There was an article that caught my attention yesterday, mostly because it was shared multiple times on Facebook by not just friends, but also by local businesses, attractions, and radio stations. It was a piece that ran in The New York Times called “Loving the Midwest” by Curtis Sittenfeld. In it, Sittenfeld explains how she and her husband, who came to live in St. Louis in 2007 by way of a job, evolved from being critical transplants to residents who have grown to accept the city as home. A home they could stay in forever. A home that is indeed a really great place to raise a family.
As many of you might know, I am a born and bred St. Louisan who loves the city that has raised me. And everyone sharing the article on Facebook were also proud St. Louis residents, both natives and transplants. As I scrolled through my news feed, I caught glimpses of words like “vindication” and “finally.” It was like this virtual communal sigh of relief. See? We haven’t been lying. St. Louis really IS a nice place to live. I mean, if The New York Times is willing to run the article, then it must be true. New York is the ultimate authority on everything after all.
But unlike so many others, the article didn’t inspire such a warm and fuzzy feeling in me as to make me share it on my timeline as well. Don’t get me wrong. I think Sittenfeld did a wonderful job highlighting many of the reasons St. Louis is a fantastically livable city, especially for those raising families: friendly communities, a unifying love for our sports teams, a city that is pretty easy to access from one corner to the other, and the insanely numerous attractions that are both incredible AND free, or at least affordable (which also makes St.Louis a great place to visit. There are cities my family has visited which could change their mottos to City X: Where nothing is cheap or easy. And if its easy, its really not cheap. And if its cheap, its wrong.)
But as I counted how many times this article was shared in my news feed, all I could think was, Why do we need The New York Times to tell us what we already know? It’s like in every teen dramedy when the cool kid finally sees the nerd for the pretty rockin’ person he or she truly is. But isn’t the real lesson of those movies the realization that the nerd never really needed the cool kid’s approval at all?
Maybe I am bringing a little bitterness to the table. I can own that. But I would bet that just about every proud St. Louisan has heard our great city lambasted by an outsider at least once. A few months ago while in New Jersey, I was having a conversation about music, and I made the comment that St. Louis sometimes gets bypassed for various concert tours, despite the fact that we have a lot of stellar venues for live music. This man, who did not know me, responded, “Because St. Louis sucks. That’s why.” He made this incredibly informed statement having never visited, but because “that was the word on the street.” Maybe he had heard about that bogus list that put St. Louis as the third most violent city in the world. Oh, and he also provided the very solid reason that “St. Louis is in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the country.” Well, you got me there, bud. I guess we can blame it all on Lewis and Clark then. The whole time he was talking, I couldn’t help but think that my city was getting dissed by a guy from New Jersey. Hmmm…people in glass houses? You would think someone from New Jersey would be more sympathetic towards a native from another place with a bum wrap. Or maybe making fun of someplace else just helps ease the pain of years and years of getting bullied by New York.
Some non-natives may not outright criticize St. Louis as Mr. Jersey did, but on more than one occasion I have experience attitudes of superiority from transplants from the coasts. Like Sittenfeld described of her and her husband’s attitudes on first arriving in the city after living in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, coastal transplants seems to find a lack of sophistication in our city because we might not have the raging nightlife or fast-paced energy or as many hybrid cars or…whatever. And that subtle, veiled feeling of being a tad superior for having lived elsewhere before comes across in comments like, “It’s funny how hardly anyone uses your mass transit system,” or “People sure have an interesting way of saying forty-four around here,” or “Why does everyone care what high school you went to?” or “With a crust that thin, can you really call it pizza?” We sense it. And it makes us feel bad about our own city, while in our own city, even though we shouldn’t feel that way. We listen too much to people who don’t know St. Louis like we do, and that is what leads so many of us to become the “self-hating Midwesterners” that Sittenfeld mentions. We are right to love our city the way it is, and we really don’t need anyone else’s approval for doing so.
It is nice that Sittenfeld wrote the piece out of love for the Midwest. And it makes me happy that she and her family have found their place here; though it doesn’t surprise me at all that they did. St. Louis really is an easy city to love. Which is why my Facebook friends and all those local businesses, attractions, and radio stations shouldn’t have been surprised that praises for our home made it to The New York Times, so surprised that they felt the need to make sure everyone knew the cool kid had noticed us. After all, if the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a piece about what a great city New York is, I doubt anyone in New York would even notice. Because they know they are fabulous. And we should know we are as well.