It’s a rabbit-hole, yes. But one that’s well worth going down in as I immerse myself in the racial past and present of St. Louis. It’s fascinating. It’s depressing. It’s a must.
As the editor of a new Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded “diversity” coverage initiative, I am based at St. Louis Public Radio and supervise a team of four reporters: One is here; the others are in Kansas City, Hartford and Portland, Ore. While the paperwork for the CPB grant says “diversity,” I feel like this whole initiative will be more about identity: About how Americans think of themselves and about “the other,” in their communities.
In this regard, the issue of where St. Louis people lived and live looms large. The scars of redlining, blockbusting and segregation seem to be everywhere–once you know where to look. Could Ferguson have happened as it did elsewhere? Yes, certainly. But it happened here–how and when it did–for reasons that have to do with both race and place.
So here’s what I’ve been reading, watching and listening to:
ST. LOUIS–It’s a strange thing to be unemployed. Or partially employed. Even if by your own choice. There is both freedom and fear. A sense of excitement and moments of panic. There is time for naps. There is too much time to think.
I had to stop. I had to figure out what I was doing and, more important, what should I be doing. So, I did.
I applied for at least one job every day, even long shots. Even things I really didn’t want to do. I told people I trust about what I wanted. I had lots of coffee with people, made lots of phone calls and sent lots of emails in the name of networking. (It would pay off).
I wrote a ton of cover letters. I received a number of “Thank you, but…” responses. I came very close to accepting a job in an outrageously expensive city that someone I respect and I care about is preparing to leave (in part because it’s outrageously expensive). There was a close call with a job outside of journalism: The horror!
Then, I saw a job posting that really resonated; I mean from head to toe.
It promised a completely different direction, but one I was qualified for. I wrote the heck out of the cover letter. I applied. I heard nothing. I chalked it up to another one of those, “It would’ve been nice, but….”
Here I should say that this whole time (July to present), I’ve been encouraged, buoyed up by, given reality checks by, and received cheerleading from, my family. Not everyone has the kind of support system that allows them to keep their sanity while in transition. Also, there are friends who continued to think highly of me, even when I did not think highly of myself.
And then, after about two months, it came: A phone call about that job posting that really resonated. I could hardly believe it. Stars aligned. Things started to move. Interviews. Reference checks. More interviews. The offer.
So, I start on Dec. 11. Ain’t life Grand? (That’s a hint).
THANK YOU! Mom, Dad, Randy, Emily, Geraldine C., Kurt G., Allison H., Brian J., Jim S., Neil R., Eric K., and (for reals) LinkedIn
Spending the holidays in the US after six months in Belize, I have employed a variety of transportation methods: borrowing my sister-in-law’s minivan, renting a car and using Uber.
Side note: Uber is the Craigslist of the transportation space: Once you’ve gone Uber you realize just what a big opportunity taxidom missed out on!
It’s fascinating to chat with an Uber driver; each one has his or her own style and reasons for driving strangers around in their car.
6 Uber drivers you might encounter in St. Louis:
1. The chauffeur. He wears a sweater vest, a tie, and a crisp white button-down shirt. His vehicle is immaculate and smells of the peppermints he offers passengers. He also provides small botttles of water to the thirsty. Car: Dodge Grand Caravan
2. The as-needed driver. This is a young man who tells you he’d rather be watching football but needs to drive a few hours to pick up a few extra dollars. Turns out he played college football and is in limbo while he decides on his next move. Car: Chevy Impala
3. The single mother. She indicates you should sit in the front passenger seat because the back seat “is a mess.” Her routine is to drop a bunch of kids off at school in the morning, Uber until the school day ends, and then pick up said group of kids to deliver them home. The group includes her musical genius high school daughter who is already being scouted by prestigious conservatories. Car: Kia Sedona
4. The full-timer. This driver tells you he’s started driving up to ten hours a day because he was recently laid off from his job or recently lost his disability benefits. He studies YouTube videos posted by expert Uber drivers who provide tips on maximizing the system. Knows the city like the back of his hand. Car: Toyota Corolla or Kia Sorrento.
5. The NRA member. Conversation quickly turns to the fact that Uber doesn’t allow him to carry a gun while driving, but he does have a pocket knife on his person. Turns out he used to work as a repo man, so he may have reason to fear passengers. Car: Volkswagen Jetta.
6. The juggler. He Ubers in the city for several hours most mornings (including Christmas Day), then heads to the county (far west) for his full time job at a nursing home. In addition he serves as a Kurdish and Persian interpreter at a local center that provides support services for new immigrants. Car: Nissan Quest.
Here’s how I knew Anne Tkach: As Adam Hesed’s girlfriend, who came with him to family gatherings throughout the year: Thanksgiving, birthdays, Christmas. She was warm and kind, but we never really had a deep conversation; now I wish we had.
