Back in February, when I visited St. Louis for the first time and was still making up my mind about moving out here, I had a strange experience. It was a little like meeting my twin and although physical similarities were not the issue, she was a doppelganger of sorts.
Let me explain. By serendipity, I attended a going away party for a girl with my name Joy. Of course, I had never met this Missouri Joy before the party. She is an epidemiologist and the physical opposite of me: short, petite, long hair. What was important however, was Joy was moving to my home city, Oakland, California while I contemplated a move to St. Louis. It was uncanny, as if the fates needed to swap us to keep the "Joy ratio" in balance.
"There are five things Joy loves," her mother announced, "her family, her friends, her church, her hairdresser, and strawberries." I was uncomfortable. I didn't know Joy, but her mother kept pushing Chinese food and strawberry cheesecake on me like I was a long lost, severely malnourished cousin. Her mother was a delightful hostess. In April, I moved to St. Louis.
Before I moved, I tried to imagine St. Louis, but only fuzzy
pictures of Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and the muddy brown Mississippi appeared. The Arch didn't even cross my mind. (In fact, I referred to it as "the arc" half joke, half word amnesia to my roommate's dismay. She's a St. Louis native.) I was secretly hoping for a Missouri miracle land unlike my own. Something completely foreign, new, different a whole other version of America.
At first, I didn't notice any of the earth-shattering differences I anticipated. If anything, I was brutally disappointed by the abundance of Applebee's and Walgreen's and regular television programming. I suppose I expected a palpable difference between Oakland, California and St. Louis, Missouri. Yet, I had no idea what kind of difference I hoped for. I wanted St. Louis to grab me, shake me, show me. After my first impression, a hodgepodge of the familiar, I began looking carefully for differences I could quantify and categorize.
I've noticed St. Louis isn't fond of crosswalks or crossing signals. It's as if pedestrians were an afterthought in the planning of great, straight thoroughfares. I get the feeling that in Missouri, cars are more important than people, that pedestrians are expected to run across streets with the same hustle of wide-eyed squirrels. I've had my share of squirrel moments.
This makes me remember my city twin, St. Louis Joy, because there are plenty of crosswalks and crossing signals in Oakland. I can guess what she is experiencing. She is startled by the difference in the cost of living. The Golden State is "golden" for a reason and it's not the Golden Gate Bridge. California ain't cheap. The average one bedroom apartment in Oakland rents for about $850, with moving fees well over a thousand dollars. (Just across the bay, in San Francisco, which is arguably one of the most expensive areas to live in the country, $850 won't even get you a half-decent studio.) Also, finding a place to rent won't be easy due to a severe housing shortage. Some people to come to open houses dressed in dapper interview style, toting rental resumes and credit ratings.
Then there is price of gas. Gas in Northern California is (or has been for the last several months) the highest in the nation averaging a buck ninety. I hear gas prices have recently leapt to an institutionally insane $2.11 for mid-grade gas. Joy may need to rely on public transportation, but I'll get to that later.
In addition to housing and gas, Joy must cope with the rolling brownouts, potential blackouts and high electric bills of California's energy crisis. Unfortunately for St. Louis Joy, her cost of living has increased significantly. Meanwhile, I have been pleasantly surprised by the relative affordability of basic living expenses.
Oakland has its share of urban blight, but between the two cities, St. Louis wins the sad award for most citywide dilapidation. The crowds of buildings and businesses left abandoned and ravished by time are overwhelming. Sometimes, it seems as if half the city has been abandoned or maybe there just aren't enough people to run this town.
Of course, I admit I have only seen portions of St. Louis and some of its neighboring cities, like Clayton and University City. I am bound to BiState because I don't have a car. Which brings me to another small point of comparison between the two areas. Where I come from which sounds like a confession of a one-eyed green Martian public transportation is the transit of masses.
In the heavily populated Bay Area, we have two major bus systems, (Samtrans and AC Transit); Muni (which is similar to Metrolink); Frisco's famous cable cars; and my personal favorite, BART.
BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is mass transit at its best and worst it snakes though 8 or 9 cities and is perfect for traveling to ever crowded San Francisco, but during peak commute hours people are packed tighter than tuna in a can.
St. Louis' public transit system, on the other hand, has taken some getting used to. Metrolink's fare system is curious. It relies on the Girl Scout honor system while employing transit police to "out" non-paying passengers. Wouldn't ticket-taking turnstiles be easier and more efficient? My biggest complaint, though, is Bistate buses. Bus stops usually don't say which bus stops where, as if giving out that kind of information would make bus travel just too easy. To top it off, I can only use bus transfers going in one direction away from my point of origin. What's up with that? I confess I'm spoiled; I want to go and return using the same transfer as long as I'm within the allotted time.
Other than transportation issues, there are small, sometimes strange, sometimes understandable, local idiosyncrasies I've observed: the popularity of large, domestic cars (especially the monster variety from the 70s and 80s), the obsession with Nelly, and the gold teeth. These things are distinctly St. Louis.
Oakland is more than high prices, crosswalks, and rapid, transfer-lenient transportation. But living in Oakland had been nothing more than my familiar childhood stomping ground. A community limited to the people I knew and the experiences I've had. So, asked myself: What makes a city a community or gives it the ambience you remember long after you have left?
The answer came to me in the familiar aisles of Walgreen's. Although I hungered to experience the change St. Louis offered, I found myself gravitating toward and being most pleased by places and things that struck me as familiar. The Loop for example, has a radiant mix of funky urban youth and eclectic shops. It reminds me of Berkeley, (a city next to Oakland) where I went to college among dancing Hare Krishna, incense peddlers, and stores selling red pleather pants. Basically, the same franchises that annoyed me when I arrived in St. Louis became a source of comfort. Go figure. Who would have thought there is comfort realizing a Walgreen's is a Walgreen's?
I wonder what St. Louis Joy found in Oakland. Perhaps she noticed the shimmer of Oakland's Lake Merritt at night, the abundance of crosswalks, the pleasures of bus transfer freedom along with the droves of homeless and the city squalor. Perhaps, she gravitated toward places and things that feel like her 'hood and wondered why.
If St. Louis Joy never lived outside of Missouri, I know she feels the same wonder I feel thinking about Oakland and St. Louis. I think maybe the experience of a city, a community, is less about making simple and possibly frivolous comparisons between the place you came from and the place you are. Maybe the experience of a place is wrapped up in you, what you choose to see, to experience, to discover. What defines your community may easily be what is familiar. In any case, I figure everyone needs to meet his or her city twin at a going away party. Everyone needs to be able to compare a place they used to live with a place they live now, and ask themselves if round-trip bus transfers are underrated.
Joy White is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.