Over at WNYC Radio’s Brian Lehrer Show, he recently had a segment on books about where to live, specifically, New York City—do you stay, or do you go? His guests were Sari Botton, who edited two anthologies of essays called Good Bye to All That and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York, and writer Alexander Chee, who has an essay in the second book and is originally from Maine. They talked about their personal experiences with the city as well as books that changed their thinking about New York. Go listen to it; it’s really interesting.
Naturally, it got me thinking about St. Louis.
It’s no secret that I’m of two minds about this city, which is not surprising since I think it’s in two minds about itself. Amid the boosterism and constant sports fanaticism, there’s also a chronic undercurrent of self-loathing and inferiority complex to the place’s mindset. It can’t escape the feeling that it could have been great at some point, but that honor went to Chicago, and now it doesn’t know what to be (except the poster child for the country’s race problems). Before he wrote The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen wrote a novel titled The Twenty-Seventh City, set in St. Louis. At one point, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in the United States. Since Franzen wrote that book, it’s slid even further, down to 53rd place.
The largest city in Missouri? Kansas City.
I don’t think a city has to be big to be great. Vancouver is big, but its metropolitan area is in fact smaller than St. Louis’s. Seattle stands taller than Portland, but given the choice, I’d rather live in Oregon.
There are things about St. Louis that I appreciate—the parks, the restaurants, the free museums, the microbreweries—but it’s hard to say that I love it. I can’t deny that St. Louis has been pretty good to me in some respects; it’s given me a backdrop for a lot of my writing, after all, and I’ve met many wonderful people who live here and have become my friends. But a lot of those people have moved away too, and sometimes I wonder if they know better than me. After all, I went away for grad school, and then I came back. How smart am I?
Maybe it’s partly because of my upbringing. As a military brat, I got used to moving around a lot, and even after I went away to college and was on my own, that persisted. I lived in about half a dozen apartments in St. Louis before I ended up buying a house. Wanderlust might be a defining trait of my character.
There’s also the lack of ocean. I was born in Hawaii, my family’s from Maine, and both my parents and my brother live near the coasts. (Although I don’t really believe in astrology, Scorpio’s a water sign.)
For better or worse, though, I’m here for the time being. And what I would love is to read a book about St. Louis that would change my opinion about living here. Or a book that you read about St. Louis that did that for you.
Does such a book exist? Let me know in the comments.