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Feel that love? If you're online much these days, there's a lot of it out there for St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 14, 2013 - Numbers tell a story about St. Louis that, for quite a while now, many people have heard.

Continued population loss.

Struggling schools.

Crime.

But another story is out there. It’s told by people who love St. Louis, who see opportunity around every corner, a vibrant art scene, innovative entrepreneurs, and a history and culture built brick by brick a long time ago.

“I think there’s been a reawakening in terms of of new generation of city dwellers who don’t have as much of the weight of the past as the generation before us,” says Jeff Vines, co-creator of STL-Style. “And they see a city brimming with opportunity.”

You can find that now in a lot of places: STL Curator, STLFTL, and on the fronts and backs of people who shop at STL Style. From others, it pops up through random Valentines on the street or an annual photo exhibit celebrating the little and big things about this town.

They’re not changing the story of St. Louis, many of them agree. These things have existed for quite a while now.

But they are offering a different story than the one that normally makes the headlines. And thanks, in part, to social media, that story is getting easier to hear.

Like

For a lot of people who grew up in St. Louis and have returned, there’s a rediscovery of what’s here, says Vines. St. Louis is not Austin. It’s not Boulder. It’s not Chicago, and it doesn’t need to be compared to other places, he thinks, but should be appreciated for “just being a cool city in our own right.”

Vines and his brother, Randy Vines, started their apparel company based on the idea of celebrating St. Louis for what it is -- gritty, in progress, full of promise and history.

A lot of people can choose to live elsewhere, he says, and a lot of them have.

But here, “you can really make a big impact and be noticed for doing something different.”

In 2011, the Vines brothers and Matthew Mourning were part of a group meeting monthly to talk about city affairs, and they needed an idea for June, something to showcase St. Louis.

So Group Hug St. Louis was born, inviting people to submit photos of themselves hugging the things they loved about St. Louis. More than 275 people submitted photos that first year, and about 200 people attended the event, Mourning says.

The photos were diverse and not, he says, full of the usual suspects.

“There was not a single Arch other than a distant skyline hug.”

Instead, there were people hugging the brick walls of KDHX, the water towers, even a watery hug with one of the fountains in the City Garden.

Group Hug St. Louis wasn’t a branding exercise or a publicity stunt as much as a love letter to the city. And, like a lot of the counter narrative about St. Louis right now, it was about time, Mourning says. “We just get tired of hearing everything we do wrong.”

STLFTL (St. Louis For the Love) came about around the same time. Started as an independent project by Act3‘s Ben Kaplan and Eric Ratinoff and the St. Louis Beacon’s general manager Nicole Hollway, STLFTL established a Facebook page celebrating both people and things happening in St. Louis.

About two years ago, Kaplan says, there was this energy bubbling up and the three wanted to find a way to connect people doing cool things. And they wanted a way, not just to share what’s happening, but to channel that into making more happen.

“We started the Facebook page more than a year ago with the idea that we would move it into a more robust database with a number of ways that people could connect,” Kaplan says.

What he sees now online is something of a snowball effect, with more and more people sharing the great things they know are happening in the city, and looking for ways to connect with others. For STLFTL, those connections will at some point become face to face, Kaplan hopes, with events that would serve as matchmakers, of sorts, connecting people doing the same or similar things who may not realize it, and helping to make new connections where they might not otherwise happen.

The newest admiring kid on the block is STL Curator, an online magazine that launched in the last month by a number of people, including John Pa of Anastasis Films, who brought us the viral video celebrating St. Louis at the end of last summer.

STL Curator is an outgrowth of “Here is St. Louis” message, which is essentially pro-St. Louis, he says, featuring not the talkers, but the doers, the creative people, entrepreneurs, developers and architects.

STL Curator, which comes out monthly but drips out new stories weekly, features articles and videos about people in St. Louis who are making things happen, as well as sketches meant to foster a dialouge about St. Louis. They’re also planning events to get people together and offer, both online and in person, a forum for connecting people.

Pa, by the way, grew up in St. Louis and has lived in New York and San Diego. He’s among those who’ve rediscovered the city.

“When I go out,” he says, “all I see is opportunity.”

Catch a fire

You don’t really need to tell Joan Barnidge about the virtues of St. Louis. As someone who raised her daughter in the city, in public schools, though, Barnidge often has to share that story with others. She tells them about the little restaurants tucked into the corners, the parks just a few blocks away, and the excellent education her daughter received.

On Jan. 9, Barnidge left a comment on STLFTL’s Facebook page.

“Your photos make me love my city,” she wrote.

Like a lot of people, she’s noticed the online love for St. Louis.

“Social media has really given a voice to the kind of people who have always been there and always been supportive of the city, but before never had a community forum for expressing it,” says Barnidge, a graphic designer at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

Strange love

You can feel some love yourself this Valentine's Day if you happen to be downtown. STL Improv Anywhere will be handing Valentines out in its second annual event, Stranger Love, around downtown. The event also included a card-making party earlier this week, organized on the group's Facebook page. Mallory Nezam is also maintaining a blog she started last year, St. Louis, Will You Be My Valentine. Nezam, the group's founder, says events like this one shows people what an exciting place St. Louis is. "It makes St. Louis feel more interesting," she says.

She sees an even more practical side to that on pages such as St. Louis City Talk, an open forum Facebook group from the blog, St. Louis City Talk, where residents can talk about history, schools, neighborhoods and even find help locating a lost cat.

Still, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media are just tools, Kaplan says. All of this could happen without them.

“I will say that the platform has made it far more accessible and far easier to disseminate content and to centralized the community,” he says. “It’s a really great tool, but it’s only a tool.”

And does or could any of it change that other story about St. Louis?

Perhaps.

All city’s have problems, Vines says. St. Louis does, too.

“I think that positivity is contagious,” he says. “It’s giving people the opportunity to see St. Louis.”

Mourning agrees. Social media in itself doesn’t fix schools or crime or stop population loss. “But what they do is challenge the notion that we don’t offer a lot,” he says, “that this is a place to be escaped.”

And when economic and cultural revolutions happen in a city, Pa says, it benefits the whole city. It spreads.

“I think it is making St. Louis a better place,” Barnidge agrees. “Because it makes people more interested in experiencing what St. Louis has to offer, and not just outsiders, but people who live here.”

The more people come experience St. Louis and share those experiences, she says, the healthier the city gets.

“It’s just a brand new way of opening up other people to the secrets long-time residents have always known.”

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.