St. Louis: Salvage City


A three installment start at a potential Discovery Channel “reality” program called Salvage City has created a minor kerfuffle in some local quarters. I haven’t seen the show, but it appears to feature a group of the Beautiful and the Bearded who break into buildings, ostensibly illegally, on architectural salvage missions one step ahead of the wrecking ball, all for fun and profit. Here’s the trailer. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Not everybody is happy with the “Rust Belt boneyard” take on the city. Michael Allen at Next City says this is an example of the Rust Belt frontier myth:

The term “Rust Belt” itself exaggerates the physical decay and isolates the identity of many cities in static matter. Advocates, journalists and scholars have popularized the term, often endearingly, while perpetuating the emphasis on what makes these places frontiers of decline. Narratives of the Rust Belt are still focused on loss, rife with a cynical nostalgia and a nagging refusal to cast in with wealthier and less damaged cities. The singularity of the conditions of places like St. Louis and Detroit remains mythic fodder for would-be heroes of public policy, architectural design and public art. There are many Daniel Boones of the legacy cities.

Allen, however, isn’t writing just to cast stones at the show. Chris Haxel at the Riverfront Times is more emphatic, saying St. Louis deserves better:

Where the producers really stumble is their characterization of St. Louis as a foe on the level of alligators or hurricanes. Salvage City is rife with images of decay or ruin porn, a style that fails to tiptoe the line between appreciation and exploitation. The salvage scenes are ostensibly about rescuing doomed valuables, but in reality glorify theft, plunder and trespassing.

What he and the show’s producers have done — exploit the city in exchange for personal gain — is the definition of selling out. Not the artistic selling out that is inevitable when a band or artist enjoys mainstream success, but the kind that constitutes betrayal….Here they are on national television, selling the city as an “urban wasteland…ripe for plunder.” Ultimately, Salvage City disappoints because St. Louis deserves better.

I post this because I always find it interesting to see the reactions people have when their city is supposedly mischaracterized for the worst in contrast to the crickets when locals use whitewash and marketroid materials to promote their city to the world. Want to see a real myth? Check out “Here Is St. Louis” (if the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

There’s nothing per se wrong with this. It’s a classic city video that portrays St. Louis as an amalgam of family friendly fun and Portland-style hipness, with a dollop of local flavor a multi-culti thrown in. But is it a full and inclusive portrayal of the reality of St. Louis? I don’t think so. In effect, videos like this are the flip side of Salvage City, but few people ever think to critique them.

I don’t want to suggest too much collective outrage, however. The response to Salvage City is a bit muted from what I can tell. And Alderman Olgilvie strikes a better tone in telling folks totake a chill pill:

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.

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.

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.

The challenge for St. Louis and other such place is to develop a maturing sense of confidence about who they are. One that accepts the vicissitudes of the media, isn’t afraid to acknowledge legitimate faults, isn’t dependent on the approval of others for a sense of self-worth, and is willing to go its own way into the future.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

St. Louis Skyline photo by Wendell Cox.