‘Our City Is Legendary’ — Story Stitchers Project Celebrates St. Louis Neighborhoods
As Emeara Burns sat on the roof of a Grand Center building one sunny day last summer, she received a history lesson that had her hanging on every word.
She and five others gathered atop the .ZACK performing arts venue to record a podcast about St. Louis neighborhood the Ville. They sat in a socially distanced circle, speaking into microphones through their masks.
Emmy-winning storyteller Bobby Norfolk and longtime political activist Percy Green II traded tales about having shrimp at the Sarah Lou Cafe amid the vibrant nightlife of a Friday evening in the 1960s.
“Sitting there just soaking in all that information was so life changing for me,” Burns said. “It made me go back home and think: What do we have to do to get back to that?”
The podcast is part of “The Why Of My City,” a project that artist collective St. Louis Story Stitchers has been working on since 2019. It includes the group’s first album and a series of podcasts highlighting life across the city, especially in largely Black neighborhoods.
The first podcast is available today. Future episodes will focus on University City and the Delmar Loop, Walnut Park and Ferguson. Another is dedicated to the city’s musical culture. St. Louis Story Stitchers released the album last week.
Gang violence is a recurring theme in the songs, poems and stories of “The Why of My City” — but so is fierce pride in the historical accomplishments of the city’s Black residents and optimism about the future.
“I would say this project is about saying what is special about my city,” said Branden Lewis, 22, co-chair of St. Louis Story Stitchers. “Why does my city matter? What happens in my city and how does my city affect its inhabitants?”
He addressed these questions in the poem, “Will They Remember,” that appears on the album. In it, he imagines people looking back 1,000 years from now, and wonders what they’ll remember about St. Louis:
“Would they remember Jackie Joyner, Chuck Berry, Redd Foxx, Maya Angelou, Dick Gregory, Miles Davis, Dred Scott? Will they remember how quickly bodies filled our cemeteries? Or remember that our city birthed legends, because our city is legendary?”
Some of the podcasts lean toward discussions about opportunities for creative young people in today’s St. Louis. Others, like the one about the Ville, benefit from more of a historical perspective. The discussion went beyond nostalgic memories to discuss how white flight and racist policies like redlining shaped the neighborhood.
“To know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you’ve been,” Norfolk said, paraphrasing 20th century activist and author Marcus Garvey. “He said a person with no knowledge of themselves or their culture is like a tree without roots.”
Norfolk also contributed to the album, with the track “Talkin’ Bout the Ville.” He takes a short detour into Sumner High School’s fight song before listing some of the school’s illustrious alumni, including tennis great Arthur Ashe, opera trailblazer Robert McFerrin Sr. and legendary performers Chuck Berry and Tina Turner.
Burns, the program director for St. Louis Story Stitchers, is showcased on the album with “We Cope,” her poem about the sting of gun violence and the lingering problem of police harassment in Black neighborhoods. She describes four friends losing their lives in one year.
“This project is all about letting the neighborhoods have a voice. Letting the neighborhoods be represented,” she said.
Burns said she encountered several “opportunities for destruction” growing up in different parts of St. Louis, but she's managed to stay clear of traps that ensnared some of her friends.
“There’s still beauty there, even though all you hear about is the killing and the murdering,” she said. “There’s still love there. You just have to want to see it. And you just have to listen. And you’ll find it.”
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