Editor’s note: Anthony C. LoBaido spent most of the past three years living in St. Louis, Mo., teaching college courses in journalism, running a campus newspaper and pursuing his photography. Of St. Louis, LoBaido says, “I’ve passed through the Delicate Arch in Moab, Utah, and the Arco de Santa Catalina in La Antigua, Guatemala. Yet it was the Gateway Arch of St. Louis that stole and broke my heart.”
Where they love me, where they know me
Where they show me … back in Missouri.
“Missing Missouri” by Sara Evans
Why is St. Louis America’s finest city? The reasons are indeed legion. St. Louis is truly a historic town filled with a unique collection of people. Like Cape Town, South Africa, St. Louis has a way of making you feel you’re living in a giant suburb rather than a city. It’s a slice of consummate Americana, featuring both the very best and the very worst of our nation all in the same glance.
Missouri, the state of Mark Twain and Harry Truman, has long been known as a welcoming and friendly place filled with folks who have big hearts. For example, during the shameful Trail of Tears of the Cherokee, the white residents of nearby Cape Girardeau, Mo., came out during the Christmas season to feed, clothe, medically treat and even adopt a pair of Indian children during their darkest hour. That gesture ranks as the legacy of the decent in the region. Not surprisingly, the state motto of Missouri is “Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto,” which means, “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.”
Trail of Tears mural (All photos by Anthony C. LoBaido)
St. Louis finds its genesis in the exploration of Hernando de Soto in 1542. The city’s founder, the French fur trapper Pierre Laclede, sailed up the Mississippi from New Orleans and in 1764 declared, “I have found a situation where I am going to form a settlement which might become hereafter one of the finest cities in America.”
Today, there are scores of Bosnians immigrants who survived an epic “long march” to freedom with their very lives at stake. There are also Cambodians who worked through every single day of “Year Zero” under the Khmer Rouge and lived to tell about it. It should come as no surprise that Harry Wu, the world’s best-known human rights dissident, once received an honorary degree from a St. Louis-based university.
Not many Americans realize St. Louis was once America’s third-most important city. After the White House was burned to the ground during the War of 1812, St. Louis (which suffered an earthquake of biblical proportions in that very same year during which church bells rang in Boston and people were knocked to the ground in the Carolinas), was almost named the U.S. capital.
The industry that dominates and fuels Chicago could have easily been based in St. Louis, had the local founding fathers not preferred agriculture and (probably without knowing it) environmentalism. The blood and sledgehammers of the Chicago meatpacking slaughterhouses as popularized in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and the more recent “Fast Food Nation” seem Medieval when compared with the postmodern genetic engineering going on at Monsanto’s corporate headquarters in St. Louis.
St. Ferdinand’s Church
Because of its strategic location on the Mississippi, St. Louis historically has been a commercial trade center – just as Laclede had anticipated. St. Ferdinand’s, the oldest church in the entire Louisiana Purchase territory, sits in the St. Louis suburb of Florissant. It was at that church where Belgian Priest Peter John DeSmet, the great “Black Robe” missionary to the American Indians, received his ordination.
The Mississippi also made St. Louis a center of the gun-toting Harriet Tubman and her infamous Underground Railroad. African-Americans first came en masse to St. Louis after the Civil War. They had been promised free land in Kansas, but those promises never materialized.
By the year 1800, only 1,000 people lived in St. Louis. Courageous and hungry Europeans seeking a better life crossed the Atlantic Ocean to New York while the more courageous and/or ambitious continued on out West to St. Louis and farther reaches. After the American Revolution, the spirit of rugged individualism reached a high point in the emerging American character. St. Louis benefited greatly from this newborn spirit. By 1840, many more thousands lived in St. Louis. By 1904, St. Louis had grown so much and so fast that the city played host to the World’s Fair.
St. Louis was the starting point for Lewis and Clark on their epic “Voyage of Discovery” expedition. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 had opened up the country for exploration.
Science was entering a new paradigm. Men like Joseph Banks and Captain Cook had followed the outline of Newton’s book “Principia,” which sought to catalogue the natural realm and bring it fully under the cloak of human domination, if not understanding. As with the case of Monsanto today, back then St. Louis lay in the crosshairs of this new dynamic.
