This summer, the newsroom of St. Louis Public Radio hired five people who had never lived in St. Louis. As 2014 draws to a close, we asked each to reflect on what they've discovered in their five months here.
- News producer Stephanie Lecci has been surprised by crime and race relations while also finding hope.
- Reporter Emanuele Berry, who was brought in on a fellowship focusing on race, culture and diversity, has had unexpected questions about race and Ferguson thrown her way.
- Reporter Willis Ryder Arnold is searching for creativity and invention in the arts, finding talent.
- Reporter Durrie Bouscaren set aside her list of ideas for health and science stories to cover Ferguson and document a search for change.
- Newscaster Wayne Pratt has brought their work together in the mornings and talks about an "impressive roster" of colleagues.
My first visit to St. Louis was part of the epic annual road trips my best friend and I take. We rode the “buckets” to the top of the Arch, acted like kids at City Museum and wished we had the money to go inside Busch Stadium. It was your typical touristy St. Louis experience – and it was awesome. I immediately thought to myself, ever the wanderer, “Now, THIS is a city I could live in.”
Fast forward a few years, and I see six new positions posted at St. Louis Public Radio. That many openings at once usually signals a mass exodus from a station that’s going to pot -- or a station growing into the kind of organization you dream of joining as a journalist. Knowing KWMU’s reputation as an innovator, I knew it was the latter.
Now, five months into my newfound identity as a St. Louisan, I can safely say this city hasn’t disappointed. The people are charming and friendly (a mix of Midwestern nice and Southern hospitable); the neighborhoods are adorable and cohesive; the parks glorious (particularly for my dog); the cultural offerings rival any big city’s; the sports teams have made me a fan; the arts scene is amazing; and the food is pretty darn good.
Granted, not everything’s been sunshine and gooey butter cake.
The amount of crime, violent crime, here is frightening to me, and I’m no wilting flower. But perhaps my most unnerving experience since moving here is one that connects me to all St. Louisans: Michael Brown’s death. He was killed the day before I moved in, and while reporting on the resulting protests, I was tear-gassed twice in my first week on the job.
My heart broke on a nightly basis for my new hometown as I watched the sincerity of protesters and the honor of police officers devolve into chaos. Difficult, challenging conversations about race punctuated every story I worked on for three months straight, and many times I went home from the office emotionally and physically drained.
I’ve lived in segregated cities before – Milwaukee, in particular, is regularly ranked the most segregated city in the country – and I’ve reported extensively on racial inequalities and the impact they have on people and communities. But something is different about St. Louis’ brand of strained race relations. Perhaps it’s the lack of subtlety, the openness with which certain phrases (both coded and overt) were tossed around, or the unapologetic way in which some people bragged about having left certain areas of the city for a “better” community. Maybe it’s how hard numbers showing the disparities in policing are often explained away, even to the point of inaccuracy.
This is not to label St. Louis as a whole racist; indeed, in my job, I’ve been witness to some residents’ utter commitment to ending racial segregation and inequities. Their efforts often leave me near tears, or at the very least, near hope. But what I have seen in the few short months I’ve been here has lent me an understanding of why what happened in the last five months happened here.
So how is it, then, that I can sit here and declare that I wholeheartedly love this city, a place I’ve only lived in for five months, a place that’s in the midst of the kind of crisis from which there’s sometimes no recovery? Because there’s so much more to the St. Louis story, and I am committed to telling the full tale.
That includes the Dellwood business owner who won’t leave the city even though her shop was burned in the riots; the bar owner and police supporter who printed out dozens of pages on white privilege to figure out how he can help reunite the community; and the police officer who can’t wait until things die down so he can start doing school visits again and show young people what policing really is about. It also includes the couple rehabbing a historic home in Old North while working for community development; the high school senior using his voice to make sure his fellow students have a quality education; and a sports commission bouncing back from not getting one big event to land the city another.
Simply put, St. Louis shows its resiliency at every turn. It won’t give up, and I won’t give up on it.
My family has these cheesy black-and-white pictures of my parents in high school. My favorite is of my parents holding hands. Their fingers, black and white, black and white, interlacing. I’ve always wondered if my mother and father knew that their marriage would generate a conversation about race extending beyond the initial interracial union to their children. My siblings and I are walking racial question marks that individuals are constantly trying to change and pin down with sturdy periods.
What are you really? Can I touch your hair? And are you a black/white person or a white/black person? These questions have been constants throughout my life. As a result, I’ve been talking about race and fascinated by it since childhood. They are discussions I have learned to lean into rather than run from.
