What is St. Louis like?

July 8, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More

People from my town of St. Louis are going ape-shit thinking that the national spotlight will come to our city along with the All-Star Game.   It’s really sounding like mega-insecurity to me.   If you’re really proud of your city, then be proud.  You shouldn’t need some sports announcer to say a few nice things about one’s tourist attractions between pitches in order to feel validated.  And if that sports announcer’s opinion is so important, let’s make sure that he takes a tour of our decaying city schools before the baseball game so that he can give the national sports audience an informed opinion or two on that, between pitches.  And, really, what’s more important if you had to choose between having first rate tourist attractions and a first rate school system?

Image by Erich Vieth

Image by Erich Vieth

But my ambivalence leads to an important question.  What is St. Louis really like?  I’ve lived here all my life, and there is much to like about our city (as well as many things that need much improvement).   Rather than write my own lengthy description of St. Louis, I’m going to refer you to this well-written balanced account by Alan Soloman of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  What should we be thinking about St. Louis as the All-Star Game approaches?  Here’s Soloman’s ominous opening, although his article eventually veers to many of the positive aspects of my river city.

The Gateway Arch, symbol of the place, and the museum beneath it represent the nation at its swaggering best, symbols of a Western expansion that would define us in so many ways.  That we’re talking about St. Louis – a city that’s seen its share of rough times and that, like the country, isn’t exactly in swagger mode right now – in a way adds particular power and poignancy to this year’s celebration.

For another angle on how St. Louis is doing, check out this article in The Riverfront Times, where the author asks whether the recent efforts to beautify St. Louis amount to “putting lipstick on a pig.”


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Category: American Culture, Community, Education, Entertainment, Meaning of Life, Media, Noteworthy, Saint Louis

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, I lived in the mountains of Colorado, and moved back to St. Louis. I lived in Alexandria, VA and on Capitol Hill, and moved back to St. Louis. I lived in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope in NYC, and moved back to St. Louis.

    Every place else I lived reminded me of people and things in St. Louis, or I took things with me that I shared with my new friends I met about St. Louis.

    I brought Gooey Butter cake to Winter Park, Colorado. The Silber sisters' were kind enough to make it in their bakery for us St. Louis ex pats!

    In Virginia and New York, we played bottlecaps (a corkball bat and bottlecaps as the "ball.")and "fuzzball" where you needed a tennis ball, a glove and a broomstick or corkball bat to play; there were only singles and homeruns (if you hit the ball across the street and over the trees in the Lasky's front yard).

    Folks in St. Louis are different, it's like they're all your family, your home. Home is where they have to take you in. St. Louis has always welcomed me. I guess we're all still stuck in a timewarp where we're all in high school, and all the good (and bad) of high school operates over our lifetimes.

    So, as kids in high school, sometimes we're socially awkward, sometimes we're inept, and sometimes we're just freaking marvelous!

    That's St. Louis. We have to stop worrying what others think, and make our way as best we can, guided by those who love us.

  2. Mark Matiszik says:

    I think it’s great that the All-Star game is getting native Saint Louisans to discuss the true image of its city. I’m a transplant who absolutely loves and is an evangelist for Saint Louis, but my experience is that many of the people who grew up here have a strange opinion that is either a perplexing sort of superiority complex, or an unnecessarily harsh disgust about how far we’ve fallen. I don’t believe either extreme really fits reality.

    Take the Riverfront times article. It illustrates perfectly that we need to define exactly what standards we’re holding Saint Louis up to. I personally tend to group cities into arbitrary tiers (e.g. Tier One is NYC, Chicago, LA, etc.), and think we need to ask ourselves where Saint Louis falls before any proper judgment can be made.

    By Tier One standards, we are definitely a pig. You cannot have boarded up buildings in your downtown, as well as large pieces of undeveloped land, and think you're anywhere near a truly great city.

    By Tier Two standards, the label probably still holds. Very poor public schools, too large an area of rundown neighborhoods, a high tax burden for people living in the city (relatively high property taxes, a high sales tax, personal property taxes, AND a 1% city income tax?!) without commensurate schools and safety, and a not-always-well-hidden racist undercurrent mean that if I ran a business that employed 2000 people, there are numerous other cities I'd choose for my headquarters.

    However, by Tier Three standards, I'd say we're very promising, with the potential to be exceptional. We have fantastic parks, museums, restaurants and the zoo. The Arch is really a great landmark. If you live in the city, you can get anywhere else in the city easily and quickly compared to some places I've lived. Plus, we have pockets of areas that are as nice as any neighborhood in the country to live and spend your life.

