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.
In 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 neighbourhood, 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.
St 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 calledthe “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 one of those cities where, if you are not from there, people ask why you live there.
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.
On 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.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior
You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets