There are plenty of ways to cause a minor stir in St. Louis: compare us to Chicago, make fun of the Cardinals, dis Ted Drewes, declare provel cheese the foodstuff of the gods or the bane of mankind...you'll at least provoke a conversation. But to really get things going, all you need to do is cross that line in the Mississippi mud that's labeled "the Lou."
For those of you just tuning in, a quick remedial Lou lesson: arguably (but just barely) the hottest hip-hop star on the planet, a fella by the name of Nelly, hails from St. Louis, and has single-handedly done the most to put our town on the lips of the world since a dewy-skinned lass named Judy Garland sang about meeting her here. See, Nelly's from the Lou and he's proud...and prone to rap about it a lot, in his sing-songy fashion. The Mayor Harmons of the world can wring their hands about whether Nelly's vision of his hometown is the picture our civic fathers would choose to project ("where the gunplay rains all day"), but there's more than a grain of truth in that old saw about bad publicity. Ain't no such thing.
So now all of a sudden, hip kids from L.A. to Lyons hear Nelly talking about his trip from "the Lou to Neptune," and they've got at least some concept of this magical place: St. Louis. (Perhaps it's within walking distance of Nellyville? One can only hope it's a sight better than that money-crazed burg of Luckytown...)
Of course, it's not called the popular culture for nothing, and it didn't take long for "the Lou" to crop up everywhere from the pages of this webzine to the column inches of Deb Peterson, the Post-Dispatch's recently added gossip columnist, to posts on the e-mail lists of St. Louis. And just as quickly, the outraged civic arbiters of What We Will and Will Not Do emerged, guns a-blazin'.
When we ran a St. Louis-themed haiku contest earlier this year, we received a few angry e-mails on the subject of "Haiku for the Lou." This trend will stop here, the protestors wanted to assure us: "What's with this 'the Lou' crap?" demanded one. "It's St. Louis or maybe St. Louie, but never the Lou!" In an appearance on KDHX talk show "The Wire," Deb Peterson tipped that the majority of the mail she's received thus far has been negative reaction to her use of the nickname in her column. (Well, the ones that weren't about her hair, at least...) Metropolis president Christina Reid, too, has been on the receiving end of a few Lou-bruisings, herself.
The most common complaint? Folks seem to think that "the Lou" will be too easily confused with "the loo," and that all our Anglophile citizens (here and in the larger world) will think "toilet," and that's just too crass a thought to bear. Somehow, this affectionate city tag has touched a nerve deep within, and provoked a subconscious reaction among the scatalogically averse. Of course, the naysayers will find ways to undermine any moniker, just like there's always some kid in the fourth grade who'll turn "Kelly" into "Smelly"; witness the experience of Baltimore, sarcastically reduced to "the city that bleeds" when it really wanted to be "the city that reads."
I just wonder if we haven't got more important things to worry about. I for one am thrilled at the thought of kids in Brooklyn imitating Nelly and rapping rhapsodically about the Lou, conjuring up images of what a cool place that must be. We should be thankful that St. Louis is front-and-center in the nation's consciousness, especially among those hip young kids that every city on earth is hiring Richard Florida to bring home for them.
And frankly, that's not even our problem yet. In preparing the kind of extensive background research that goes into every editorial stance here at TheCommonspace.org, I e-mailed a random sampling of my elsewhere-dwelling friends, asking them what, if anything, they thought about Our Fair City's nickname. Is it bad, I asked them, to be the Lou? Sadly, they hadn't really heard of it.