Fifteen years ago, I took a job marketing the state of Missouri for new business development. I toured dozens of towns during my first few years on the job, learning about different industries, universities, and attractions. It was always my goal to be able to highlight the one thing that made each community special, that one word or phrase that captured the very essence of the place. Chillicothe, for example, was the birthplace of sliced bread, and therefore “the best thing since…!” Columbia was College Town, USA. Hannibal was all about Mark Twain.
And then there was St. Louis, which, for all its educational and industrial assets, was primarily known for its 630-foot arch. But St. Louis was also known as a “city of neighborhoods.”
I am reminded of this often as I create art for A YEAR IN THE CITY. I’ll let my feet take me down a new street, around a new block, and come away recognizing that I’ve crossed some kind of invisible boundary. I am now on someone else’s turf, if only as a casual observer. And I love it.
I enjoyed the documentary America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill which debuted as part of The St. Louis International Film Festival this year. But it is the experience of dining and walking through The Hill neighborhood that I find really enriching, knowing that the culture of the Italian immigrants has remained largely intact.
I feel the same way when I walk through University City late on a Saturday alongside orthodox families on their way to temple. Or when I feast on cuisine that is totally new to me along South Grand. Or when I visit Soulard Market with restauranteurs and weekend chefs and casual shoppers standing side by side. Or when I duck onto Washington U’s campus just long enough to share space with citizens of the larger world.
It is my right, I tell myself, to walk alongside others, just so long as I respect them. And if something about them stays with me, if some memory is etched… well then, my universe expands just a little bit.
Like all of you, I will end this year a different person than the one who started it. My feet have taken me down some new streets, around some new blocks. Last week, I walked down Candy Cane Lane and was reminded of my last visit there on foot two years ago. I was finishing up the 2020 calendar at the time and needed some good shots of the sign, the carolers, the giant Santa sculpture. I was standing on the sidewalk with my camera when a homeowner asked if I’d like to see the street from her porch. I thanked her and went up her front steps to take a few pics. But, before I could return to my group, the woman invited me to sit with her for a while.
This struck me, because I’d always imagined it a bit of a drag to actually live on Candy Cane Lane. Every year you’d have to practically kill yourself stringing lights on every gable, then your electric bill would go through the roof. And to top it all off, you’d have people traipsing through your front yard for a solid month. I couldn’t imagine that this woman – or any of her neighbors – would have the energy left to actually engage visitors. I mean, these were real people. This was a real neighborhood. There were boundaries.
I am embarrassed to admit that I did not take the woman’s invitation to sit with her that night and watch the goings on down Candy Cane Lane. Rather, I let my rules about neighborhoods dictate how much I was willing to belong to hers. I have since learned that boundaries are only there until both sides are willing to step over them, and that we need each other far too much to ignore the invitation to connect. My hope for St. Louis in the coming year is that it grows from being a “city of neighborhoods” to being a “city of neighbors” as we learn to walk alongside one another in the best of places. This is what St. Louis could be known for.
Candy Cane Lane was the featured subject of my December 2020 calendar page. It is also available as a holiday card and print. For more information, see ayearinthecity.com/products.