverfront and elsewhere is predicated on the idea that choices can change future development. Could past choices for St. Louis have resulted in a different outcome?

      • JackofallSydRyans

        Honestly, after many years of seeing St. Louis city politics, yes I do believe the same outcomes would have beset the city. In fact, I could see a downtown riverfront full of Larry Flint’s “treasures” if the streets were left as pre-arch.

        Unfortunately, we live in a area where the powers have ulterior motives. All we can do now is get behind endeavors that we believe can advance the downtown area. Sad, but true.

  • Mark

    Can anyone point me to a book/article that explains the fallout from building the Arch? I’m interested in learning more about it, I hadn’t realized it was so detrimental to the surrounding area.

    • Alex Ihnen

      There’s no book. The issue is two-fold: 1) what we lost, 2) the lack of gains. The Arch grounds was 90 city blocks, the size of the French Quarter in New Orleans. If preserved, it would be the marquee city neighborhood and destination today. It may not be the fault of the Arch per se, but putting down a 90 acre park hasn’t resulted in downtown growth. Since 1965, the city has dramatically lost population and jobs. Again, that isn’t say the Arch is to blame, but is meant to highlight that other choices could have resulted in something better and it’s difficult to see that the lack of the Arch would have somehow left St. Louis worse off 50 years on. If one looks today, some of the areas most devoid of life are immediately surrounding the Arch grounds. One only needs to look at where development is happening downtown to see that the Arch isn’t the driving force, but rather the building environment – the warehouses, the walkable streets, the small retail, all the things that were removed for the monument. Perhaps I should write something more in-depth.

      • John R

        Boy, this is a tough issue. When these decisions were made, it was at the start of large scale urban clearance going on across the country and there was not yet a sense of the great costs that this brought.

        Indeed, the decision to clear in many respects wasn’t so different than the decisions of mid-19th century Saint Louisans to completely level all structures from the French/Creole period. How nice would it have been if they had the foresight to preserve the Chouteau House — our Monticello or Mount Vernon — and other important buildings from the period. How cool would it have been to have an Old Saint Louis like Old Quebec? And what if some of the larger Mounds, which hovered over the early Saint Louis landscape, were preserved?

        With respect to the Arch, all I know is we were lucky as heck to get a great monument and iconic landmark recognized across the globe out of the deal as it all too easily could have been a design disaster.

      • The what-ifs are nice, but even better would be applying the lessons learned. Northside Regeneration is our generation’s Arch grounds project, uprooting traditional urban scale in favor of formless landbanking and huge-footprint commercial development. While the density of the area doesn’t match the density of the site of the Arch grounds, the approach is rooted in the modernist vision of urban unity forged through clearance of seemingly disjointed fabric. There may be many more what-ifs ahead of us.

        • John R

          Very true. We know a lot more now through experience of the consequences of large-scale clearance and failing to preserve neighborhoods so our excuses are fewer than back then.

      • Don

        “The Arch grounds was 90 city blocks, the size of the French Quarter in New Orleans. If preserved, it would be the marquee city neighborhood and destination today.”

        I admire your certainty and vision. I thought it might just as well became a blighted cancer that was ultimately cleared anyway (like so much of old downtown that no longer exists in St Louis and every other city like us) with no park or national monument in it’s place.

    • moorlander

      Here is a taste of what was lost. I imagine, if protected from the wrecking ball, this area would have been a boon for tourism much like what you find in NOLA.
      http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?t=162521&highlight=arch

  • Another Outside Perspective

    Not raised in St. Louis, I have a great appreciation of her perspective. As to the criticisms of this article, I find St. Louisans (generally speaking) tend to be overly sensitive and in denial about certain realities that exists in the city. It’s kind of like saying the Mississippi River is not really that muddy, and then when someone points the mud out they become upset. Although race relations have no doubt improved, St. Louis is still a very noticeably divided city. One only needs to look at the Delmar Blvd divide to see the racial and socio-economic contrasts, years of decay and neglect to the north and urban renewal taking place just south of Delmar. St. Louis is a very noticeable simply Black and White city that is not socially integrated in many areas throughout the city where blacks and whites are residentially separated. The Dred Scott case is a historical testament to that racial divide for the city. Parts of decay in the city have been so bad that they filmed the 1980’s apocalyptic movie “Escape from New York” here without having to do much to modify the set. My point is simply, going back to the river analogy, yes the river is nice, but it still is very muddy. St. Louis is a very nice city but there is as a lot of decay and racial overtones that exist. Sure there are exceptions, but from an outside perspective these racial social economic contrasts that overlay the city’s rich historical and beautiful architecture are very hard to miss.

