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

Do You Know the Way to San Louie?
By Meg Studer

One might think that having lived in Portland, London, Manhattan, and Philadelphia since my departure from the Loop (on June 24, 2002, two years to the day as I'm writing this), I'd have some startling comparative reflections, but no, not quite — just a bit of spatial stuttering.

Ironically, the further away in time and space, I get from my days in St. Louis, the more I fall back on etymological musing of sorts. Thus while I know everyone is looking forward to a scholarly account of the French derivation of the name (a history of Saint Louis' reign in the 13th century, with some fantastically lucid analogy about his stabilization and consolidation of what would later become France, in contrast with the sociopolitical fragmentation of the current Midwestern city), what follows is less etymology than etym-storia or etymemory or perhaps onomato-memory.

To start with, I came to St. Louis for architecture school, but also to suture implied familial ruptures from my parents' 1960s eastern migration (Hannibal to St. Louis to Pittsburgh). Naïve and nostalgic with a gothic edge, at 18 I set out to embrace Midwestern urban ruins just as I'd gloried in exploring decaying hometown mills or ancestral farmhouses during my childhood visits. So while urbanities might protest, I passed through the arch, originally, to settle in Missour-ahhhhh.

Now I'm sure someone has written something on the nuanced history of the urban/rural pronunciation split, but for me it's all about the loooooonnng dureé of that flattened nasal 'a' in conversation.

In fact, stop.
Say it aloud.


Really feel it, taste it for a moment.
Be synesthetic and onomatopoetic with it.

The short 'i' Missour-i requires an inward flick of the tongue, a sort of spitting withdrawal, whereas the 'a' literally falls off out of the mouth, a gawking, slack-jawed posture associated, at its most genteel, with Southern drawl. The difference is like that between a vodka shot's sting and its lingering warmth. You put up with the first to embrace the second. Now roll the Anglicized St. Louis and an affected (slightly bastardized) French pronunciation, San Louieeeé, around your mouth for another nibble. Again, rock candy versus cotton candy.

In part this embrace is by choice, a sort of amorphous spoken embodiment, but I learned to speak from displaced Midwesterners. Pin and pen are the same word to me, as are wilt and welt, and most variants having to deal with the letter 'i.' It's an embarrassing handicap or an identity one learns to perform with pride. It's part of the story how of my memories have expressively appropriated an agrarian tongue, and likewise, when I think of my recent encounters with St. Louis, they've been fixed with that same ambivalent pride and desperate fear, ironically fixed on that audible spatial divide: the verticality and instant of the staccato and the 'bad infinity' of those prairie-esque 'ahhhs' and 'eeeees.'

After a deep and abiding interest in all things urban in St. Louis, and four years of inhabitation, I left by I-70, weaving across Kansas, Colorado and beyond to find myself temporarily in Portland. That fall in London, I spent a magnificent time being extraordinarily lost, confused, slightly damp and depressed, while speaking conspicuously American English. At some point, scouring Camden and Westminster for a specific text, I managed to find myself, (and shamefully so), in a Barnes & Noble on Oxford Street. For people not familiar with London, this is the major commercial drive, with everything but Harrod's, leading from Tottenham Court Road by the University of London, to the northwestern corner of Hyde Park. In terms of buildings, picture five to seven stories of stone, brick and glass forming a solid urban wall, with stores at ground level and 1.5 lanes of traffic in each direction. For crowds, imagine the peak hours of Soulard Market and double it per square foot. So, while I've grown to love London of late, at that point I was still as overwhelmed as I was fascinated by the concentration, by feeling small, a bit rushed and staccato amidst the bustling crowds.

Harvard Design Magazine As I stood in line with my text, the Harvard Design journal caught my eye. The Spring/Winter '02 center-fold-esque photo-essay was on St. Louis. In large, but stark, black and white photos, sections of north city unfolded in all their picturesque ruin. In one moment I was profoundly homesick, in the most dire way, matching the implied anguish of those matte prints. Nothing could've given me both the space and warm embrace I longed for like the dusty, moist breezes, those August St. Louis sighs, which arise from downtown's abundant parking lots, empty city squares and abandoned blocks. My desire was stirred by remembering that awful coating of dirt inside one's nose and the constant film of sweat on the skin, mingled with oppressive curtains of asphalt-smelling heat.

But at the same time of longing for its abandoned expanses, I was outraged by those photographs, their limitations. As Benjamin said about the photographic image of the empty city, "For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression... their melancholy, incomparable beauty. But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value. To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of Atget, who, around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets. It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime... [where], photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him [the turn of the century viewer], right ones or wrong ones, no matter." Not merely pulling at the heart strings, photography's indexical claim allows the subtle implication of content and message through captions, framing, and layout in their glossy presentation.

