Urban Nostalgia

I recently returned from a four-day trip to my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri. Most of my family has moved away, but it's always nice to visit my grandmother and to eat some St. Louis-specific meals. Having lived in Denver for three years now, the differences between the two cities felt even more striking than when I last visited two years ago.

The architecture of the homes in the two cities is a very visible point of distinction, and one that speaks to some of the underlying differences. Obviously, St. Louis is a much older city, and like in many other old river cities (Cincinnati, for example), there are a lot of old brick buildings. Driving through St. Louis and it's near suburbs (within I-270, at least), even the newest housing developments are often at least 30 years old. In the city itself, of course, many homes were built a hundred years ago. Driving down a residential block, you see small ranch homes, tall row houses, and towering estates, often on the same block. While the older neighborhoods of Denver have similar aesthetics, you see a lot less brick and lot more communities of cookie-cutter houses–two-story homes with three-car garages and small yards. Of course, having grown up in a house built in 1957, and then also lived in a home built in 1920, some of the "charm" of an older house is overwhelmed by the quotidian reality of old wiring and older plumbing. Still, driving down a street in the Tower Grove neighborhood of St. Louis or Old Town Florissant is very different from Highlands Ranch or even southeast Denver.

Another feature (bug?) of cities like St. Louis or Cincinnati is the diversity of neighborhoods. Not just the traditional ethnic enclaves like "The Hill" in St. Louis, but the distinctions between Clayton, Tower Grove, and University City. Growing up in St. Louis pre-GPS, I could usually tell in what direction I was driving based on the changes in neighborhood. Not just going from "nice" neighborhoods to poorer ones, but the way the businesses and homes would change from north to south, or from east to west. I realize that I probably have not lived in Denver long enough to see some of these same variations, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that this phenomenon is more obvious in the Midwest than in Denver.

Walking and driving through the St. Louis area last month, even parts that I wasn't really familiar with growing up, it all felt like St. Louis. There was no time when I could have convinced myself that I was actually in Denver. Maybe it was the humidity. Maybe it was the architecture. But I felt the same way living in Cincinnati or western Massachusetts. Maybe it's all just a factor of Denver's relatively young status as a major city. Or perhaps it's the itinerant nature of Denver's population through the years, that it's difficult to have a Denver-specific culture when so much of the population is new to the area.

As much as St. Louis will always be my "hometown," even though my parents moved away six years ago, there is also a certain sadness that the city evokes when I return. Those gorgeous brick buildings are often in areas hit hard by crime and poverty. The decline of North St. Louis and North County is also the story of much of the Midwest, the story of urban decay, of "white flight." The story of St. Louis is also the story of the auto industry, of McDonnell-Douglas and Anheuser-Busch, Boeing and In-Bev. It is the story of Catholic immigrants, of assimilation and segregation.

When you talk to a native Midwesterner about their hometown, whether it be Cincinnati, Memphis, or St. Louis, invariably it turns to the past. Statistics about when St. Louis was the third-largest city in the country, or when Cincinnati was the hub for trade in the Midwest. In those descriptions of past greatness, there is certainly nostalgia, that "pain from an old wound" so eloquently described by Don Draper. There's also a feeling that we do not want our cities, our hometowns to be mortal. We want them to be preserved exactly as we remember them, because as these great American cities decay, they take with them a piece of us, those who lived there, and also a piece of American history.