The famed French explorer Marquette (who explored the Mississippi Valley alongside Joliet) wrote of the fish he found in the rivers flowing past St. Louis. Yet the early, heady days of Marquette eventually gave way to future troubles – and thus the dark nightmares that still exist today in St. Louis’ collective memory. Amongst them are the Great St. Louis Fire and the cholera epidemic of 1849.
It is generally accepted that 1849 was not a good year for St. Louis or her citizens. It’s best to avoid talking about the year associated with the California Gold Rush – just as the years 1938-1945 do not exist in the minds of most modern Germans.
Speaking of which, St. Louis became a German town at some point in the 19th century. And even today, there is an army of good-looking blond people in St. Louis who’ve escaped the tattoo, piercings, baseball hat on sideways and pants worn halfway down debasement. So prolific was the Germanic influence that by the beginning of World War I, Germans came under suspicion in the city in regard to their patriotism. Berlin Avenue in the heart of the city was renamed for the great World War I Gen. John Pershing. Pershing became famous for uttering, “Lafayette, I have arrived” as repayment for the help given by French mercenaries during the American Revolution.
At the dawn of the 21st Century, St. Louis, while in great decline, still remains a vibrant American city. Yes, according to some crime statistics, St. Louis is America’s crime capital. Yes, it’s true the U.S. military trains its combat medical teams in St. Louis because of the massive amounts of gunshot and knife wounds its citizens receive each and every day. (Miami hosts a similar training regime.) But such darkness is something the people of St. Louis live with rather than live by – for there are so many glorious things about this city that they seem almost uncountable.
Consider that Florissant is the home of Miss USA Shandi Finnessey. There’s the much-adored 2006 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, Marlon Perkins’ Wolf Sanctuary, Lone Elk Park (where the Bison still roam), one of America’s finest (and free) zoos, Ralston-Purina and Anheuser-Busch (along with their famous Clydesdales, which were originally bred to carry soldiers and mercenaries into battle during the Crusades).
Then there’s Boeing’s state-of-the-art fighter jets roaring over I-170, recalling the days when McDonnell Douglass’ B-29s won World War II. Yet these days, ultra-high-tech U.S. aviation technology is (sadly) packaged off by Boeing to the Politburo and the People’s Liberation Army in mainland China.
You never have to wonder when the fun is going to start in St. Louis because it never stops. No other city in America can offer more. To begin, there’s America’s tallest landmark, the famous Gateway Arch. It opened in 1965. At a cost of only $13 million dollars, the Arch’s design was the brainchild of architect Eero Saarinen, a Finnish immigrant. (Saarinen got his idea for the design while experimenting with pipe cleaners.)
St. Louis was built over not only a major earthquake fault, but a vast system of elaborate caves unlike any other beneath a U.S. city. If you like exploring caves, then St. Louis is definitely the place to be. Beyond that, there’s the Botanical Garden, the Science Center, Busch Gardens, casinos galore, the endless beauty of Forrest Park as well as enough ethnic fests to make the United Nations envious.
If it’s the sky above that catches your fancy, there’s the Fourth of July air show (boasting everything from propeller planes to high-tech U.S. Navy fighter jets) and the balloon festival. However, neither can capture the grandeur of the nesting and flight of the American bald eagle – Haliacetus leucocphalus (“white-headed sea eagle”) – on the Mississippi River during the winter months.
St. Louis’ scorching hot and humid summers (the July 19, 2006, “Storm of the Century” brought the entire city to a screeching halt for five days) and freezing winters (the Dec. 1, 2006, “Ice Storm of the Century” nearly did the same) define St. Louis’ weather. The hot and the cold provide a microcosm of a divided city often at war with itself, its best interests and its destiny. Of course, racial, political, religious and socio-economic problems strain the very fabric of many U.S. cities, but they are probably more pronounced in St. Louis.
Perhaps no other postmodern American city is so preoccupied with genetics, another ironic twist to the endeavors of Monsanto. “Science vs. Religion” plays a major role in the culture wars raging in St. Louis. After all, it’s still a part of the Bible Belt. Hotly contentious referendums on issues such stem cell research brought out Hollywood and sports celebrities last year in a massive media campaign on both sides. This calls to mind the old “Missouri Compromise” concerning slavery. However, on the issues that most greatly divide St. Louis, it appears that compromise is unlikely. All agree that education holds at least some of the answers.