While the author, Mitchell Schwarzer, (also a former St. Louisian and architectural historian), explicitly acknowledged this auratic exhibitionism, titling the essay "Past St. Louis," I can't remember if there were any currents, implicit or explicit, which pointed past the medium's nostalgic, yet faintly damning, politically-snide documentary posture. If St. Louis embodies the drawn 'Missour-ahhhhhh' with its ruinous expanses, there is still a wealth of amazing social pockets, fighting against the often depressing economic and racial challenges of urban decay and suburban sprawl. Dwelling on the tragic scene of the crime, I felt there had to be some way to photograph St. Louis as a living social entity, ripe with prospects, potentials and yet realistic struggles. After all, the "Past St. Louis" I'd enjoyed was as open and embracing in terms of social scenes as its elongated French eeé's. From the funky clatter of voices, creaking floors and live music at brewery art openings, hushed conversation interspersed with billiard-ball strikes at MoKaBe's, or the screeching audio adjustments that opened every city governance lecture at the history museum, I remember a city that refused to be merely a staccato 'i', gone in an instant of photographic flash and freeze, or silently withdrawn like the short 's' of its Anglicized nomination.

55 South Of course, I've been back once, a year ago April. On the spur of the moment I flew into Chicago to surprise my lover, then still residing north of Forest Park. My mother, at a physiologists' conference, met me at O'Hare and we drove down to St. Louis together. By this time, after a good nine months of London life, I'd become entirely accustomed to the density, scale and clutter of labyrinthine urbanism. I volunteered to drive, but I discovered that there is nothing so phenomenally frightening to me as I-55. Beyond cliché doubts as to being on the "correct" side of the road, it was very difficult to persuade myself of basic bodily safety. First, I wasn't sure my pedestrian perception, keyed to 8 mph max while running, could cope with the attention demanded by driving 70-75 mph. Second, despite a few small cattle fences and the occasional overpass, it seems like there were no lateral boundaries. My imagination keep cycling through the notion that I could drive off the road and go on infinitely, as through falling interminably off the edge of the world. Don't get me wrong, for I'd driven the Dakota flats at 85-90 mph the prior summer and enjoyed every adrenaline-pumping moment, but obviously some perceptual reorganization had occurred abroad. Like Tony Smith's account of night driving on the unfinished New Jersey turnpike (cited famously in Michael Fried's 1967 "Art and Objecthood"), there was something utterly sublime in my encounter with I-55, perverse in that the banality of the plains became an almost schizophrenic loss of self in the infinite. In the early hours of that drive I'd have gladly endorsed the finite 'i' of Missouri, the crisp edges of "Saint Louis" in contrast with amorphous prairie pronunciations.

The visit as a whole was successful, but again certain meditations of horizontality struck me. Wöfflin, a turn of the century art historian, wrote once, hilariously, on the empathetic zeitgeist of "gothic being" as a tense verticality, embodied from cathedral spires to the pointed shoes of scholars. While utterly archaic as erudition, I couldn't help but recall his musing walking across Washington University's campus again. Who in their right mind would attempt to rebuild Oxford on the plains? It's a ridiculous proposition, utterly ludicrous. During my architecture undergrad years, professors consistently complained about all the neo-gothic, with its stone facades and concrete interior. And while I can occasionally put up with such polemics of material integrity and protests of pomo historicism which call for some notion of truth, I can only remember thinking that the space itself — inside the modern university system, as well as space on the Midwestern plains — has so little, almost nothing, to do with 14th century gothic or its institutional and social structures. Crouched just beyond Forest Park, Washington University already has that ironic look of gothic stretched sideways, or weighted down, like it was wilting in the humidity or obesely subsisted on McDonalds, a squatted troll waiting to devour Lilliputians as they walked west from the city. Even in the blocks of healthy urban fabric, say in south city, I just couldn't feel comfortable in those wide tree-lined streets. Of course those wide oak canopies and brick bungalows seemed to sit comfortably, basking in that sea of space, in contrast with the stunted verticality of Wash U's gothic or even those pretentious roof peaks of suburban McMansions. What had been normal size, just a year before, was now strangely short, disturbingly ample. Thank God I didn't venture out to St. Louis County or St. Charles proper; I'm sure my phenomenal anxiety would've triggered some sort of diagnosable episode.

Thus in a purely formal sense, the audibly expressive 'Missour-ahhh' and 'San Louieee' are for me both the paradoxically open potential of social embrace, a sort of funky, picturesque badge of allegiance to St. Louis and an almost tangible agoraphobia provoked not by crowds but their inverse, the open expanses where 12-foot sidewalks and six-lane roads loom like the Sahara. But I'm not quite ready to pledge allegiance to traditional, dense, European urbanism. After all, both New York and Philly strike me as extra-wide compared to London, and I'm growing fond of them. I did live with a guy who, Banham-style, spent all his time driving St. Louis ring highways, taking digital photos, cultivating a true appreciation of suburban and infrastructural sublime. I can still remember the night, when, at 4 a.m., we encountered a great bunch of skateboarding punksters in a Schnucks' parking lot somewhere past St. Charles... thriving subcultures in the paradoxically most likely place. Of course, these days, I don't talk about St. Louis very much. When I do it's in the form of trading stories about people, not spatial manifestations (nor would my dialectic of pronunciation hold in academia). But if anyone happened to ask, I'd like to think I've kept an open mind and a bit of Midwest gumption, just enough to grin and really roll the words to make sure we're thinking fondly, ambivalently, of the same place, "San Louiee, Missour-ahhhhhh?" Say it loud. Say it proud. (And a bit of theatricality doesn't hurt.)

Meg Studer is a student of art history, landscape, architecture, and urbanism, who just happens to spend too much time with literature grad students and their language poets. When she's not dragging herself around the East Coast as a neo-nomad, she likes to inhabit very small spaces, like library cubicles.

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