When I left St. Louis almost twelve years ago, there wasn't very much about it I thought I would miss. I grew up in the metro area in the '60s and '70s, an interesting time to be a young black person in St. Louis. My mother tells me she knew I could read when I asked her why a man got arrested for asking a woman to dance. While she was quizzing her toddler about why he would ask that, she discovered a headline in a paper saying "Black Man Arrested For Asking White Woman To Dance."
I recall the time a buddy of mine and I were stopped by police and were told we should "go to our own neighborhood" because we could get arrested for "being in the wrong place at the wrong time." Of course there were a number of disturbing things about that…not the least of which was that we WERE in our own neighborhood. At that time police called these little stops "visa checks."
While interning at KTVI during a summer break in college, I heard a well-educated interview subject in his 30s refer to blacks as "colored." He wasn't trying to be insulting. He just thought that was the way one described blacks at that time. It was 1981.
These incidents were nothing compared to what my parents and grandparents had to endure, and the truth is those little moments probably made me a stronger person. Thanks to my mother and father and a host of relatives and friends, I had a great childhood. Still, St. Louis and its backwards thinking were things I couldn't wait to put in my rearview mirror. The factors that brought me back to the city in my mid-20s were a good job and the thought of spending more time with my parents. But in time I found that a lot of things hadn't changed that much, and now it was affecting me professionally. Even my dad, who loved having his son and granddaughter in town, told me I really should leave.
Looking at St. Louis from afar for more than a decade now has given me a new perspective on my hometown. Things have changed, both for me and for St. Louis. In a lot of ways, I think we've both grown up a little. I look at the city today with a much greater sense of appreciation not for its problems, but for what it has to offer. First of all, on a personal level, I've discovered the people of St. Louis are some of the nicest you'll find anywhere. Living on the east coast for a while will certainly convince you of that! I've also come to appreciate the St. Louis way of life. I have described it to friends as "comfortable." In some cities people are almost forced to live to work. In St. Louis people seem to work to live. As I get older I think there's something very civilized about that.
From what I can see, St. Louis is not the place it was when I moved out. Every time I'm there I discover new, world-class restaurants and an increasing number of options for fun things like concerts and festivals. From my perspective, it feels more like a real city now. There seems to be a welcome "city buzz" in a lot of areas of town. You see people of all races mingling, smiling and enjoying themselves. On at least that level there seems to be a comfort factor that didn't really exist when I was growing up. It has been quite surprising to me to see and feel these things, and after all these years the place where I was born and raised is new to me in many ways.
Whatever its drawbacks and its history, I've discovered there are so many things to like about St. Louis. I have to be honest: to a lot of folks where I live, hearing about some of the doings in St. Louis makes the place still look like Hooterville. It's still discouraging to read in the paper that blacks and whites in town are still miles apart on the most basic of issues. It's sad to know that outsiders still have to show up in town to fight what are essentially local battles. It's also a pity that elected officials, while telling constituents that the public schools are great and improving, refuse to send their own kids there.
There was a time when I thought for St. Louis these problems were insurmountable. Now that I've rediscovered my hometown I feel something I never thought I would about the future of the city: that feeling is optimism.