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Commentary: 'I'm From St. Louis'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 20, 2011 - Two days before Thanksgiving, I was about to drift off to sleep in my old room in the house where I grew up. My mother has owned the home in Penrose since 1974. Suddenly, I heard what sounded like three firecrackers: "boom! Boom! BOOM!"

On a cold November night in north St. Louis, I knew those explosions weren't fireworks.

In the course of my life as I've lived in Columbia, Mo.; Tulsa, Okla.; Salt Lake City; San Diego; New York City and now Greencastle, Ind., pursuing journalism or educational endeavors. Often I meet people who say they're "from St. Louis," but it rarely turns out to be the case.

"Crooklyn," Spike Lee's 1994 visual memoir of a childhood spent in Brooklyn, opens with a group of blacks kids, circa 1975, playing outside. One group of girls rhythmically bounce on the pavement as they play double Dutch. Other groups ride bicycles on the sidewalk and play baseball streets on the staircase in front of their apartment complex. Although I grew up 1,000 miles away from Lee, my heart cheered because he had perfectly captured a freeze frame from my childhood in north city.

Like the kids on the Big Screen, we had no thoughts of robbery, rape or murder. The only danger we were aware of was the cars that would hit us if we didn't move out of the way. That's the St. Louis that will live forever in my memory.

But the sound of those bullets cut off my reveries. That St. Louis, no matter how hard I cling to it, is forever gone.

Being "from St. Louis" has had an increasingly complex connotation over the years as the city, specifically because of what's happened to the area I'm from, has become known as the "murder capital of the nation" or "the nation's most violent city." Even as those crime statistics have improved or are discounted, the headlines linger.

Detroit's core is a vast wasteland of vacant, dilapidated buildings I've seen for myself. Chicago's reputation as a violent city was cemented for me when my father's brother was killed and stuffed in a dumpster way back in the 1970s. And Washington, D.C.'s 24 percent murder rate and 31 percent forcible rape rate seem to justify violent titles.

This is not the St. Louis where my sister and I played in the streets? No.

Apparently, yes.

I haven't lived in St. Louis since 1998, when I landed a reporting job at a newspaper in San Diego, which likes to call itself America's Finest City. I've always been a big defender of St. Louis. It's the town with the nation's biggest free zoo. Sure, the San Diego Zoo is incredible, but it's $40 for adults and $30 for kids. Ours is free. No one had to tell me that the Missouri Botanical Garden is one of the nation's best. I could go on listing the beautiful attractions in the city. Not in Clayton. Not in Ladue. Not in Creve Coeur. Actually in St. Louis proper.

Just few weeks ago I was in Northbrook, a suburb of Chicago, when I met a woman who told me she was "from St. Louis, too."

"Where in the city?" I pressed.

"Oh, well, I actually live in Richmond Heights."

And that's the heart of the matter. Time and again I meet people who are say they're "from St. Louis." Upon further inquiry, they casually admit they're from Clayton or even Fairview Heights, Ill. If you want to own the glories of a city, you have to also own its failures, not hide out in the 'burbs and tell people you're from St. Louis. Say suburban St. Louis. Own it.

I admit it. I only go to St. Louis once a few times a year because it's so painful to see how the area I grew up has deteriorated. While I marvel at what has happened downtown along Washington and see traces of blossoming in other neighborhoods in the city, those successes are minuscule by comparison. Hopefully the developers continue that work all over the city.

On the surface, my mother's street still looks the same as it has for almost 40 years. It's a tree-lined area where everyone manicures their front lawns. The neighbors truly watch out for one another's safety. For me, the neighborhood will forever hold all those memories - good and bad. It's all part of being from St. Louis.

Even gun fire at night.

Autman grew up in north city and was a carrier for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from fifth to tenth grades. He graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked at newspapers in Tulsa, Salt Lake City, St. Louis and San Diego. He currently teaches journalism, creative writing and freshman composition at DePauw University and is working on a memoir about growing up in St. Louis.