    100 years ago, we were a Tier One city. 40 years ago, we may have been a Tier Two city. However, we are neither any longer, and we probably have no chance of rising to those heights again.

    That’s okay.

    I realize that saying, “We’re at least as nice a place to live, and even better in many ways than Madison or Milwaukee, WI,” doesn’t have the same ring to it as, “the world once beat a path to our door to attend the World’s Fair in our Great American City!” However, if we don’t stop secretly thinking we’re still a major city, we’re going to find that we’ve fallen behind even the Tier Three cities that are truly our peers.

    Two final points. First, full disclosure, I’m a native Milwaukeean who went to school and lived in Madison. They really are strong cities, and everyone I still know "up north" loves living and raising families there, however I don't remember any of us thinking even for a second that a comparison with bigger cities was even relevant.

    Finally, I should clarify how I define city in the points above. Whenever I speak of any big city, I always refer only of the city proper, and not its metro area.

    As the Philadelphia Inquirer article implies, Saint Louis likes to think of its metro area as the true city. However, even if we were talking about metro areas, I’ve always thought that in Saint Louis’s case, suburbs are even less a part of the city's soul than other places I’ve visited. As I've learned it (I acknowledge, possibly incorrectly), our suburbs haven't grown because people wanted more room while still being near all the great things the actual city had to offer, rather they developed as a way for people to escape the actual city. I've got nothing against the county, but I don't think that new housing or a business headquartered way out in Chesterfield or St. Charles necessarily adds much to the clout or vibe of the city of Saint Louis.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Email I received from a friend named Dave Jenkins:

    I would echo just about everything that Mark (Matiszik) wrote, and add the following:

    I believe that cities are much like publicly traded corporations– their customer-citizen-facing value is very short term but their overall brand is completely dependent on long-term investments. Cities must find their core competencies, and develop those core competencies with an incredibly tight focus.

    Did you know that "Full Metal Jacket" was shot in south London docklands (where the O2 arean is now)? Did you know that "Escape from New York" was shot south downtown St Louis? My point is that: every large city has areas that would scare the shit out of you with the right lighting and some fog machines.

    – London is at the top of its game right now

    – New York (the real one) was a nightmare in the 70s, but has recovered nicely

    – Chicago was gangland, but is about to get the next Olympics

    – while St Louis continues to wallow.

    Each successful city was able to find a mayor or executive board that realized the city must have some core economic engine, and that engine should get anything it wants. London has The City, NYC has Wall Street, Chicago has the Futures market, Nagoya has Toyota, SFO has software, LA has entertainment and Long Beach, Seattle has Microsoft, etc. Any mayor that first appeals to "neighborhood harmony" without first addressing the core economic engine is wasting our time and money. I am not trying to be a ruthless corporate capitalist– I am just stating priorities.

    What does STL have? I know: InBev, Monsanto, Edward Jones, etc. I just don't hear these touted enough– I don't hear a reason why the city makes a better argument compared to the wonderbread suburbian wastelands out in west county. This comes down to the oppressive taxes (as Mark describes), the weird infra choices (poor interstate linkages, insufficient metro, etc), and the racial undercurrent with most civic politics.

    Get money into the city, and a lot of the other problems will melt away:

    each neighborhood will become a Soulard/WestEnd/Loop niche with enough money coming in.

    my rant,


  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Another friend (this one wishes to remain anonymous) emailed me the following:

    As a native St. Louisan, I agree with all of these sentiments in these posts. Not in the form of an apology or denial, but as an explanation, our form of City governance makes solving the problem all the more difficult. The mayor has far less power than a good mayor needs. (To be fair, a bad mayor has too much power.) What our city needs most is leadership . . .

    Hey there, marketers… A friend once pointed out that the institutions within Forest Park — the Zoo, Science Center, History Museum, Art Museum, and Forest Park, itself — are the equivalent of the institutions along the Mall in D.C. They're, if you will, a rectangular Smithsonian.

  5. William says:

    This article is very interesting. I am 22 and have lived in St. Louis my whole life. I agree with most everything that was said. The more major corporations that leave our city are just going to hurt our culture and economic situation more and more. Anheusuer Busch folding was the latest and probably the saddest. Nonetheless, every city goes through ups and downs, and our character must remain strong through it all.

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