I Grieve For My City
There’s an inside joke among St. Louis natives that to get anywhere in the city requires at least 30 minutes of driving. I was reminded of this adage several months ago as I traveled through the city on the Metro Bus as part of a class field trip in my master’s program. We traveled down some of the major streets and neighborhoods as part of a project determining how transportation and education come together to create college access. We began the trip at MoKaBee’s Coffeehouse, a popular place for activists, and I felt like a tourist in my own city. I’ve never been to MoKaBee’s prior to this trip, so this was an effective launching point to viewing my city with new eyes.
I was struck by the extensive display of affirmation of marginalized identities and resistance movements. In the front window of the coffeehouse is a Black Lives Matter sign and a sign that reads “#UnitedWeFight.” Inside the shop, my eyes immediately notice a bulletin board displaying a map of St. Louis with all the various counties. The font used for the map imitates Star Wars and the background is reminiscent of outer space, with a squiggly white line connecting the counties. I look for Clayton, the suburbs with a population of 15,000, where I lived from the ages of 12 thru 18. I’m surprised by the way Clayton is positioned closer to the outer-western part of the map, far away from what is considered St. Louis City proper.
While using the men’s restroom, I noticed another bulletin board with postings covering everything from theater performances to a missing Black woman. I lingered on the missing person report for a moment and contemplated how easy it is for the city to swallow up the marginalized, to never be seen or heard again. I was also reminded of when I was in elementary school and there were missing children posted on the milk cartons we received in our school-provided lunches. Those missing people always seemed abstract, ephemeral, and the fact that I saw the postings every day while trying to socialize with my classmates slowly desensitized me to the epidemic of low socioeconomic status black children going missing.
While my class traveled down Page Avenue, I had memories of sitting in my mother’s car as we travelled the street enroute to either a relative’s or, as my mother would phrase it, “to take care of business.” As a child, I always had a sense of unease when we drove down Page, but I could never articulate why. Now, as an adult, I have the awareness that my unease came from the look and feel of the street. Page is bordered by neglected houses and buildings with broken windows, unkempt grass, and people whom, as a child, I found frightening. As an adult, I don’t feel the same fear, but I do feel a sense of sadness that the predominantly black neighborhoods we drove through appear so unseemly.
Of all the streets in St. Louis, the Delmar Divide drives home how intentionally segregated the city is. On one side of the Divide is a church and community center, and on the other side is an insurance building and law office. There seems to be a clash of community and commerce, of grassroots organizing and capitalistic venture. In a sense, the Delmar Divide lives within me. I’ve lived on both sides of it. And with that recognition comes an understanding of just how unfair the city can be.
One of my mentors from college, Di Seuss, described St. Louis as a nexus, full of energy positioning it at pivotal historical events and natural phenomena. With Friday’s acquittal of Jason Stockley, I think Di might have been on to something. Even the casual student of history doesn’t have to reach far to see how the Gateway to the West has often found itself at the center of America’s ongoing struggle with racism.
I’ve mentioned in previous pieces how I no longer recognize the city where I was born and spent the first 18 years of my life. I haven’t lived there in 6 years, so some of its ebbs and flows are foreign to me. Inevitably, my education makes me see it differently. I’m aware of the systemic inequalities permeating its laws, traditions, and foundation. I see how if my mother and I had never moved out to the suburbs, I probably wouldn’t have made it to college, much less grad school.
But I still know the city. I still know its energy and sorrow. I know it’s fatigue and tension. I feel drawn to it even as I now live in a completely different city with its own historical nexus. St. Louis is home even when I don’t feel at home there. It helped make me who I am and I’m forever grateful to it.
Like Baldwin, I critically love America. I critically love St. Louis, and so, like Baldwin, I reserve the right to criticize it so it improves. This means recognizing its ugliness and filth. I must acknowledge the decay, the duplicity of its spirit that exists within all major American cities. I perceive how I love my city, my country, even as it seems to not love me. Even as it seems to perpetuate an indifference to my existence and wellbeing. I still love the city and this country and want to make it better.
But today, that love feels almost helpless. It feels more unrequited than ever. I feel like a character in a Shakespearean sonnet, monologuing to an oblivious crush. And so I write. I write to process and heal. I write to alleviate the helplessness the same way a riot is the outcry of the oppressed. I write as an attempt to capture with lexicon emotions and experiences that probably can’t adequately be expressed.
This isn’t meant to be a clever think piece analyzing why people are angry, why Stockley was acquitted, or why I’m not surprised about it any of it. This piece is meant to be an expression of the soul as opposed to the intellect. It’s meant to show that I don’t really know what to make of everything that’s happened over the past year. Maybe it’s racial battle fatigue. Maybe it’s outrage overload. But right now, all I can do is grieve with my city and with my people.
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