It’s a little complicated: Adam Hesed is a member of my sister-in-law Emily Edgell’s (nee Shavers) family: a clan that includes blood ties as well as family by choice. Because Emily and my brother Randy have the biggest house and yard, we tend to do the major occasions there.
I knew that Anne and Adam were involved with music–I did not know that Anne was a big deal on the St. Louis music scene, playing in bands and supporting her fellow musicians in all kinds of ways.
On April 9, Anne died in a house fire. She was 48 years old. You can read about what happened here.
My mother told me the news; she had just seen Anne at Easter Sunday festivities, which I missed–driving back to Kansas City, where I live.
Checking Anne’s Facebook profile, I learned just how much she impacted the community in life–and about the shockwaves and despair her death left in its wake.
On April 18, I attended Anne’s funeral in Webster Groves; Emmanuel Episcopal Church was packed–standing room only, This is where I learned a great deal more about Anne; that she was deeply loved by a lot of people–because she was generous, humble, and loved to knit. That she also loved to wear overalls I already knew. Also, that she loved Adam Hesed.
The sadness I felt was mostly for the living: Adam, Anne’s father Peter, Emily, the Hesed family. But, I also wished I had known Anne better.
There is a one-way street in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis called Klemm. It runs between DeTonty and Tower Grove Park, just south of I-44. At the intersection of Klemm and Shaw Boulevard (about two blocks from the Missouri Botanical Gardens) sits a little grocery store.
On the morning of Oct. 9 (a Thursday), NPR’s Morning Edition headlines reported that a young man named VonDerrit Myers Jr., 18, had been shot by an off-duty police officer in “South St. Louis” the previous night. The report itself mentioned “the Shaw neighborhood.” That’s when I started looking up St. Louis reporters I follow on Twitter. A web story I found cited the “4200 block of Shaw Boulevard” as the location of the shooting. Then, finally, I read “corner of Klemm and Shaw.”
My heart moved into my mouth. I live in Cincinnati, while my parents and brother (and his family) live in St. Louis. In fact, I have walked and driven around the very corner at issue more times than I can count. It lies at the midway point in the five-minute stroll from brother’s to my parents’ house. In fact, I had made the walk just a few days before the shooting, after saying goodbye to my sister-in-law, my niece and my two nephews. We had spent a very pleasant late morning at an arts and crafts fair on Flora Avenue (which I think of as the Park Place of Shaw), four blocks away.
Talking to my mother by phone the next morning, I learned that she had not known about the shooting at 7:30 p.m.–no sounds of gunfire had reached her, no sirens either–until protestors started streaming along Shaw Boulevard in front of the house. I learned my brother considered going over to her house, but then thought better of trying to walk or drive through the throngs of angry, dismayed people who were filling the streets. My mother wasn’t particularly worried about her safety, but she consented to stay on the phone with my sister-in-law until late that night. (My father watched it all on television in his room at an assisted living facility in Chesterfield, a suburb of St. Louis that is actually light years away in many respects. But that’s another blog).
Meanwhile, my nephews (ages 11 and six) and niece (age 10) slept. In the car a few weeks later, I asked if they knew about the shooting. They did. The consensus among the two older children was that the young man was probably up to no good, but he didn’t deserve to die. The subject quickly changed when the six-year-old asked how far away we were from Sonic, our destination.
Since that night, protestors have continued to materialize in the neighborhood. There is a memorial on the corner of Klemm and Shaw: A giant mound of stuffed animals, signs and other tokens has formed around a tree. On recent visits to St. Louis, I’ve seen small groups of people gathered there, some bringing items to add to the memorial. Normally, I would take a photo and post it on Facebook, but I can’t quite bring myself to do so.
On the night the Darren Wilson grand jury decision was announced, my mother was at my brother’s house for several hours. I was here in Cincinnati, glued to my Twitter feed. My overriding emotion was–and remains–a kind of queasy and icky sensation that reminds of the days and weeks after the O.J. Simpson verdict. I am reminded that all is not right in the United States of America, especially when it comes to race and class–especially in St. Louis.
I am still worried about throngs of people showing up near my mother’s house. I jokingly tell her not to answer the door on those occasions, because the person on the other side might be a… journalist.
I am happy to announce that I will be joining Scripps at the company’s Cincinnati television station, WCPO –TV (ABC) in November. This position offers me the chance to combine my broadcast and digital news experience – not to mention social media, in which I’ve been known to dabble.
While Cincinnati is new to me, I am happy to say I have a few friends who live there. When I went for my interview, I was surprised to find a lovely scene: the Ohio River winding its way between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky; lots of trees, apartments and houses perched on bluffs, a glistening downtown and the contrast with historic Covington. WCPO itself sits in the Mt. Adams neighborhood near to Eden Park with its spectacular vistas.