When a fellowship position focusing on race, culture and diversity opened at St. Louis Public Radio, I jumped at the chance, even though most of what I knew about St. Louis at the time was based on a Judy Garland musical and some vague understanding of a sports team called the Cardinals. I’d been talking about race since I was in elementary school. I figured any conversation I had about race in St. Louis would just be a rehashing of ones I’d already had.
I was wrong.
“You’re mulatto, right?” Five times in the five months since I moved to St. Louis I’ve been called a mulatto by people from varying backgrounds. Never has it been said in an intentionally malicious manner. It’s either a question or a statement of fact. I’d let them know that I’m not OK with being called a mulatto, explaining the roots of the word. In some cases, this generated a longer dialogue; in others I was told “but you are mulatto, though.”
“Isn’t it just like Detroit?” This was a question and subsequent conversation I had continuously with friends and family in Michigan regarding St. Louis. First, let me say I love Detroit. I abhor the gajillion stories about Detroit filled with ruin and despair. But I know what people mean when they say “like Detroit” -- decline, poverty and segregation. These are very simplified terms that in no way capture the complexities and nuances of these cities. And while poverty and segregation are words that could be used to describe both St. Louis and Detroit, they are unique to each city. Over the past several months, I’ve found myself on the phone countless times trying to explain race in St. Louis, only to find myself at a loss for words.
“Ferguson” The fact that I came to St. Louis to cover race, culture and diversity just weeks before Ferguson became a national byword has been described to me as both witchcraft and providence. It’s a conversation I never could have imagined being a part of. Ferguson generated an internal conversation about race and reporting I’ve never encountered before. I’ve still not made sense of it and … that’s fine. For months I’ve had conversation upon conversation about race, but rather than feeling exhausted with the topic, it’s made me want to lean into it more.
This fellowship and city are not at all what I expected. I still don't really know St. Louis all that well. I won’t pretend to. Most of what I know about the city is through the lens of my beat, which has left me with more questions than answers, and I’m OK with that. St. Louis remains a question mark and I feel it would be a disservice to pin it down with a defining period.
Willis Ryder Arnold
I came to St. Louis looking for a new kind of creativity, a place where makers were more invested in producing work than in selling it. I came to St. Louis because cities like Buffalo, N.Y., Detroit and St. Louis have a history of producing important and influential art without being cultural epicenters. I came to St. Louis because of the world-class institutions here. I came to St. Louis because I was curious. I came to the city on a hunch that St. Louis is a place of great creativity and invention.
Because I am a reporter, much of my relationship to a place is formed by my beat, my area of focus. The arts are a unique human behavior where people enter the grand cultural conversation about race, gender, wealth, inequality and social changes without necessarily being pedantic, instructive or stubborn. Art creates space for interpretation and grey areas, for taking a step back to evaluate and address the connective tissue between various social concerns. I came to St. Louis on the hunch that artists here were concerned with these questions and already approaching them in unexpected ways.
I have not been disappointed. In the past four months I’ve seen artists tackling the issues of police brutality and racial discrimination head on. Local artist Damon Davis’ project All Hands On Deck, a response to the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, received national media attention. The St. Louis American’s video of the protest of “Which Side Are You On?” at the St. Louis Symphony has more than 825,000 views on YouTube. That same symphony has been nominated for two Grammys this year. Multiple concerts were organized in support of people affected by Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent turmoil in Ferguson.
Yet local artists and organizations haven’t limited the focus of their work to one topic. Organizations like UrbArts provide support for underrepresented community artists. The Missouri History Museum held a day of free HIV testing on World AIDS Day. Jazz at the Bistro opened a new venue designed to increase accessibility for people of various backgrounds. It appears various St. Louis art scenes are not afraid to point directly at the issues facing city residents.
As I scan St. Louis’ creative landscape after four months here, I see a group of individuals and organizations dedicated to improving their city and engaging their audiences. Not everyone is dedicated to the same audiences but everyone is trying to serve their chosen communities as best they can.
Sometimes people stumble. Some work is better than others, more articulate, more developed, more aware. I’ve spoken with experimental artists who find it difficult to gain respect without producing highly palatable art. I’ve spoken with administrators who see a lack of black, Asian and Latino artists receiving the support they deserve. There is work here that is provoking and work primarily concerned with aesthetics. As in all cities, there are divisions in the arts. Major institutions are not always aware of the talent in their own backyards. Artists don’t always know how to approach and break through the façade of established arts spaces.
