Monday, August 21, 2006

The 7 Series, Part I

Seven years ago, I moved to STL-- without a job, and without a friend. I simply came here and gave myself one year to figure it all out. And when I say I came here, it's more like I crashed here. Some other force propelled me to St. Louis. Having just finished school, I knew I needed to leave, but any one place seemed as good as the next. I was awaiting an epiphany, and as usual, the epiphany never came until i did something about it.

I had made a deal with myself. After a month in England, I would have a plan. But when my plane was descending to Chicago on the way back, and I had twenty minutes until I landed and nowhere to go, I got creative. I wrote down nine cities as that plane swooped down towards Lake Michigan. I played eenie-meenie-miney-mo.

St. Louis won, and the rest is history.

When I first moved here, I found myself on the S. Side, near 44 and Grand. In fact, the first time I saw Grand, I knew this was neighborhood. I roamed the city during the day when I was off of work-- visiting museums, getting lost in neighborhoods and finding great things, playing tourist. I wrote letters at night to friends, old professors, cranking out the words on my typewriter to feel the noise of my decision. At that time, this, for me, was a river city of brick and dreams. There was something, it just took me a little while to put my finger on it.

Unlike the majority of people I know, I did not grow up in STL. In fact, I've lived all over the country and also spent a few years in the UK. So when i say I am in love with St. Louis, it is not an affair. It is long-haul, fighting until I tear my fingernails out, crying in frustration but unable to leave: love. It is the love of a place I found, of a place I came to (and stayed in) by choice. It is a love of place, and place is my big thing. And St. Louis has that sense of place; it still retains its own character and its own personality, especially within the city.

Over the next few days, in honor of my seven years here, I will be making lists of my love. These are the images I have collected over the years, the things I first found, and the things that give me continued hope. With any luck at all, you'll see what I see, and maybe something new.


#7. BASEBALL. For anyone who grew up here, this is a no-brainer. For someone like me who had only lived in one city (out of a dozen) that previously had a baseball team, it was like a revelation. I have always referred to St. Louis as a "beer and shorts" kind of town. And it is. That first summer I lived here, I took my mom to a baseball game. She is a longstanding fan, and as we sat in the old Busch Stadium, the sun beginning to set, the Arch in the background, that sea of red, the Anthem playing... I knew I was home. It was a coming together of a city like I had never seen before. I had spent many days at football matches in England, the crowd chanting and cheering, but the sense of fellowship in STL over baseball was different. It was sweeter. It had a meaning, and there was a continuity to it-- parents with small babies in Cards gear, teenagers in groups watching intently, senior citizens out in decorated hats. Baseball ties this town to a certain kind of democratization-- where everyone watching is the same, and equal, and each fan understands each other in one way, at least for a few hours.

That, and I loved that the whole city was about beer and shorts. In St. Louis, in the late nineties, I couldn't find an ounce of pretension if I tried.

#6. BELLERIVE PARK. Located down on S. Broadway-- way down... I stumbled upon Bellerive this spring and was angry-- irate, even-- that no one had ever told me about this park. I love the river. True, I've lived in other river cities, but there is something about the Mississippi, bisecting the country. When I was 11, we were moving across the country and we passed through St. Louis on 70, my mom waking us up to look at the Mississippi and the Arch, to tell us that we had just crossed into the West. I remember not caring, and wondering what the big deal was. It was just a river.

But then there was the Flood of '93, and that idea of just a river changed for me forever. That river was mightly, was dangerous, was powerful. I think of all the towns alongside of it. I think of Lewis and Clark. I think of Huck Finn. There is a history to it, and one which we can bear witness to.

I sit at Bellerive Park a lot in the mornings, reading, watching the river. The barges which move so slowly beneath. It's like the world slows down for a bit, and I am seeing the same thing that so many others have seen over time. It's a beautiful view-- unparalleled in St. Louis. And even though most people who live here don't hold a lot of stock in the river, I love it. And I love that park.

#5. The NORTH SIDE. When I first moved here, people warned me of the N. Side. "Way worse than East St. Louis," they said: gangs, carjackings, drugs, prostitutes. When I was looking at apartments, I had taken 70 west instead of 44 and got off on N. Grand instead of S. Grand. Everything was boarded up, derelict, and I cried as i drove thinking that was all I could afford, thinking that was what I had just gotten myself into.

These days, I take N. Grand by choice, though St. Louis Avenue is my favorite street in the whole city. I like to take it from 70 straight west out of the city and into Pine Lawn. On the eastern part of STL Ave., there are grand old homes, beautiful, reminding us of what the N. Side once was. There are small businesses with hand-painted signs, residents sitting out on their porches, kids riding their bikes in the streets (usually with another kid on the handlebars). Sure, there are all those things I was warned about, but I see those things in my neighborhood as well.

And the North Side gives me many things my neighborhood doesn't: Crown Candy, The Goody Goody Diner, the Skate King, Gino's Lounge, Red Bones Den, the big column in the circle, Fairgrounds Park, and beautiful, beautiful grafitti.

I teach on the N. Side, and I love each day as I drive into school. I love it for what it was, and for the possibility I see within it again. I love it for the folks who live there and for the things they try to do to make it better. And I love its raw quality.


These things help create the place I love, the way I used to see this town and what I now see everyday. In this city, it's not the big stuff, but the patch within that you carve for yourself. This is my St. Louis.

Coming soon, Numbers 4-1 on the countdown...

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