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Jun 2004 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

The Push-Pull Paradox
By Thomas Karsten

There are, as far as I have been able to discover, three cities in the world that share the name Saint Louis: the dilapidated colonial ruins on an island off the northern coast of Brazil, in the state of Maranhão; our sister city — the dilapidated colonial ruins on a fluvial island near the edge of the Sahara desert, in Senegal; and ours, the dilapidated colonial ruins that lie along the banks of the Mississippi. All once great. All once golden. Today, all lie in ruin.

I love our ruin. I have to. I am a product of that ruin, for better or for worse. To me, the ruins are completely surreal. They exist on a different physical plane, in a different time. Monuments to Indian burial mounds. Tenement complexes overgrown with vines. Vast expanses of natural grasses, where entire blocks once stood. Snoots and tips. Blues, jazz, and soul being played to almost empty clubs. Arson.

I have always suffered ridicule for being from Saint Louis, especially from East coasters who are fond of making comments like, "If you are not living in New York you are just camping out." But I know that Saint Louis, along with Memphis and New Orleans — the crowning gems of the American Nile — form the true cradle of American culture. We are the cultural standard-bearers of the nation, despite the fact the little credit is ever given, and despite the fact that Saint Louisans themselves rarely do their part to improve our image.

I should clarify that Saint Louis to me is just the part east of Skinker. The suburbs, the sprawl, and the people that contribute to them, are my real enemies. I think we ought to build a Great Wall around the City and charge toll for the suburbanites to visit the Arch, the stadium, the zoo, the museums, the parks, and the other marvelous public resources the City offers for free to all. Let's see where the suburbanites will draw their inspiration and cultural identities from when their access has been cut off. When I lived in Saint Louis I made a vow never to stray west of Skinker, on principle.

I have lived in Brazil for many years now, because I found that I am freer in Brazil than in the USA. Free of the Puritanism and false morality in the States; the sexual repression; the obsession with consumerism and material goods, and work, work, work, at the cost of friendships, family and quality of life; free of the terrible diet of fast food, processed food, industrialized, over-packaged food, and over-packaged lifestyles; free of the cold winters; and most importantly, free of the racism. Brazil may be a classist country, but it has at least recognized and embraced its African influences. Saint Louis, and the rest of the United States, owes a tremendous debt to the cultural contribution of African-Americans, a debt that can never be repaid. Yet no one wants to acknowledge this debt. In fact, Saint Louis continues to adhere to a social regime tantamount to apartheid. This makes me feel true shame.

I grew up near Delmar Blvd., at a time when that street practically divided the City in two halves — blacks to the north, whites to the south. Today, with "white flight" at its most expressive levels in decades, and with Saint Peters the fastest growing city in the state, the south side has taken on a more diverse character, but the dichotomy between white and black continues strong as ever. No contact between the races. I am not even surprised any more when I hear whites in Saint Louis say they have never heard of the St. Louis American.

I moved back to Saint Louis from Brazil in 1995, because I had decided to wanted to spearhead an urban pioneer movement, to repopulate abandoned areas of the city. Tax abatements, neighborhood associations and marketing campaigns only go so far. The war is won on an individual level. Someone has to move to the City and become an example, convincing others to follow. Someone has to dispel the myths of crime and hatred. Someone has to take action. So I bought an abandoned smokehouse from the LRA (Land Reutilization Authority) on Iowa, with a friend of mine, and without any financial resources to speak of we started fixing it up with our own four hands. The crack dealers on the block burned it to the ground, but we were relentless in our commitment. We traded the ashes for another building — squatting in the second without electricity for many months — until we had it back up to habitable conditions. It served as my home for several years. I made lasting friendships with neighbors that most Saint Louisans would never give themselves the chance to meet.

In fact, my friends from the suburbs continued intransigent in their stance. It was like high school all over again: attending the Priory, I was one of a handful of boys that lived in the City. My friends were not allowed to visit my home. Their parents thought I lived in the jungle, and that their children would be robbed, raped, or murdered if they left West County. In college, when I lived near Crown Candy, I convinced a few to visit. It was like taking them to a foreign country. They had never even driven through north city. They didn't even know it existed! Living in my LRA property I discovered that nothing had changed years later. People were still unable to overcome their prejudice and fear. They actually liked hiding out in Saint Peters. And so, recognizing that we live in a cultural democracy, where people vote with their feet, I accepted the defeat of my pioneer efforts and returned to Brazil.

I miss a lot of things about Saint Louis, especially the radio. When I was growing up there were more than five or six full-time jazz stations: KBIL, KWMU, WSIE, KATZ (on the prowl). Webster University had a real funky one, too, but I don't remember the call letters. There was even a smooth jazz station, though I never liked it much. Add all these to KDHX, and its eclectic array of programming, and man, we were in a really privileged position musically. That was a fact. I got hooked on funk, soul, R&B, jazz, blues, reggae, rap, African. You name it. If it had roots in the diaspora of African music, it got played on Saint Louis radio. Saint Louis is a deeply funky place, but so many people are unable to tap into the vibe.

I do not consider myself a patriotic person. I don't care much for the USA as a whole, but I have deep, unseverable ties to Saint Louis. And the reason for this is that Saint Louis is a very unique place. I just can't figure out why people are so self-denigrating, why they can't define and give value to what makes them so special. I have a different vision, but it doesn't seem like many people share it with me, so it has just remained a daydream that I indulge in moments of homesickness. Maybe my Saint Louis will only ever exist in my mind.

Thomas Karsten is, in his own words, "St. Louis' number one native son."

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