After working solo since February–and, while I was with Patch, in various coffee shops, libraries and public places–I am actually looking forward to being in a newsroom again. The opportunity to collaborate with digital and broadcast professionals to deliver news and information, engage with the community, and innovate is exciting!
“Whew! Talk about major decisions. Deciding to resign took months of praying and evaluating what I would like to do at this stage in my life. After 25 years, I decided I wanted to tell a different kind of story…one that is consistently committed to sharing the many uplifting stories about African-Americans. Two years ago, I founded an online magazine, TheVillageCelebration. It is for anyone who wants to read about the rich tradition of African-Americans.”
I first got to know Vickie when she was a reporter and morning news anchor at WDIV-TV in Detroit. Her career journey took her to Atlanta and then brought her to St. Louis. I know she’s been hankering to get back to her hometown of Little Rock, so their gain is our loss! Full disclosure: I contribute to TheVillageCelebration.com; in fact Vickie was one of the first people to give me work when I took my own plunge in February!
It takes a lot to take the plunge. People who decide to make course corrections in their lives all have their reasons, and these are often so complicated and commingled it can be tough to articulate or share with family, friends and colleagues. Sometimes hindsight is the only way to figure it all out.
A recent Huffington Post item from another former TV news anchor really hit home for me. Rene Syler made it all the way to the “big dance,” a network news spot with CBS in New York. Then, everything changed. She lost her job. She decided to have a preventative mastectomy. She got a bad relaxer and her hair fell out. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
“I was like Job. How much worse could things be? I lost my job, I lost my breasts, I lost my hair. But now I look back and I think in losing all those things I really found myself and who I’m supposed to be. The best way to describe it would be the me that people see on the outside finally matches the me on the inside.”
When a person begins to find success in her career, especially success that has been hard won, making a change may be the last thing on her mind. The itch got to me sometime last summer and I forged out on my own in February. Like Vickie, I chose to resign; to walk toward something I hoped would bring me closer to where I wanted to be. Like Rene, I find myself wondering…
“I never ever thought I would be in this place…. ‘Is this going to work?’ When you work for people your entire life, the idea of being able to do whatever you want, to be your own boss is a really cool and wonderfully freeing thing. Sometimes all of that freedom is scary, but that’s what I would say is the most gratifying.”
The great thing about it all…
You CAN do it. People may think you are crazy, others will call you brave. Still others will say, “I wish I could do that.” Maybe today is not the day, but it’s good to start thinking about the things you love to do and figure out how you might get people to pay you for those things. Maybe it’ll all be one big flop. Here’s to trying!
Start tallying your talents, skills, abilities, credibility, trust capital, and experience
Think about who your support network will be — morally and professionally
Talk to people who do what you want to do
Sometimes change happens to you. At other times, you lead the way. Be ready.
Director Phillip Andrew Morton and producer Matt Jordan Smith were on hand to set the scene and context for their film. Morton, who grew up in this northeast St. Louis County community, told a packed house in a second floor space at the Grandel Theatre that he decided to undertake the project as a way of dealing with his feelings and questions about the once-thriving unincorporated town.
On a visit to Spanish Lake to see family, Phillip Andrew Morton explored his old stomping grounds and was experienced its decline firsthand. Closed were his church and grade school. The first home he’d ever known was in foreclosure and had been abandoned. In an interview with NOCO, he described the experience as “surreal, shocking and emotionally devastating.” Morton is young, and the transformation he witnessed occurred in less than a decade. Then and there he decided to turn his camera on Spanish Lake and film a documentary.
As I understand it, unincorporated communities are governed by the county. That means no city or aldermanic council, no local taxes, and no local control. Apparently, most Spanish Lake residents wanted it this way. One woman in the documentary calls opting not to incorporate the “biggest mistake we ever made.”
Morton and Smith showed the trailer and two clips of the film, in which a number of themes emerged:
The role of federal government housing initiatives in the 1960s and 1970s
The aforementioned unincorporated status of the Spanish Lake
Class insecurities and aspirations
The love that former Spanish Lake residents feel for their declining community is apparent and quite striking. The regret about leaving is palpable, even when people are not openly weeping. The president of the Spanish Lake Community Association is Dora Gianoulakis; she never left the town. She spoke quite eloquently Wednesday in answer to questions from the audience.
At the moment, Spanish Lakers are working hard to raise funds to restore an historic building in order to turn it into a community center. Morton credits Gianoulakis for helping improve Spanish Lake. On Wednesday he described physical and attitudinal changes in the town he’s seen in just the past few years.
There were blacks and whites at the screening Wednesday, including many former and current Spanish Lake residents. I wish we could have heard more about how these two segments of the community feel about each other today, since skin color and economic status played such a major role in what happened to Spanish Lake.