What are the stories we tell about ourselves and our city?
If you're one of the folks worried that the recent episodes of Salvage City didn't show St. Louis in the best possible light, console yourself with the fact that at least Moonshiners isn't set here. That other Discovery Channel show depicts Virginia and North Carolina rural folk engaged in the distillation of 'shine in the deep woods. (Or, depending on whom you ask, pretending to make moonshine.) Without too much Appalachia bashing, let's just say we'd all take Sam Coffey and Chris Trotter as spokesmen for St. Louis over bootlegger Lance any day. Lovers of our fair city: Relax.
Despite the Discovery Channel's disclaimer that "Any person caught moonshining can be sentenced to prison," the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control notes, "The show is a dramatization, and no illegal liquor is actually being produced." Maybe this should be obvious, but "reality television" isn't ever, um, real. Its all a semi-scripted dramatization of things that maybe-would-have-sort-of happened anyway, distilled and edited into something that's occasionally entertaining. That's probably why we don't call reality television "documentary" or "reporting." Coffey and Trotters' primary sin as reality stars isn't inauthenticity, it's that they aren't eccentric enough to bite the heads off of live snakes like The Legend of Shelby the Swamp Man protagonist Shelby Stanga.
On the other hand, it's fair to call reality television "storytelling." Clearly some folks haven't liked the story.
I hear the moans that Salvage City wasn't real enough and that it wasn't a pretty enough postcard of St. Louis. The Riverfront Times led the charge with articles titled Sam Coffey Gets a TV Show, But is it Good for St. Louis? and Salvage City: St. Louis Deserves Better. Perhaps the mistake was thinking the show would be an infomercial aimed at families deciding whether to vacation in St. Louis or Disneyland. What's real about the show is that Sam Coffey (whom I've known for a few years) is a hustler. Not a steal-your-credit-card-number hustler. But a creative, self-employed custom carpenter using a lot of reclaimed wood, working out of one van or another. He's grown a messy, unplumbed workshop into an attractive tavern (the Fortune Teller Bar) and made three hours of cable television.
Worrying that a reality show isn't kind enough to its host city isn't a St. Louis exclusive. Our hand-wringing pales when compared to the uproar caused by the meteoric rise of Jersey Shore in 2009. A bevy of New Jersey Italian American organizations lobbied MTV to cancel the show and pressured advertisers to drop their sponsorships. New Jersey state senator Joseph Vitale even went so far as to suggest the show might constitute a hate crime against Italian Americans under New Jersey law. "These acts are contrary to the spirit of New Jersey law and jeopardize the active and open pursuit of freedom and opportunity," he wrote.
Continue reading to see why St. Louis just needs to take a chill pill when it comes to Salvage City.
Our mini freak-out over Salvage City comes on the heels of several media panic attacks in 2013. Other examples include reactions to a New York Times look at crime and murder in St. Louis, and a humorous Art Forum takedown of an overwrought guided bus tour of St. Louis art venues that culminated with a violet-hour visit to SLAM's expansion grand opening. The story, and the predictable freak-out. (See RFT's "Snobby New York Art Critic Scowls on St. Louis.") Writers snapped our photo when the light wasn't flattering, and we didn't like it one bit.
A gentleman charged with promoting St. Louis as a convention destination mentioned to me that the New York Times article was a "serious setback" for his work. Many others complained that Alderman Antonio French let himself be quoted in the article. (Apparently all these folks just hang up the phone when the New York Times calls.)
But St. Louis didn't actually have a bad national media year compared to cities that did have bad media years. Pity poor Detroit, which is facing both the reality of the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, and the punishing reportage of the event itself. Article after article described Detroit as a place where "Half the streetlights are off, and there's no money to turn them back on." Fighting that narrative would be a challenge for even the most adept conventioneer. But there is no comparable story about St. Louis; all our streetlights are on.
The flip-side of this phenomenon was the fawning over two articles by recent St. Louis transplants and writers Curtis Sittenfeld and Sarah Kendzior. The response could be characterized as, "Oh, look, the New York Times says we're not so bad after all!" But to my ear, both these articles seemed to damn St. Louis with faint praise. I found the column by Sittenfeld, who also published the well regarded novel Sisterland this year, particularly galling. Perhaps it was the title, "Loving the Midwest" followed by a teeth-grinding litany of St. Louis stereotypes and complaints about being a new person in a new town. (See RFT's Top 10 Reasons Transplants Criticize St. Louis and Rebuttal: 10 Reasons St. Louis Hates Outsiders.)
Relocating to an anonymous suburb in your thirties would be a challenge anywhere. That's not a St. Louis thing. The column resolves from frustration into appreciation after she stops being the new girl. But love for St. Louis? It was not. Certain civic cheerleading outlets fawned nonetheless. "We're in the Times , and they like us, they really do!" Did these folks make it past the headline?
What it boils down to is a little hypersensitivity about how St. Louis is portrayed in national media, positive or negative. It is this nagging worry that folks on one coast or the other will write us off the same way one of Kendzior's article headlines refers to us, as flyover country. But here's the secret: It doesn't really matter either way. After Jersey Shore-gate blew up, Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted two studies about American's perspective of the State of New Jersey. Despite the Jersey Shore cast being the most annoying collection of humans ever crowded onto a single screen, people who had seen the show felt pretty much the same about New Jersey as those who hadn't.
Here's the deal: The front-page headline of today, good or bad, is buried beneath tomorrow's avalanche of words and news. We're free to ignore them either way, and we bear no responsibility to condemn writers that notice our warts or heap praise on those who grudgingly admit our merits. If we don't like Coolfire Media's portrayal of Sam, Chris and Mia, rest assured their success or failure will neither hurt nor help us nationally. Rather than fret that the wrong stories are being told, we should probably worry that the best homegrown stories aren't being published in St. Louis.
Perhaps our New Year's resolution should be a little bit thicker skin, and a renewed confidence in telling, and hearing, all the stories about our city: good, bad and indifferent. Rather than make one story carry the burden of representing all the facets of our city, let a thousand voices rise in song or storytelling, each with its own particular perspective. If the Mississippi Valley's incredible legacy of homegrown storytellers, from Mark Twain to Jonathan Franzen, is any indication, we're plenty interesting, and there's plenty to tell.
Scott Ogilvie is alderman of the 24th Ward in St. Louis.
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