Like many others in St. Louis, I’ve spent the last two weeks furious, grieving, afraid, and inspired by the protesters and caring citizens of this beautiful, broken city. I have a few new articles coming out, and I’ll post them once they are online. But for now, here are some older pieces that shed light on St. Louis and the issues we face.
The view from flyover country (5/12/13)
Op-ed on St. Louis, the good and the bad. I’ll always be grateful for Al Jazeera English – the international Al Jazeera — for taking interest in St. Louis when most US outlets told me it was irrelevant.
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….
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.
The minimum wage worker strikes back (4/14/14)
In-depth look at minimum wage poverty in St. Louis, based on months of interviews with black workers mostly from North County, including many from Ferguson. Struggled to get this one published, as the topic and locale were viewed as unworthy of examination. But those following Ferguson should know that the current protests were hardly their first. Here’s an excerpt explaining geography of North County:
St. Louis is an anomaly for large American cities in that the actual city has only about 300,000 residents. Most of the metropolitan area’s nearly three million people live in the surrounding St. Louis County. The county consists of dozens of suburbs ranging from poor to opulent, and its regions are designated by their relation to the city — for example, North County.
To follow a fast food worker’s commute is to trace St. Louis’s long history of racial segregation, economic decline, and fear. Most workers with whom I spoke grew up and still live in North County towns whose populations changed dramatically over the past three decades: a phenomenon one observer bluntly described as “ghetto spillover”. Once the suburbs of white flight, these towns are now the destinations of black flight, as struggling African-American families seek a safe and good life outside the crumbling terrain of the inner city.
St. Louis residents are defensive about the city’s reputation as one of the most dangerous in the U.S., and for good reason. St. Louis is civic-minded and family-friendly, and violent crime is rare outside certain areas — where it is rampant.
The truism that St. Louis is “not dangerous” belies a darker truth: the people for whom it is dangerous are not supposed to matter.
Drive through northern St. Louis and here are some of the things you find: A 12-bedroom, 8-bathroom 19th century mansion with a carriage house on the market for $185,000, the price falling every year. A 57-acre forest in the center of the city where the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, demolished in 1972 after decades of degradation, once stood. Kinloch, the oldest African-American community incorporated in Missouri: population 6,000 in 1960, population 299 in 2010. Houses with no doors or windows and the pipes torn out of the walls. Houses that are frames because someone stole and sold the bricks. Houses with people still living in them, wondering what will happen next. The average life expectancy in North St. Louis is lower than that of Iraq. Almost everyone in North St. Louis is black.
There are few functional businesses in North St. Louis. Drive out of the city limits to the fringes of North County, where many of the fast food workers live, and things start to look up. Next to the decaying buildings are signs of life: a payday loan store, a title loan store, a dollar store, a pawn shop. The economy is poor because the people are poor: possessions, here, are not what you own but what you trade to survive.
St. Louis is a typical U.S. city in that it is many cities in one. Fast food workers take the bus to the nicer areas, where the businesses are, where the people with money are, away from where they live. They look out the window and watch opportunity pass them by.
Expensive cities are killing creativity (12/17/13)
A call to reject the “gated citadels” for cheaper places like STL:
Creative people should fear the prescribed path to success – its narrowness, its specificity, its reliance on wealth and elite approval. When success is a stranglehold, true freedom is failure. The freedom to fail is the freedom to innovate, to experiment, to challenge.
In 2012, St. Louis artist Martin Brief debuted his drawing “Success”. The drawing consisted only of a dictionary definition of success, with each word broken down into its own definition, until, as he writes, “The language can be read but will not yield any greater understanding of what the word means.”
It is a mockery of careerism made all the more salient by Brief’s residence in St Louis – where success, by definition, is supposed to be impossible. To “succeed”, one is supposed to leave a city like St Louis – a Middle-American city associated with poverty and crime. To “succeed” is to embody the definition of contemporary success: sanctioned, sanitised, solvent.
But sanctioned success is dependent on survival, and it is hard for most people to survive in an art world capital like New York, where some homeless people work two jobs. Success by geographical proxy comes with a price: purchased freedom for the rich, serving the rich for the rest. But what happens when we veer off that path? Is it failure? Or is it redefined, recognised anew?
Creativity is sometimes described as thinking outside the box. Today the box is a gilded cage. In a climate of careerist conformity, cheap cities with bad reputations – where, as art critic James McAnalley notes, “no one knows whether it is possible for one to pursue a career” – may have their own advantage. “In the absence of hype, ideas gather, connections build, jagged at first, inarticulate,” McAnalley writes of St Louis. “Then, all of a sudden, worlds emerge.”
Perhaps it is time to reject the “gated citadels” – the cities powered by the exploitation of ambition, the cities where so much rides on so little opportunity. Reject their prescribed and purchased paths, as Smith implored, for cheaper and more fertile terrain. Reject the places where you cannot speak out, and create, and think, and fail. Open your eyes to where you are, and see where you can go.
The peril of hipster economics (5/28/14)
This one was based on my observations of poverty and urban renewal in the city versus in North County, and conversations with my friend Umar Lee, who is quoted in the piece (and whose work you should be reading; no one knows NoCo like Umar). Excerpt:
Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.
Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.
That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.
In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.
Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made. […]
Gentrification spreads the myth of native incompetence: That people need to be imported to be important, that a sign of a neighbourhood’s “success” is the removal of its poorest residents. True success lies in giving those residents the services and opportunities they have long been denied.
When neighbourhoods experience business development, priority in hiring should go to locals who have long struggled to find nearby jobs that pay a decent wage. Let us learn from the mistakes of New York and San Francisco, and build cities that reflect more than surface values.
PolicyMic Interview (6/14/13)
This was an interview I did on the “prestige economy” and exploitation in higher education but I weighed in on St. Louis at the end:
If social revolution comes to America, it will not come from New York, San Francisco or other cities where the middle class has been obliterated or is struggling to survive. It will come from St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, New Orleans — cities where you can afford to fail. When success is a stranglehold, true freedom is failure. The freedom to fail is the freedom to innovate, to experiment, to challenge. St. Louis is becoming a city of unlikely agitators.
When the cost of living is low, you have less to lose by losing. It is terrible to be poor and precarious anywhere. But it is far worse in expensive cities powered on the exploitation of ambition, cities where so much rides on so little opportunity. It is more liberating to live in a place where the illusions have already been shattered. St. Louis is not a city of hypotheticals.
Movements for widespread social and economic reform require a diversity of participants…When I went to the fast food workers strikes in St. Louis, people from all walks of life came out to support them. People were looking out for each other, and that was inspiring to see. But the dark takeaway of those strikes is that the plight of the working poor is so terrible in St. Louis that they have little to lose by protesting. They struck out at birth, so now they strike on the streets.
They know that when the game is rigged, you have a better chance of winning if you change the rules than if you keep stepping up to the plate. America’s educated youth could learn something from them.