Thankfully, St. Louis is a city that boasts some of the world’s finest colleges, including Washington University and St. Louis University. Many of St. Louis’ students are truly remarkable and stand as the very antithesis of the Paris Hilton craze sweeping the nation.
Consider Andrea Angel, a Liv Tyler clone who cares for a mother sick with brain cancer. Drew Canning passed up a chance to attend the University of Missouri (known as “Mizzou”) to stay home and care for his mother who’s sick with breast cancer. Robin Toney is an African-American student who wants to be a nurse. She cares for an aunt suffering the effects of cancer while both working and going to school. Jennifer Meinhardt is a superb photographer, Claudia Schiffer archetype and yet another elite student. It is these young people who make the future of St. Louis seem almost too bright to look directly into.
While St. Louis is America’s murder capital, as previously mentioned, there is a future – the shape of that future sits like clay in the very hands of its citizens, ready to be nuanced toward the greater good, or perhaps the final implosion of St. Louis, and along with it, the city’s destiny. For as goes St. Louis goes Missouri, and as goes Missouri goes America. And as goes America, so goes Western Civilization.
Where does one begin to describe the true heartbeat of this city-state?
St. Louis is both ultra-high-tech and third-world. East St. Louis, as depicted in one of the Chevy Chase “Vacation” movies, is for all intents and purposes a page out of “Escape from New York.” Truth be told, East St. Louis is an archetype South African township area so tough that professional champion boxers like the Spinx brothers (Leon and Michael) were beaten up on its streets on an almost daily basis while still youngsters.
Old divisions have never quite healed. The city of St. Louis has seen lynch mobs on the streets, and during the Civil War a showdown at Fort Jackson proved that the Dred Scott decision and Missouri Compromise provided only tinder for an emerging fire.
Yet in a crisis, today the people of St. Louis unite rather than splinter apart. Where you went to high school is a scarcely believable obsession. Everyone asks, “Where did you go high school?” It is strangely the question du jour. Only the morally deranged seek to lie, use and “trade up.”
The very diverse people of St. Louis understand the morally challenging times we live in. Not long ago, two local DJs, both African-Americans, were driven off of the airwaves because they promoted the idea of beating up local white policemen. This notion went over like the proverbial lead balloon. One should never underestimate the influence of the black church in St. Louis as a moral instrument – nor of the white Protestant evangelical community. People who desire peace, forgiveness, reconciliation will find it.
For example, a white St. Louis DJ was dismissed for slandering Secretary of State Condi Rice. Rice promptly forgave the man for uttering a foolish, silly remark. A local NAACP official was chided by the national NAACP office for also offering forgiveness to the man.
Examples of racial unity include David, an African-American carpenter originally from Mississippi, who listens to Charlie Daniels while decorating the black Santa Claus on his front lawn in order to “maintain equilibrium.” Then there’s Shaun, another African-American, who works at Home Depot while sporting his St. Louis Blues NHL jersey. He laments the “high ticket prices and player salaries” which hurt the average family that might want to take in professional sports.
As for the “White Ghetto” syndrome noted by journalist Star Parker, teen problems in the super rich, mostly white, elite conclave of Ladue have to be seen to be believed. Issues of parents and their kids range from Satanism (covered on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) to children assaulting parents, parents giving drugs to their own children, 3 to 7 a.m. “curfews” despite a child nearly putting her head though the windshield in an accident, having sex on the roof of a major retailer, stealing parents’ credit cards and cell phones, pathological lying, grades as low as 30, a refusal to christen or baptize children, the outright abandonment of spouses and children, staying on the phone till 4 a.m. on school nights and multiple visits from the local police to keep teen girls in line.
Then there are the local “Big Pharma” parties where school children hand out their individual prescriptions to one another along with massive amounts of alcohol. One student who almost died from a mixture of sleeping pills and booze was saved in the emergency room of a local hospital. Not surprisingly, the teen who handed out the pills had challenged her parents (and the local police) to set a more liberal curfew for her.
One teenage Ladue student described her troubled life at her high school: “I grew up in (South Carolina). I went to church, even on Wednesday nights. But then I moved here to Ladue, and you can’t imagine how you have to act in order just to try and fit in. It’s sick. What’s our society going to be like in 30 years? Sometimes I wonder, ‘What’s the point in (morally) trying?’”
