I was first exposed to the phenomenon of Saint Louis parochialism the first year I moved here. At work, two senior Mac engineers were going at it. One was a native, while the other one was a transplant. I was new to town then and had my ears open to any advice on settling into this city. The problem here though, was that the advice offered wasn’t any good. The native engineer advised me not to go to Forest Park, because it wasn’t safe there. He also announced that he didn’t need to go up in the Arch, because he had seen it being built. The old transplant tried pushing back on this nativist propaganda, only to be dismissed as only a newcomer, to which he retorted, “But I’ve lived in Saint Louis for 34 years!”
Flash forward 33 years and I find myself in the shoes of that old transplant. We’ve raised two native sons of Saint Louis, who in turn have joined the ever-growing diaspora of former Saint Louis residents. We’ve worked our careers here and have plans to retire here. Saint Louis is my home and I considered myself a fully fledged Saint Louisan. I love this city and would be first to defend it from its detractors, but I still don’t have an acceptable answer to the question, “What high school did you go to?” I find the recent claim that Saint Louis is the most sinful city in America only worthy of derision. Sometimes though this sense of Saint Louis protectionism is over zealous. Such is the case over the recent umbrage being taken locally about what my former neighbor wrote.
The root of this tempest in a teapot was a June 8th New York Times opinion piece entitled, Loving the Midwest, by Curtis Sittenfeld. In her article, Ms. Sittenfeld first dishes on Saint Louis, but ultimately comes to love and then speaks her love for this town. It doesn’t take much though for some people to get their undies in a bunch. The article sparked immediate turmoil in the blog-o-sphere, along with letters to the editor. We only became aware of this mini controversy, after reading about it in this last Sunday’s Post-Dispatch. Really get to know St. Louis by Martin Daly took offense from some of Sittenfeld’s less than flattering observations about Saint Louis and its Saint Louisans.
As I said we were neighbors with the Sittenfelds. They were a quiet, relatively young couple who lived next to us during their first few years in Saint Louis. We would coo over their two young daughters, before they moved on. Reading her article, I was reminded of our own sense of loneliness, when we first moved here. Native Saint Louisans generally have their own rich lives, full of family and life long friends, with little room left over for newcomers. Our first friends were also transplants. We’ve been able to sustain friendship in Saint Louis through the vehicle of our hobby, bicycling. Still, neither Anne nor I can get more than a puzzled look, when we answer “Pioneer High School”, to that most stereotypical of Saint Louis questions.