Recently, I set out on an undertaking to crisscross the United States, my home country, by Greyhound Bus. The impetus for this project was rooted in a curiosity about American cities, many of which had existed only in my imagination. My intention was to replace those myths with insights, and to come to some form of understanding of what it means to be American today. From the beginning, the intention was to share those impressions in the form of a documentary film. I started cutting short video essays combining footage and photos of each location, with the voice and words of one local resident. Accompanying the video essay is a written piece explaining how the interviewee fits into their city, and how the two of us came to meet.
Tennessee Williams lies buried in St. Louis, a city he reportedly hated. Williams’ plays are populated by seemingly unheroic characters: dreamers and outcasts who celebrate the rubble and squalor that surrounds them. He is said to have understood, perhaps better than anyone, what America wanted to be and what it actually was. The rift between those worlds was his subject.
As the thirty or so of us on the Greyhound from Columbus, Ohio, rolled into St. Louis around 6am in December, I caught my first glimpse of the iconic Gateway Arch through the darkness. A half hour city-bus ride from the Arch, Tennessee Williams rests next to his sister Rose, in Calvary Cemetery.
On the ride there, I saw block after block in competing levels of decay. In crumbling buildings, tree branches reclaimed patches of space once occupied by brick and panes of glass. Like Detroit, the most recent census reveals that St. Louis has lost more than 62% of its population since the city’s peak in the 1950s. Downtown St. Louis is particularly ghostly. One of the first people I encountered, a parking attendant, confirmed that after 2 pm, “this is done downtown.” He described the grip heroin (pronouncing it hair-ron) had on St. Louis, “especially the white people, especially the suburbs.” He went on to explain the dangers of the city, and how easy it is to get robbed “anywhere, all over town.” During a recent St. Louis Rams NFL game, a man was robbed and, as he turned to run away, shot in the back.
Despite the warnings, I liked St. Louis immediately. It reminded me of what I had experienced in Poland: an occasional waft of coal at night, hazy and explosive sunsets, the ruins of the past, and a sense that those who live there exist within a system of thought and emotions they neither have to explain nor defend.
I asked an Uber driver — a native St. Louisan — about his quality of life, and he told me it had been “pretty good.” That he’d grown up poor, “of course.” I asked him to explain what he meant by ‘of course’ and he replied that “all black people in St. Louis grow up poor.”
He recounted the changes his city had undergone, what St. Louis used to be and what it had become (hospitals, law schools, with residents from places like Oregon and New York), and he spoke without rancor.
Colin, the Nigerian Uber driver who picked me up from Calvary Cemetery, sharp and educated in his 80’s sunglasses and Adidas jersey, told me about the discrepancy between the America he’d imagined and the America he was experiencing. He and his mother came to St. Louis just before Colin started high school. They joined his father, who had been there almost a year, studying.
After showing me several city blocks of abandoned industrial decay, he described the difficulty he was encountering in getting promoted at his finance job, despite having saved his company $29 million in one year and having better credentials than most of his coworkers. I asked if he was happy with his decision to come to the Untied States, and he responded, without hesitation, “No, I am not.” Then, he told me about an experiment he conducted applying for several different corporations using his name, CV and credentials, and listing his race as African American. He said he received “no calls or consideration for interviews.” He applied to these companies again, but changed his name, toned down his credentials and listed himself as Caucasian.
Guess what happened:
Colin’s parents are both teachers. He knows who he is. It seems to me that when he leaves—and he told me he will—St. Louis will be worse for it.
There aren’t enough people to populate St. Louis’s buildings. What happens when a society identified with its architecture and infrastructure can no longer keep up with its stereotype? In St. Louis, the residents seem to be working through this question, regardless of whether or not the business of living allows them time for its consideration.
Photos by the author.