Let me be clear before we get into this too deep that I had this column written before this past weekend when Albert Pujols teed off on the Cubs pitching staff.  Nice work Albert, you just earned $30M a year for the next ten years from the Northsiders and we look forward to regretting the latter half of the decade with you.  I swear this is not coming from a bitter place.  Consider this a wakeup call America as that’s sure how I took it.

Now mind you I knew absolutely nothing about the city of St. Louis prior to heading down there for the first part of Memorial Day Weekend.  Judging by the overwhelming flood of emails I received after asking for your suggestions a few posts ago, most of you don’t know much about St. Louis either (for the record I received one suggestion and it urged me not to go to East St. Louis – so there’s that).  For a town that made its name for being the Gateway to the West – essentially having every American headed West pass through for over a hundred years, excellent access to the Mississippi River, and apparently no minimum dental care requirements, one would think they would have done a better job building an identity and a civic pride that was not apparent during my stay. 

I say this knowing that there is going to be a backlash from the internet reading faithful in the S-T-L as undoubtedly there are those proud to be from the west side of the river.  I mean, look at Nelly.  And as much as it pains me to say it, their baseball team has an ardent following that stains the grandstand at Wrigley nine times a year, which speaks well to their passion and willingness to travel.  All I can tell you is what I saw and felt during my stay, and spend a few paragraphs telling you why I’m in no hurry to go back. 

So we – two of my friends and I – made the four and half hour drive down to the Arch on Friday afternoon, on a holiday weekend no less, in anticipation of a wedding Saturday night, and the first thing we notice is just how easy it is to roll into town.  I’m literally talking about not having to break once or slow down to wait for cars to merge/exit the highway.  The traffic to Lake Geneva is twice as bad as that going into the 21st largest TV market in the nation.  I should have taken this as a sign.  We coasted right up to our hotel – a converted Holidome complete with a pool of chlorinated frap in the middle of the building that all of the rooms look down into (nice) – and parked the car right out front without anyone thinking twice.  Parking anywhere would not be an issue for the remainder of the week.  I could probably have rented an RV for the trip and never would have had to parallel park or leave the vehicle more than a block from our final destination.  We’re talking that kind of empty.

Our first stop was to get to the heart of all of the famous St. Louis BBQ hype we’d heard of.  We chose to kill two birds with one stone and visited a friend from college who was attending the wedding and raved about a BBQ place in his neighborhood.  That place was named Bogart’s Smoke House and it carried the torch proudly for you St. Louis.  I had the beef brisket and it did me very well.  I would highly encourage the Voodoo sauce on whatever you order but I don’t think they can steer you wrong.  So there’s something nice.  See, I’m not bias… I just call ‘em as I see ‘em.

It was the drive between locations, and the images outside of my windshield that stuck with me however.  St. Louis has a number of elevated highways and roads just south of downtown and well kept they are not. When rust and decay is part of the scenic entrance to the city the opportunity for a positive first impression is lost.  I’m willing to bet those bridges were a big part of the reason the pioneers kept their wagons rolling straight through town once they got their new oxen and an extra axel for their wagon (can you tell I played a lot of Oregon Trail growing up?). 

Quite frankly I don’t know where I’m going with this.  I feel like Bentley on “The Bachlorette” (but hopefully only 1/100th as much of an asshole) where sometimes you just know something’s not right, right?  The town was just dead, plain and simple.  There was no life, no electricity, no joie de vivre, it lacked Kerouac’s “it”.  Now maybe the good people of St. Louis all pack their bags for their homes in the Ozarks where it snows crystal meth and the moonshine flows freely on long holiday weekends, but after seeing what I saw, I wouldn’t blame them.

We’re talking about whole city blocks in prominent parts of town that had vacant buildings with faded ‘For Lease’ signs in the windows and literal weeds growing through the sidewalk.  When we went to the St. Louis Rib Festival – mind you a city that hangs its hat on its bbq prowess – we were able to park in what must have been the second closest metered parking spot to the front entrance and there was an hour of time leftover on our meter.  It was held on what I assume was the equivalent of their museum campus as there was a nice building with stone columns in front and a couple statues around, but impressed I was not.  When these people were considered good looking in the crowd, you can only imagine what the woman with one arm in a wheelchair whose boob fell out next to me at 2:30 in the afternoon looked like.  Again, we were at a Rib Fest so the bar was set pretty low but for being somewhat of a rib fest novice I will tell you that Naperville takes St. Louis to the cleaners in the category.  Remember, St. Louis is the 21st largest market in our nation.  And they pride themselves on their ribs.  And of the block long line of BBQ places that look similar to this from all over the country, places far and wide such as Kansas City, Memphis, Chicago, and seventy-three different towns in Texas, the single stand that actually was from St. Louis looked like this.  That’s just not right.  To their credit they did get Brett Michaels to headline so maybe they just allocated the funds this year away from the ribs a bit more than usual.

When I asked the locals who attended the wedding I was at what gives with the city, every single one of them talked about how great the suburbs are and how that’s where it’s really at if you’re looking for the fun in St. Louis.  That may in fact be the case but that does not speak well for a community.  I’ve seen a lot of cities in my travels and I’ll tell you right now, the suburbs don’t cut it.  I like the suburbs, I’m a product of the suburbs, but when the suburbs define your city, you’ve got issues.  The reasons they’re called suburbs is that they are subcultures of the urban environment (“sub”-“urb”) and if there is no urban environment to speak of, aren’t they just a bunch of houses in a field broken up by Costco’s and Applebee’s?  People begrudgingly live in the suburbs and look forward to their next escape to an evening or weekend in the city.  That’s the world I know.  I’m surely not the only one who saw Date Night right?  A major market built on the surrounding area is like an economy built on the service industry, haven’t we all spent the last five years learning how that’s a bad idea? 

So take offense if you see fit St. Louisians (?), because quite frankly, you should.  Get your act together and gather some civic pride and make that dump a place to be again.  It’s not fun to hate you and consider you a rival when the competition isn’t even close.  Keep your Cardinals, I’ll take a lake front and more than ten bars to choose from.  Washington St. is a step in the right direction but you’re going to need a street for each of the Presidents like that just to keep up.

I don’t write this just to hate on St. Louis.  I’m in no hurry to go back but I’m sure I will some day.  The Anheuser Busch tour was actually pretty cool and again, I hear good things about their zoo, but my greater concern is for the rest of America.  St. Louis is not the only city in this predicament.  I wrote a few weeks back about the state of Memphis which I’d put in the same category, and really Houston doesn’t have a lot of legs to stand on either.  It’s very important that our cities remain our hubs of culture and society within their respective regions.  Take a page from those urban centers such as Kansas City, Omaha, and Oklahoma City (well at least they’re trying) and find reasons for people to come back into town to enjoy a show, a meal, or a day of shopping.  It’s crucial to the good of your area and the nation.  Again, to the people of St. Louis I apologize for you’re being the whipping boys here but it’s the least I can do after the torture Mr. Pujols has brought into my world the past ten years as an opponent and what I hope is not another ten once he’s in our uniform.