Yet, when asked, everyone is willing to discuss the issues facing the city. People readily speak to the need for creative engagement and the role of artists and administrators from all backgrounds to participate in the dialogue surrounding cultural concerns in St. Louis. This dialogue holds a certain rawness, a certain tension, because people here recognize the importance of these conversations and the history these conversations are built upon. It’s a rawness that acknowledges the importance of the time.
I am still exploring my hunch, and I look forward to continuing the investigation.
When I moved to St. Louis in July, I knew the city had its struggles.
I came armed with a notebook of story ideas: How local researchers are narrowing the gap in health outcomes between the rich and the poor. Why the region has such high asthma rates. How violent crime affects public health.
Then, events in Ferguson ripped the city open for the world to see, and the findings weren’t pretty. I received baffled text messages from relatives — “It’s not as bad as the news says, is it?” — and heartbroken phone calls from friends who saw their own experiences reflected in the encounter between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.
Our city was hurting, and it wanted answers. Our newsroom worked around the clock to fill the need — reporters learned how to handle tear gas and put on bulletproof vests to cover late-night protests. Eating and sleeping became something we did in our free time or at our desks. Sometimes, I’d drive home as the city began its morning commute and realize how difficult this must be on my colleagues who have children.
But there's also hope. In these past months, I’ve met people determined to make their communities a better place:
- Ferguson Burger Bar owner Charles Davis, who refused to close when most other businesses on the street boarded up their windows.
- St. Louis-area psychologists like Marva Robinson, who have visited with families deeply hurt by the shooting and its aftermath.
- Medics, law students and clergy who regularly volunteer during protests to keep people safe.
- And police departments making concerted efforts to restore their community’s trust.
Change is never easy. But I think that’s OK. If it were easy, we might take it for granted. Our region has experienced a lot of pain these past five months, but I think it’s also an important opportunity to address these issues that are so hard to discuss.
Right now, St. Louis is exactly the place to be.
Who would have thought a late-night dare in the ‘90s would bring me to St. Louis in 2014?
But that is exactly what happened.
There have been stops in Indiana and Arizona, and this thing called a wedding, but the genesis of my move to St. Louis goes back to a night in Toronto roughly 20 years ago. That’s when my roommate spotted an online ad for a radio newsperson in Indiana. After a few beverages, he dared me to apply.
So, I did.
I got the job and have been in the U.S. ever since.
That’s the somewhat interesting version of how I arrived at St. Louis Public Radio. The dull truth is my wife’s career brought our family to the region. I needed a job, the news operation was hiring and Bill Raack remembered me from public radio news director conferences we’ve attended over the years.
My first six weeks were spent couch surfing in Brentwood, Manchester, Town & Country and St. Louis. We finally settled in Kirkwood and all was calm.
Then Michael Brown was shot and killed.
Being on the early morning shift, I was not out in the thick of the aftermath.
But several of my new coworkers were on the streets – every night. And they would still be in the newsroom when I started my workday around 4 a.m.
Their work under very trying circumstances was impressive and their dedication to the newsroom, the region and those who call it home could be heard in the reports we aired for weeks.
The story of Stephanie Lecci and Durrie Bouscaren taking shelter in a stranger’s house after being caught in a night of Ferguson violence is unlike any I’ve heard during my various career stops.
The institutional knowledge of the region displayed by Rachel Lippmann, the filter-out-the-crap approach of Jason Rosenbaum and the superb long-form radio storytelling skills of Tim Lloyd all came to the forefront.
They are key parts of the reason St. Louis Public Radio has assembled the most impressive roster of reporters I’ve worked with at the local or national level.
Joseph Leahy was given the unenviable task of training me for the morning news run. I’ve gotten to know him a bit, and it turns out he’s led one of the most fascinating lives of anyone I’ve ever met. The dude needs to write a book!
And then there’s Geri Mitchell. My alarm goes off at a ridiculous hour and I am NOT a morning person. But working with Geri every day makes this job among the most pleasant I’ve ever had.
With life finally starting to return to normal (whatever that is), I’m looking forward to watching my daughter succeed in high school and I’m thrilled to have a front-row seat as my wife’s career starts to skyrocket. The move to St. Louis has turned out to be an outstanding decision for each of them.
As for the roommate who dared me to apply to that online ad all those years ago. …Well, he ended up in St. Louis this year, too.
He’s a big-time TV reporter now and covered the National League Championship Series between the Cardinals and Giants.
We got together while he was in town to catch up, share a few laughs and some more beverages.
But there weren’t any additional dares. He doesn’t think he can top the one issued roughly two decades ago.
Considering the wild ride that has been 2014, I tend to agree.