Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Every time I go back to St. Louis, where I was born and raised, I’m flooded with a complex swell of emotions. This might happen to everyone who leaves a worse-for-wear hometown and exposes themselves to a wider world. The blinders come off and you’re able to see the old place more clearly as you get older, and sometimes the truth isn’t too pretty.
For example, when you look at the city of St. Louis on Google Satellite (as opposed to suburban St. Louis County), you see a lot of green patches in inner-city blocks that look like lovely little parklets. They’re not parklets. They’re vacant lots where once stood nice brick four-flats or duplexes, and they’re almost exclusively on the North side, where most of the population is Black. City leaders, over the decades, shamelessly redlined the North side and, even worse, tore down thousands of homes via “urban renewal” to make way for the Gateway Arch and other developments in and near downtown. Look again on Google Satellite and you’ll see a lot of unused land where nothing ever really materialized beyond light industrial, yet the former residents (also mostly Black) were made to leave and their homes were razed.
I came across this beautiful statement by critic Philip Kennicott in his book, Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning:
I used to think I had left this place [Schenectady, NY] behind, but now I know I have dragged it with me for decades. And yet the city I have carried with me ceased to exist the moment I left it, and lives on only in me.
That about sums it up. My St. Louis stopped existing in reality back when I left it at the age of 31. It has since thrown up one of those ubiquitous ferris wheels, acquired a tourist-trap aquarium, built a domed football stadium and promptly lost the NFL team that played there for a while (the Rams), mowed down the arena where I used to go to hockey games and rock concerts (the Stones, The Who, George Harrison, Supertramp, Heart …), and mowed down, as well, old Busch Stadium in favor of one of those nostalgic brick yards that are all over MLB these days.
Even neighborhoods where I used to live feel different, with their tall, leafy street trees that were barely seedlings in my day. Different shops in the spaces I once patronized. The medical complex where I worked has become a many-square-blocks behemoth, thanks to eminent domain. They’re about to raze the fourteen-story tower where my office was. Many changes take place subtly, but some are so fast and extreme it gives you the chills: Crestwood Plaza mall, an old haunt of mine, is now an open field.
Things change, but in a lot of ways people don’t very much. There’s a certain kind of St. Louisan who was there back in ’88 and still abides. He’s on the heavy side and he wears Cardinals and Blues jerseys everywhere he goes, except church and funerals, I guess. He drinks only Bud. He doesn’t mind the city’s segregation because it preserves his property value, but he isn’t a racist, he’ll tell you. He wishes the Rams hadn’t left, but the Cardinals are a source of huge civic pride, even when they play .500 ball. He lives out in the county, but he considers himself to be from St. Louis.
I’m from St. Louis too, but something got into me at an early age that said, This is a brick bubble. Break out of it.
And that’s what I did.