Yet the people of St. Louis are more than willing to try. And there are a plethora of moral trailblazers, both old and new, to show them the way. Those interested in racial reconciliation should not forget that Florissant sits at the crossroads between the Mississippi, St. Louis and the bridge to Alton, Ill. That bridge is personified by a white man named Elijah Lovejoy, the first abolitionist martyr.
Lovejoy was a devout Christian and newspaperman who founded The Observer in St. Louis. The paper’s anti-slavery slant back in the 1830s riled the locals. Lovejoy was cast out of St. Louis and banished across the river to nearby Alton. On more than one occasion, Lovejoy’s printing presses were thrown in the river. He was threatened to quit writing in defense of black freedom and was eventually murdered in cold blood like the saints of old. The killers were acquitted. Enraged, the citizens of Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln,” who had planned to make Alton the state capital (as it rests on the Mississippi River) instead set up the capital in Springfield.
Sadly, few citizens in St. Louis, black or white, have ever heard Lovejoy’s name. He has no postal stamp and no mention in Black History Month. Yet Lovejoy’s goodness and the struggle he took up for decency lives on in some respects – especially in the story of Ken and We Lim.
“Ken” is a female name in Cambodian culture. She married We Lim during the height of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields in Cambodia. In an exclusive interview with this writer, We, who owns two successful Chinese restaurants in trendy parts of the city, spoke about an epic adventure that supersedes the efforts of Lewis and Clark and Lindberg. It is the story of how We and Ken survived through an almost unimaginable ordeal and found true happiness in St. Louis as the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It was long ago (1975) … Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge brought all of the people into the cities. They declared Year Zero. We wore black pajamas. People who wore glasses or spoke French were killed off at the Killing Fields. It was a horrible time for my country,” We Lim told WND.
“I threw my glasses away. We worked 18 hours per day. From 3 or 4 a.m. till 10 p.m. This went on for four years. At first I wanted to commit suicide. Every day for the first two years … I could not see a future. But it was my parents who talked me out of it. They would say, ‘Things will change. Better times will come.’ Then I met Ken and we married. I had something to live for.
“People disappeared. People were moved around so much. No one knew or dared to ask what happened when someone was taken away. We were so, so hungry. We only had soup, a kind of a broth, sometimes with rice in it, or vegetables. We worked day and night. Sometimes in the evenings we went to mandatory political meetings where the Khmer Rouge presented their ideology. They told us every day we weren’t doing a good job. I worked on many irrigation projects. We only had one day off per year if we were lucky.”
After surviving the Killing Fields, Ken and We started on their path to St. Louis. It was a difficult one at best.
“After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, we fled to Saigon. We literally walked through the jungle. We only carried food. Then we crossed back through Vietnam and Cambodia again all the way to Thailand. We stayed for a time at a refugee camp in Indonesia.”
We shared that along the way he met several American doctors and nurses.
“They were so good and kind to us. I thought to myself, ‘America must be a good country to produce such good people.’ But I didn’t speak any English. I couldn’t communicate. [Eventually] we got in contact with the International Center in St. Louis and eventually we moved here. I worked hard, at first in a factory. At the factory there was a kind man who taught me accounting procedures. I taught myself English. I did inventory for 7-11, and within two years I was in charge of doing the inventory for all the 7-11s in the city. Eventually my wife and I came to open this restaurant. We have been married for 29 years. I look back and I feel so lucky. Millions died, yet my wife and I survived.
“Now I live in St. Louis and I’m happy. What more could a person ask for?”
The almost biblical tale of We Lim seems to sum up the 21st century Spirit of St. Louis. While Lindbergh once soared across the sky, Andrea Angel, Robin Toney and Drew Canning daily break the plane of the angelic. Where others with reason might well choose to be bitter, David, Shaun and the local NAACP instead choose unity and the blessedness of peacemaking. It is they and those like them who are the true stars of St. Louis – the glimmer in the eager eyes of De Soto, Laclede, Marquette, Joliet, DeSmet, Lovejoy and Tubman as they paddled along the Mississippi River so long ago. To paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville, “St. Louis is great, because St. Louis is good.”