Friday, July 6, 2012

I've been everywhere man (in St. Louis that is)

Recently I completed my personal goal to visit and photo document each and every St. Louis neighborhood.   I didn't traverse each and every block of each and every street but I came pretty damn close.  With a camera in hand and gas in the scooter/car tank, I hit em all man.  My modus operandi evolved as the adventure continued (sometimes dragging on) for 27 months.  My only goal at the onset was to take plenty of pictures and let them unfold and tell the story of current day St. Louis and keep the commentary light and conversational.  You know, informal and simple; not a lot of academic analysis or historic perspective, to me that's being done so much better on other blogs/websites.  I didn't want to specifically point out exact locations of signs, scenes, buildings or homes.  I wanted people to have their curiosity piqued and maybe go visit the neighborhood themselves and try to find the things I noted in each piece.

I started by looking at a list of 79 neighborhoods, man where to start.  I thought, well there are many "Heights" neighborhoods, why not start with thosse.  So our maiden voyage was in Botanical Heights driving around with my wife in the car, me behind the wheel and her with the camera.  We had an absolute blast.  But I knew I was going to have to change my method if I was going to do a good job at this for the other 78 neighborhoods.  First of all, it's too hard to take pictures from inside a car.  Battling the sun, traffic, etc is a bear.  Just navigating the chopped up street grid, one way streets, cul-de-sacs, Schoemehl pots and multitudes of stop signs is a monumental task.  This was clearly a job for a more urban-friendly get a bout....the 125cc Yamaha Vino:
This fuel efficient and highly maneuverable scooter allowed me to get in and out of alleys, streets, up on sidewalks and everywhere else I needed to go to get the access and photos I wanted.  And in St. Louis, where scooters are rare, there's another benefit...they get people's attention and folks naturally want to talk to you.  And in some neighborhoods where the locals are not used to seeing white dudes, esp white dudes on scooters, I got a lot of social commentary that I probably wouldn't have had I been in a car.  Scooters are not something you ride if you want to assert your manhood, I get that.  And for whatever reason, guys doing their best to live up to the thug stereotype are seemingly programmed to hurl racial and homophobic slurs when seeing someone on a scooter in the hood.  It was actually pretty funny, and by the end of my treks, I could almost anticipate a block away who was going to hassle me, give me shit or try to front/threaten me.  Some prostitutes even grinned and wanted to talk as opposed to do business.  But the vast majority of people who came across me on the scoot with the camera around my neck were simply curious and friendly.  They would typically ask the 2 most common questions of all "what kind of mileage does that thing get?  How fast does it go?" 

Then came the issue of photographing from public property.  People would see me taking pictures and many would stop and ask me what I was doing.  This elicited many responses from anger/hatred related to the current poor state of many neighborhoods to jovial conversation and little history lessons and personal stories.  I have so many great stories in my head, some I shared in the neighborhood pieces, some I couldn't corroborate or thought too personal or I simply forgot the whole story before I wrote it up.  But usually, when I explained my intention, people would chime in and tell me what I should make sure and photograph.  People would point out their favorite buildings, homes, tree houses, restaurants, etc.  Most people are proud of where they live and want to talk about their neighborhood and their home.

I tried not to research neighborhoods before I went.  I wanted to be surprised and curious upon first witness.  I wanted this to be part of the experience.  And when I'd come up on something really unique, I'd ask the neighbors about it.  This was a lot of fun, and something I'll never forget.  St. Louisan's are generally very kind.  There are a lot of accents and dialects that I loved hearing.

At first I was kind of shy about pointing a camera at people or private property, but as I went on, my confidence increased and I used street smarts to know what was and was not a good scene.  Trust me, I got in a couple sticky situations.  I know a lot more about racism, ghetto scenes and other crazy stuff going on in St. Louis. 

Anyhow, my method for visiting a neighborhood ended up being:  go down every street, talk to as many people as you can, go early in the morning, take a shitload of pictures....come home with the feel and the stink of the neighborhood on you and the stories still fresh in your head and open up the gallery and write the blog based on the feel I had or the feel of the pictures I had just taken.  What I've got here on this blog is merely a snapshot in time of St. Louis' neighborhoods.

