Paradise Found?

A newcomer shows why St. Louis needs an attitude

If the people in charge of promoting St. Louis as a "world-class city" did large amounts of mind-altering drugs, here is what one of their dreams would look like:

A hip, progressive writer for a hip San Francisco-based dot-com magazine wakes up one day and decides with his wife to move to St. Louis. After doing so, he blasts the Bay Area to his international audience and rattles off a series of reasons he prefers his new Midwest home.

St. Louis is extolled not only for its wondrous Gateway Arch but also for its (dramatically) lower cost of living and its friendliness, relaxed pace and less stressful traffic. It is described as both big enough and manageable. Even the stifling summer humidity is portrayed as enjoyable.

San Francisco? A city ruined by "by cell-phone-talking, SUV-driving, Frappuccino-drinking dot-com yuppies," says its heartbroken ex-resident.

St. Louis? "Its small physical area and distinct neighborhoods remind me a little of the city of my lost love, [the old San Francisco]," the newcomer writes.

And the Regional Chamber and Growth Association lives happily ever.

Well, not quite that. But it does appear that drug dreams can come true, at least somewhat.

Meet King Kaufman, senior writer for online magazine Salon (www.salon.com), who, with his wife, is likely to stand out -- at least for the moment -- as one of the more positive neighbors on the couple's new Dogtown block. Even if the pair's presence doesn't signal the beginning of the Great San Francisco-to-St. Louis Migration of '01, even if their enthusiasm doesn't last through the winter, theirs can be remembered as a remarkable arrival.

It's not every day that St. Louis is the future and San Francisco the past. In fact, I can't remember it being any day.

The more typical West Coast impression of St. Louis is the one Kaufman himself describes as having held previously. Lest you think his analysis in last Wednesday's edition of Salon was some RCGA-style puff piece, consider how he sets up the unlikelihood of his transplantation:

"My friends looked shocked when I told them I was moving to St. Louis, the Gateway City, a town that defines itself as a historical jumping-off point to somewhere else, a city in which, according to an essay in the anthology 'Seeking St. Louis' by Philadelphia transplant Gerald Early: 'There is a tendency for at least a certain class of its citizens to apologize for having what appears to them the bland misfortune of living here.'

Adds Kaufman: "On a family trip here a few years ago, my dad gestured at the people surrounding us and said, 'These are the descendants of the people who said, "Eh, this is far enough."'"

Now that's cold. But it gets warmer.

Kaufman and his wife, it turns out, are downright smitten by St. Louis' low cost of living, among other things. In San Francisco, he wrote, a one-bedroom city apartment averages $1,800 per month, whereas "in St. Louis if you can afford $1,800 a month, you can rent a big house in a tony suburb. It does not appear from the local classifieds that you could pay $1,800 rent in the city even if you wanted to."

Here, Kaufman and his wife could afford for the first time to buy a home, and they did so in Dogtown. This was no small detail back home.

"It became a form of pornography for my San Francisco friends to ask me what we paid for the house. They'd hunker themselves up as though they were about to be punched, and say, 'OK, tell me what you paid for it. No! Wait!' More hunkering. 'OK, now. Go ahead.' I'd tell them and they'd go, 'OOOOHHHHHHohohoh.' One friend shouted, 'No!' as her knees actually buckled. She grabbed my shoulders for support. 'Do you have any idea what I just paid for my house?' she asked. I did. Not quite five times as much as we paid for ours, for a house half the size (but nice!)."

Kaufman went on with some vignettes depicting St. Louis as having a more pleasant pace and less stress than San Francisco. But welcome as that might be in a city that craves good national publicity, it's that very craving that struck the author just as strongly as anything else.

That brings us to his best insight: This is where he nails it.

"The biggest difference between St. Louis and San Francisco is attitude," Kaufman writes. "In just the two weeks that I've been here, I've seen several examples of St. Louis fretting about how the world sees it."

In this regard, Kaufman cites his new hometown's awkward encounter with what he calls "Weeweegate" (probably needing no further introduction here), the RFT's decision to dissect an Art in America article surveying the local art scene and a Post editorial on the St. Louis Symphony's financial crisis that whined, "The region needs reasons to feel good about itself, that it is not a has-been, a formerly great, a dinosaur."

All of this has led Kaufman to puzzle over St. Louis' collective insecurity, especially in light of its contrast to the city he now sees in a less-flattering light.

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