City Rhapsody

I have rhapsodized ecstatically about The City before, and I have a feeling I am about to do it again. And my intent here is not to defend it or excuse it, but to stand up for it. For all its flaws, for all its failings, there is something vibrant here about which I need to comment. There is substance here, a certain audacity, a reality-based fearlessness perhaps, that has made me an urban loyalist. That has made me a proponent of Life in the City. As we know it. As I know it. My commitment overwhelms me today and requires me to hold it up to praise it.

By way of background, I landed here kind of accidentally over 50 years ago, a small-town boy from another state. But I recognized even then that the City was a fully alive and breathing organism. It was a multi-hued, polyglot, cantankerous and rebellious chunk of turf. Something outside my experience and absolutely separate unto itself. A decided piece of work.

It spoke a different language and walked a different walk than I was familiar with and that most of the rest of the state was comfortable with. It was an island between two great rivers, an urban sliver of great wealth and crushing poverty on the edge of rural Missouri. It was a liberal bastion in the midst of layer upon layer of cultural and political conservativism. It was a watch pocket of Democrats in a pair of Republican overalls. It worshipped multiple gods or none at all, while those all around it venerated the Christian God and none other.

It was at that time, when we first met, on the critical list. There was some talk that it might get abandoned entirely, for it was indeed mightily sick, anemic. With tall, abandoned buildings downtown. With decrepit warehouses and discarded, spooky factories on the riverfront. With skeletal, starving neighborhoods scattered throughout. Its health was indeed compromised. It was decaying from the outside-in and the inside-out. Late in those summer evenings back then, you could smell the sickness, I swear, and hear the death rattles. And the sirens wailed all night long for those who were dying along with it. It was a patient on hospice.

But there were those who argued that it still had a pulse. A noble purpose even. Who examined it and concluded that it should not, could not, be allowed to die. It had too much history in its veins. Too much cultural abundance. It had a viable and functioning infrastructure. It had a baseball team with a proud tradition that sported its name. It had The Blues before hockey was even invented. There were dozens upon dozens of bejeweled, green parks—gems and treasures, each. A thriving zoo. They could not be deserted and allowed to go wild. Not yet, they said.

It was a city with too many architectural treasures to be forsaken outright. And there was a housing stock of grand and stately old ladies, abandoned mostly, that inspired and energized a generation of bargain hunters and bold adventurers to put down their meager earnest money and begin the long slog of turning an abused, old house into a revered, old home. To turn forsaken blocks back into neighborhoods.

It is an impermanent thing, The City. Many of its most grand and ornate parts have been taken apart, stone by stone, brick by brick, and rebuilt in different forms altogether in different locations. Or transformed in place. Churches to synagogues to mosques. Schools to community centers to condos. Breweries to hospitals to museums and back to breweries.

It would evolve as all things do. It would deteriorate and get fixed and fall apart again in accordance with how all of its disparate and intemperate elements pushed it and shoved it, financed it and froze it, abused it and loved it.

Entropy would do its thing. The sidewalks would crack and buckle according to how the sun baked them and the rains undercut them and the roots lifted them. Rust and rot and the elements would reach into the entrails of these old brick beasts, take what they could and leave the rest standing, solely by the blessed and reliable principles of verticality.

Someone would find it, recognize its former-and-future glory and put back the mortar and the windows and the services. Alleys, our beloved byways, would be cleaned, trashed, cleaned and trashed again. A labor of love. And a royal pain in the ass. Weeds would get cut. Old trees would die, and good souls, aware of the Future of Things, would plant new ones.

Admittedly, our City can be a maddening and frightening place to live. Everybody in my family’s been either robbed, mugged, burgled or shot at. We’ve lost cars, bicycles, potted plants, copper downspouts, window bars, purses and pet rabbits. But other than that, we’ve escaped unscathed. Except of course for the emotional scarring and what I would term a healthy dose of real-world caution.

And we lamented and feared and cried and raged at each of these situations. We cursed those who made it so hard to live here. We swore at those who constantly defiled and tagged what others had worked so hard to rebuild. Who trashed and tarnished what had been so painstakingly restored and polished. We resented the fear we sometimes felt but did our best to direct the anger at only those who deserved it. Those few who victimized us all and made us afraid. Those who set fires and pulled pistols for the sake of their own gain. Yessir, there was anger aplenty at them.

And we were enraged for those victims elsewhere as well. At the unfairness of it all. For we are ALL victims when there is violence and theft and mistreatment and inequity. By extension. It is sure enough Godawful pain. And those forging a life here are damaged in multiple ways as headlines blare: “ROBBERY OUTSIDE POPULAR RESTAURANT”, “CARJACKING DOWNTOWN”. The body and soul of the City itself takes a dagger to the heart as everyone reads: “ANOTHER MURDER IN THE CITY”. For we are all tied together in this Gordian knot of gains and decay and wealth and decline and profit and desperation and those who got left behind.

But none of those instances made us move. We were too obstinate to move, too angry to give in, too determined to quit and too in-love with our house and our neighborhood and the City itself to walk away. “YOU CAN’T HAVE IT!” I remember yelling at those unnamed and unknown perps who roamed the neighborhoods and stole everything not nailed down. Those few who sullied us all.

It always seemed like it would be unfair to those who couldn’t move for us to pick up stakes and leave them here. When good people, people of means and education and energy move, there is less of each to go around. There are then less to stand up and hold the line. Who will rally the neighbors? Who will organize it and defend it and promote it? Who will be left to pick up the trash?

I tell you, folks, it is a revolving, repeating, regenerating, exasperating hot mess, this place. This City. And we are a hopeless and hopeful hodgepodge of capitalists, individualist, socialists and entrepreneurs. We are Boomers and Millennials, equal parts bohemian, artists, looters and louts.

We are a patchwork of potholes, clogged storm drains, abandoned churches and closed schools. A maddening mishmash of beer caves, coffee shops, drug houses and rehab centers. We are an annoying collection of do-gooders and shop-lifters, tree-huggers and gang-bangers. We are a jumbled mix of rehabbers, car-jackers, dumpster divers, venture capitalists and vandals. Thieves and liars too, both elected and free-lance. Societal bulwarks and social scoundrels of every stripe and color.

We are scrappers and speculators, squatters and flippers--gay, lesbian and straight. We are aristocrats, drunks, scholars and junkies, all roiled into one. Some of us with multiple homes and some with none at all. There’s people what throw shit away, and there’s them what retrieves it.

We invite all immigrants. Welcome aboard! Old hippies and hoosiers too. Anyone willing to lend a hand. Come one, come all, y’all! I see more masks here than anywhere else. This is the real Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. The rest only harbor body-armored imposters, scaredy-cats showing up in armored caravans.

We possess every hair color in the rainbow and enough tattoo ink to float a sternwheeler. We hail from all seven corners and somehow became part of this glorious, dysfunctional, quirky smorgasbord of a family. We are the loveable underdog you always root for but would never bet on. We are an orphaned child, cut loose long ago to fend for itself. To stand or to stumble. To succeed or to fail of its own accord.

I have always known I had a certain reverence for things that refuse to die. There is a certain honor attached to it. And though we have always been and continue to be a collection of ruffians and poets, saints and sinners, I attach that honor to this beleaguered City. I offer it my respect.