I moved to St. Louis in 2008, newly eighteen and ready to be in a city larger than Omaha, Nebraska. Not that Omaha is tiny, but St. Louis always seemed so much larger. I was disappointed to find that no cosmopolitan paradise awaited me here, rather a city that in all respects is past its heyday. For me, the view of St. Louis from Omaha maintained some of its bygone splendor, riding the wave that industrial American culture created for it around the turn of 20th century. When I got here, however, I found that the bustling metropolis mentality had been abandoned as most of the buildings had. In four years I have seen incontrovertible proof, on streets full of architecturally-significant-now-decomposing buildings and inside the bars that once housed some of music’s immortals, that St. Louis did indeed have a period of prosperity. As I began to examine the remnants of a cultural legacy in St. Louis that once loomed large in America, I immediately wanted to know how on earth we came to fall down so far in the ranks- and how the musicians and artists in St. Louis are figuring out how to climb up again.
Let me begin with a disclaimer: I do not always buy in to the nostalgia-soaked view of the twenty-first century in which “all has been done before, there is nothing new under the sun”. I believe in genuine innovation, and moreover I believe the potential for this is alive and well here in St. Louis. In the case of our lovely city, though, I want to look back on the past if only as a harbinger of our future success. After all, if we have done it before, we can certainly do it again.
From Judy Garland’s rendition of 1904’s “Meet me in St. Louis” to Chuck Berry making a name for himself in the 50’s, to Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Miles Davis gaining notoriety in the Central West End’s nearly forgotten Gaslight Square, St. Louis is home to more than its fair share of contributions to American cultural history. I hope that by remembering St. Louis’s days on the vanguard of American culture we may discover the potential of the artists currently working here.