St. Louis Alderman to Critics of Salvage City: "Relax"

Our mini freak-out over Salvage City comes on the heels of several media panic attacks in 2013. Other examples include reactions to a New York Times look at crime and murder in St. Louis, and a humorous Art Forum takedown of an overwrought guided bus tour of St. Louis art venues that culminated with a violet-hour visit to SLAM's expansion grand opening. The story, and the predictable freak-out. (See RFT's "Snobby New York Art Critic Scowls on St. Louis.") Writers snapped our photo when the light wasn't flattering, and we didn't like it one bit.

A gentleman charged with promoting St. Louis as a convention destination mentioned to me that the New York Times article was a "serious setback" for his work. Many others complained that Alderman Antonio French let himself be quoted in the article. (Apparently all these folks just hang up the phone when the New York Times calls.)

But St. Louis didn't actually have a bad national media year compared to cities that did have bad media years. Pity poor Detroit, which is facing both the reality of the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, and the punishing reportage of the event itself. Article after article described Detroit as a place where "Half the streetlights are off, and there's no money to turn them back on." Fighting that narrative would be a challenge for even the most adept conventioneer. But there is no comparable story about St. Louis; all our streetlights are on.

The flip-side of this phenomenon was the fawning over two articles by recent St. Louis transplants and writers Curtis Sittenfeld and Sarah Kendzior. The response could be characterized as, "Oh, look, the New York Times says we're not so bad after all!" But to my ear, both these articles seemed to damn St. Louis with faint praise. I found the column by Sittenfeld, who also published the well regarded novel Sisterland this year, particularly galling. Perhaps it was the title, "Loving the Midwest" followed by a teeth-grinding litany of St. Louis stereotypes and complaints about being a new person in a new town. (See RFT's Top 10 Reasons Transplants Criticize St. Louis and Rebuttal: 10 Reasons St. Louis Hates Outsiders.)

Relocating to an anonymous suburb in your thirties would be a challenge anywhere. That's not a St. Louis thing. The column resolves from frustration into appreciation after she stops being the new girl. But love for St. Louis? It was not. Certain civic cheerleading outlets fawned nonetheless. "We're in the Times , and they like us, they really do!" Did these folks make it past the headline?

Sam Coffey breaks into something.
What it boils down to is a little hypersensitivity about how St. Louis is portrayed in national media, positive or negative. It is this nagging worry that folks on one coast or the other will write us off the same way one of Kendzior's article headlines refers to us, as flyover country. But here's the secret: It doesn't really matter either way. After Jersey Shore-gate blew up, Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted two studies about American's perspective of the State of New Jersey. Despite the Jersey Shore cast being the most annoying collection of humans ever crowded onto a single screen, people who had seen the show felt pretty much the same about New Jersey as those who hadn't.

Here's the deal: The front-page headline of today, good or bad, is buried beneath tomorrow's avalanche of words and news. We're free to ignore them either way, and we bear no responsibility to condemn writers that notice our warts or heap praise on those who grudgingly admit our merits. If we don't like Coolfire Media's portrayal of Sam, Chris and Mia, rest assured their success or failure will neither hurt nor help us nationally. Rather than fret that the wrong stories are being told, we should probably worry that the best homegrown stories aren't being published in St. Louis.

Perhaps our New Year's resolution should be a little bit thicker skin, and a renewed confidence in telling, and hearing, all the stories about our city: good, bad and indifferent. Rather than make one story carry the burden of representing all the facets of our city, let a thousand voices rise in song or storytelling, each with its own particular perspective. If the Mississippi Valley's incredible legacy of homegrown storytellers, from Mark Twain to Jonathan Franzen, is any indication, we're plenty interesting, and there's plenty to tell.

Scott Ogilvie is alderman of the 24th Ward in St. Louis.

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