WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Homeward bound and gagged

All that green? Empty lots where homes once stood.

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.

11 comments on “Homeward bound and gagged

  1. loristory
    July 31, 2021

    This could be the beginning of a memoir. I recently moved back to my home town for family reasons. Never thought I would. There are things I like about the place (trees, lake, jazz), but I know what you mean about some of the people. I think it’s a national phenomenon, true for many cities. Hope you’re back in your happy place by now.

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 31, 2021

      Thanks, Lori. I’m afraid if I wrote a memoir from this it’d peeve everyone I know back home!

      Where are you from? I like the sound of that jazz.

      • loristory
        October 21, 2021

        I’m from Rochester, NY. It’s home of a very good music school (Eastman School of Music) and we usually have a jazz festival every year.

  2. equipsblog
    July 31, 2021

    Wonderfully stated.

  3. pinklightsabre
    July 31, 2021

    Good for getting out, better for going back to see your mom too. Had to have been hard for a lot of reasons. Interesting imagery too, the “park lets.” It taps into that existentialist core and for me, one of perception, nostalgia and isolation. All good marrow for that stock right?

    • Kevin Brennan
      July 31, 2021

      You got it, Bill. I know you have similar senses about Pennsylvania, which is probably a lot like St. Louis in many ways. How do these places keep on keepin’ on?!

  4. Marie A Bailey
    July 31, 2021

    Interesting that the quote is from someone who grew up in Schenectady, NY. Growing up in the country, I didn’t spend much time there, except to go to their mall, but it was a close enough city to feel familiar with. Many years ago we went up to NY for a wedding and stayed in Schenectady. We walked around a bit. Every block had a church of some denomination. It was obvious that Schenectady had seen better days and they were a long, long time ago.

    As much I want to see my family, I get the heebie-jeebies whenever I visit home. I always feel like a stranger in a familiar place.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 1, 2021

      It’s such a strange feeling, isn’t it? To recognize things and have experiences there but to be “outside” of it all. What boggles my mind every time is how St. Louis let half it’s geographical area become dilapidated. Because, race.

  5. Catxman
    August 1, 2021

    St. Louis made its mark as a transshipment point in mid-America, but when the frontier was complete, it had less reason to exist. The Sun Belt has been calling all those St. Louisans for some time now with its siren call of warm weather and better-paying jobs, and St. Louis is heeding the call. The long-term future is dire.

    — Catxman

    http://www.catxman.wordpress.com

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 2, 2021

      True. Somewhere in the late 19th century, the money men decided all the rail lines would go through Chicago, and that meant curtains for St. Louie. Unless some unforeseen industry installs itself there, I think you’re right: The future doesn’t look great there.

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