I hope to update these neighborhood posts from time to time, espescially as positive developments evolve and new census data come in.  My goal at the onset of this project was to become more informed about the city as a whole.  As a non-native St. Louisian and since moving to STL, an extreme southsider (Holly Hills/Boulevard Heights/Dutchtown/Northampton), I heard about North City being scary and dangerous.  I read about brick theft.  I read about "bombed out wastelands", I read about Paul McKee's delapidated properties.  But I had no first hand experience.  I'd get pissed when people in the suburbs would trash the city with no first hand knowledge.  I would staunchly defend the city carte blanche.  But I also know folks who thought I was being hipocritical when I'd defend the city and denounce that it's not a crime infest ghetto shithole.  They'd say, you know, you living in Boulevard Heights isn't the same experience, how can you tell me you know what it's like to live on the state streets or north city.  Yeah, they have a point.  So my goal was to visit every nook and cranny in St. Louis and form my own opinions and hopefully share them with like-minded people.

You know, to not be scared in your own city, or at least now where you might run into real non-random trouble is priceless to me.  I've refined my urban spidey senses and feel like I'm more street smart as a result.  I had to endure a couple weird and sometimes scary situations and some insane amounts of racism/anti-scooter commentary (funny actually).  It made me reach out to many other neighborhoods when thinking about where to live and hang out. 

In retrospect, I've looked back at the 79 neighborhood posts and realized I need to make some updates.  For instance, it took me awhile to get my sea legs with the process and I really fell short on some areas like Clifton Heights.  When I first started, I thought people would get pissed if they saw me taking pictures of their home/business, and this was evidenced in CH.  As it turns out, my overall experience was quite the opposite.  People in St. Louis love their homes and take quite a bit of pride in them.

I feel a bond with parts of the city I never will live in or frequent.  It is an emotional roller coaster to visit some of our worst neighborhoods.  Sometimes I would come back home with a camera full of destruction and negativity, a headful of racial insults and sneers, mean mugs and hate and be left trying to paint the picture in a balanced light.  I firmly believe that if you don't have anything positive or thought provoking to say, just keep your mouth shut.  Much of North City certainly falls in this category.  Sometimes it's a reach to find the positives; but they are there and ignoring them is the worst thing you can do.

I never wanted this site to be for profit, or copy protected in anyway.  It is all meant to be free, referenced, lifted, whatever for the good of St. Louis.  It's my 79 love letters so to speak.  With that in mind, some friends and readers criticized me for painting with too bright a brush...polishing too many turds...not keeping it real...when it comes to the downtrodden, neglected areas of the city.  Yes, I am guilty of that.  I don't see how tearing someone or something a new one on the internet does any good.  Unless of course you are directly working toward positive change in that area; then you have the right to intelligently criticize. 

What I hope this project did was encourage others to explore their own city.  To get people to start their own project related to St. Louis.  To open up people's eyes to the good the bad and the ugly.  To form more educted opinions of what this city is really like.

So anyhow, thanks to all for reading and linking, etc.  I never thought I'd have the responsibility of writing for an audience, but it came to that.  I learned a lot and met some new people I consider to be friends along the way and for that I am very thankful.   The top 3 neighborhood profiles based on readership are Hyde Park, Tower Grove South and Bevo.  I'm happy that there is interest in Hyde Park, a neighborhood with huge potential, yet not much of a spotlight on it. 

The content of this blog will be changing away from the neighborhood/photo based posts and getting into lighter stuff and focusing in on some other areas like parks and cemetaries, parenting in the city, gentrification, local activism, etc.

So here's the fair warning to all who have linked to this site based on the neighborhood posts.  The content is changing, so feel free to adjust accordingly. 

Cheers-Mark

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

you should be proud; its a really great project. is there a book being made from it?

Rebecca D. said...

I've enjoyed "riding" around with you through these reports. Thanks for making this available to the whole community.

schmidtal said...

For a soon-to-be STL transplant, this has been a great source of info. Thanks!! :)

Liz Wiley said...

You've done such a great job. I hope we meet sometime! I'm relatively new to the area and your observations and pictures really help me know the city better and know where I want to go exploring myself.

Daron said...

Wonderful work!

Are you thinking of a new impossible quest? Think you could do a post on every park in the city? There are a lot of tiny ones out there.

Dan Davinroy said...

Excellent job Mark.

Alex said...

Unfortunately I've tried without success to turn Mark's efforts toward understanding the 90 municipalities of St. Louis County! Anyway want to take it on?!?!?!

Blogadamn said...

I live off kensington and I have owned the home for five years. If u would like to revisit, let me know. As a graduate from the Mizzou J-School, I think there is definitely a documentary here. The BBC recently did a story about the racial divide that is Delmar. Please contact me if you would like to discuss mu neyghborhood. I think there is a lot more work to be done that could help the city to reanimate the socioeconomic strife in neighborhoods like mine. Feel free to reach me at josh.purler@gmail.com. thanks for all your hard work