    • Alex Ihnen

      The Dred Scott case is the opposite of an historical testament to the racial divide in St. Louis. Why did a slave petition for his freedom in St. Louis and not somewhere else? Because he could find support in the white community in St. Louis. The St. Louis jury ruled in favor of the Scotts, saying they should be free people. It’s the same with housing covenants. The battle was fought (and won) here because of white and black cooperation.

      • Another Outside Perspective

        Although yes there were some in St. Louis who were very
        progressive for even bringing up such a case during the time, however the fact is still the Missouri Supreme Court overruled and the United States Supreme Court affirmed that the Scotts were not citizens under the Constitution and therefore had no standing to petition for their freedom. This is the historical testament to the regional wide, city wide, country wide racial divide and the degree of racism that existed and it is within that context that it speaks to the racial divide which exist today. Don’t get me wrong historically many have reached across racial boundaries working towards equality for all within the city. St. Louis is still one of the most progressive cities in the state, I applaud that, but it is still very difficult to see the Delmar divide and not question the racial socio-economic issues that have led to such a stark contrast.

      • John R

        I think the fact that it took until 2012 to get a proper sculpture of Dred and Harriet Scott in downtown Saint Louis speaks volumes on our city’s stunted dialogue on race.

        • Don

          As compared to where?

          Is St Louis’ racial divide any different than any other rust belt city trying to find it’s place in post-industrial America?

          Spent any time in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philly, Indy or Cincinnati? Politicians in OH, PA and IN have spent a lot of time and tax payer money to prevent black citizens from voting.

          Or how about Boston where the Boston Globe has written at length over a period of years over the racial divide in that city of enlightenment?

          How about New York City? Here is a quick test: What are the odds of a qualified black man getting a job as a firefighter in NYC versus St Louis?

          And don’t even get me started on LA, San Diego or San Francisco/Oakland.

          Yes, Saint Louisians are overly defensive and insecure and certainly we have more than our share of racial problems, but the suggestion that it is somehow worse hear than any other rust belt city is ignorant, uninformed and not at all helpful to any honest discussion.

      • PhilS

        I’m sorry Alex, but I’m pretty sure that all of the Scott trials with the exception of the US Supreme Court were held in the Old Courthouse building. So, to say the case was “settled” here was not completely accurate, but the case did leave the City with a ruling against Scott. The MO Supreme Court ruling against Scott was certainly made in the Old Courthouse and I think the Federal district trial, again ruling against the Scotts, was in the building as well. The NPS historians would know for sure. Also, Scott’s lawsuit was here because of happenstance. St. Louis was the major economic and political locus which was right on the border between free Illinois and slave Missouri – a border which tragically was ruled to be permeable to commerce but not transformative for the human cost of that commerce.

  • Don

    ” I feel it’s OK to question whether clearing our riverfront and building
    the Arch was really a good idea. I get the sense that many locals
    disagree.”

    Literally laughed out loud when I read this.

  • jhoff1257

    Having been a life-long resident of Metro St. Louis (minus the 6 years I spent in KC, full disclosure) I see no issues with questioning the Arch project (both past and current). In fact I always make it a point to let my fellow St. Louisans and guests alike know what we lost when we built the Arch. If anything I just love the dumbfounded looks I get from St. Louisans when I tell them what a worthless project the original Arch project was. Successful monument sure, a terrible and disastrous effect on the urban fabric? Absolutely.

  • JustAHick

    “Not growing up here, I understand that I do not carry the same sensitivities about the city.” “The knee-jerk defensiveness serves no purpose and precludes any fair discussion.”

    I find the dismissal of the criticism of this piece as coming from overly sensitive locals is way off base. I think the people you are dismissing on the forum you’ve created are those who fully realize the problems of the area and are open to constructive criticism about the City and region, but will also call BS when something is BS.

    I’m sorry, but in this case I think you’ve completely misunderstood the dialog this article generated and you underestimate and insult your own readers while speaking from a pedestal.

  • I think I’m most disappointed with this piece because the author has a Ph.D in anthropology yet it’s riddled with anecdotes, straw-man claims, and poorly connected facts in order to paint St. Louis as a phoenix that could rise from the ashes. It’s evident her thesis is to highlight racism, stereotypes, and wealth inequality in St. Louis and attempts to advance it through the use of irony and evocative writing.

    The topic is certainly worth highlighting but she does it a disservice with an overly patronizing tone, historical ignorance, and a lack of intellectual honesty. Unfortunately, these issues undermine both her ethos and message.

    A plethora of comments on the forum: https://nextstl.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=9712

    • Don

      You perfectly captured my thoughts. Very well said.

    • dempster holland

      I thought the article was interesting and informative to see how
      someone new to town views us. And it is a brief article, not a
      book. I am a lifelong St Louisan