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The last time Bill Streeter made a professional appearance at the corner of Michigan and Huron in downtown Chicago, he shoveled shit for a living.
Well, not entirely, although horses do defecate prodigiously, and Streeter was a carriage driver, ferrying tourists around in an equine-powered buggy docked across the street from the ritzy Allerton Hotel at the foot of the Magnificent Mile. A Baptist minister's son whose G.I. Bill dried up a few quarters shy of a college degree, Streeter also held down the graveyard shift at the Allerton for a spell, shuttling laid-over Amtrak employees to and from the train station in the hotel van.
For many a Midwesterner, Chicago is a city of destiny. For Streeter, who was reared in Peru, Illinois (population 10,000), about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, it symbolizes a decade-long struggle to support his wife and young son in a rough Puerto Rican neighborhood on the city's west side. Streeter walked dogs. He drove a delivery truck. He waited tables at a restaurant that traded exclusively in mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes with gravy, mashed potatoes with nacho cheese, mashed potatoes with caramel and pine nuts whatever the customer wanted. Whatever made rent.
"Chicago's a great city and all," Streeter reminisces. "But I couldn't afford to do shit."
When Streeter's clock-punching steam grew too thick to ignore blowing off, he took to cheap rock & roll dive bars in less gentrified burgs. And then there were the occasions when Gold Coast yuppies would invite the chariot jockey up to a soiree he and his horse had been hired to trot them to. Streeter would inevitably get his money's worth at the punch bowl, leaving the post-party navigation to his thousand-pound copilot.
"The funny thing is, the horse knew exactly where it was going," he insists, gazing up at the sign for his erstwhile carriage stand while a massive holiday parade buzzes down Michigan Avenue on a crisp Saturday evening in late autumn. "So I didn't have to worry about bumping into anything."
Standing near the entrance of the gleaming white Apple Store here at Michigan and Huron, Streeter is accompanied by Richard Hall, a mellow, bearded college professor from Rolla with a desert-dry wit. Having rendezvoused in St. Louis earlier that morning, Hall and Streeter have driven four and a half hours up Interstate 55 to co-headline Meet the Vloggers, the first major regional summit on the burgeoning art of video blogging. Also known as "vlogging" or "video podcasting," the discipline is akin to a standard blog, except with an audiovisual content focus, and is to traditional podcasting (i.e., audio-only webcasts that can be downloaded onto iPods and various other multimedia platforms) as moving pictures are to radio.
"A lot of people say, 'Why not just do a podcast?'" Streeter tells the crowd of 60 or so who fill the tiny amphitheater in the back of the massive Apple-teria. "I think the face is what does it. It's the theater of the face."
"Think how great it could be if your grandkids could look at a video clip from when you were twenty and say, 'Wow, look at what a weirdo my grandpa was,'" says Leo, before veering wildly idealistic. "If everyone had a video blog, there might be less conflict in the world. Let's say there's a vlogger in Baghdad. He's not filtered through mainstream media. He's coming directly to someone's desk from Baghdad."
"I mainly film rock & roll bands," Streeter demurs. "I cover things in my town that people in my town may not even know about."
Streeter's town is St. Louis, which has flowered into his city of destiny since his move south from Chicago in 2001. This past February Streeter debuted his video blog, lofistl.com, featuring live music videos of high-energy local acts like the Vultures and Casey Reid along with short documentaries about cultural institutions like the South Broadway Athletic Club and Frederick's Music Lounge.
"Bill's in love with this city, which is pretty unique," says grunge-rock poster pioneer Art Chantry, a Seattle transplant whom Streeter recently profiled in a Lo-Fi Saint Louis short. "He's building attention for the culture he lives in. Bill is one of the most unselfish people I've ever seen in this regard St. Louis needs more people who do that sort of thing."
"It seems like Bill's vlog gets a lot of exposure outside of St. Louis," says Jeff "Kopper" Kopp, Streeter's next-door neighbor and the host of The Wayback Machine on KDHX (88.1 FM). "But it doesn't seem like many people here are aware of it."
Indeed, in the international vlogosphere, Lo-Fi serves as the civic point of entry for 2,000-plus Web surfers per week who are directed to the site after punching in our city's coordinates on various search engines.
"Bill was one of the early video bloggers with a feed," confirms Josh Kinberg, a New York-based vlogger and software developer who made headlines during the 2004 Republican National Convention after he was arrested for electronically rigging a bicycle to write text messages in chalk on the pavement inside a no-protest zone. "Both my parents grew up in St. Louis, and I never knew there was a thriving music scene there. The bands Bill chooses make me want to go out and by their CDs."