Friday, January 10th, 2014

St. Louis: Salvage City

A three installment start at a potential Discovery Channel “reality” program called Salvage City has created a minor kerfuffle in some local quarters. I haven’t seen the show, but it appears to feature a group of the Beautiful and the Bearded who break into buildings, ostensibly illegally, on architectural salvage missions one step ahead of the wrecking ball, all for fun and profit. Here’s the trailer. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Not everybody is happy with the “Rust Belt boneyard” take on the city. Michael Allen at Next City says this is an example of the Rust Belt frontier myth:

The term “Rust Belt” itself exaggerates the physical decay and isolates the identity of many cities in static matter. Advocates, journalists and scholars have popularized the term, often endearingly, while perpetuating the emphasis on what makes these places frontiers of decline. Narratives of the Rust Belt are still focused on loss, rife with a cynical nostalgia and a nagging refusal to cast in with wealthier and less damaged cities. The singularity of the conditions of places like St. Louis and Detroit remains mythic fodder for would-be heroes of public policy, architectural design and public art. There are many Daniel Boones of the legacy cities.

Allen, however, isn’t writing just to cast stones at the show. Chris Haxel at the Riverfront Times is more emphatic, saying St. Louis deserves better:

Where the producers really stumble is their characterization of St. Louis as a foe on the level of alligators or hurricanes. Salvage City is rife with images of decay or ruin porn, a style that fails to tiptoe the line between appreciation and exploitation. The salvage scenes are ostensibly about rescuing doomed valuables, but in reality glorify theft, plunder and trespassing.

What he and the show’s producers have done — exploit the city in exchange for personal gain — is the definition of selling out. Not the artistic selling out that is inevitable when a band or artist enjoys mainstream success, but the kind that constitutes betrayal….Here they are on national television, selling the city as an “urban wasteland…ripe for plunder.” Ultimately, Salvage City disappoints because St. Louis deserves better.

I post this because I always find it interesting to see the reactions people have when their city is supposedly mischaracterized for the worst in contrast to the crickets when locals use whitewash and marketroid materials to promote their city to the world. Want to see a real myth? Check out “Here Is St. Louis” (if the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

There’s nothing per se wrong with this. It’s a classic city video that portrays St. Louis as an amalgam of family friendly fun and Portland-style hipness, with a dollop of local flavor a multi-culti thrown in. But is it a full and inclusive portrayal of the reality of St. Louis? I don’t think so. In effect, videos like this are the flip side of Salvage City, but few people ever think to critique them.

I don’t want to suggest too much collective outrage, however. The response to Salvage City is a bit muted from what I can tell. And Alderman Olgilvie strikes a better tone in telling folks to take a chill pill:

Our mini freak-out over Salvage City comes on the heels of several media panic attacks in 2013. Other examples include reactions to a New York Times look at crime and murder in St. Louis, and a humorous Art Forum takedown of an overwrought guided bus tour of St. Louis art venues that culminated with a violet-hour visit to SLAM’s expansion grand opening. The story, and the predictable freak-out. (See RFT‘s “Snobby New York Art Critic Scowls on St. Louis.”) Writers snapped our photo when the light wasn’t flattering, and we didn’t like it one bit.

What it boils down to is a little hypersensitivity about how St. Louis is portrayed in national media, positive or negative. It is this nagging worry that folks on one coast or the other will write us off the same way one of Kendzior’s article headlines refers to us, as flyover country.

Perhaps our New Year’s resolution should be a little bit thicker skin, and a renewed confidence in telling, and hearing, all the stories about our city: good, bad and indifferent. Rather than make one story carry the burden of representing all the facets of our city, let a thousand voices rise in song or storytelling, each with its own particular perspective.

The challenge for St. Louis and other such place is to develop a maturing sense of confidence about who they are. One that accepts the vicissitudes of the media, isn’t afraid to acknowledge legitimate faults, isn’t dependent on the approval of others for a sense of self-worth, and is willing to go its own way into the future.

Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture
Cities: St. Louis

23 Responses to “St. Louis: Salvage City”

  1. Brent says:

    “Rather than make one story carry the burden of representing all the facets of our city, let a thousand voices rise in song or storytelling, each with its own particular perspective.”

    I’m reminded that when my city was at its economic height, the most famous stories that came from it were not at all good, but I’ll take an Upton Sinclair or Richard Wright over silence any day.

  2. pete-rock says:

    Yeah, this is a perversion of the Rust Belt Chic phenomenon, IMO. True, there are opportunistic hipsters who view decay as rusty gold, but there are also people who wish to add to the city, not just extract from it.

    But it’s not altogether different from earlier pioneer narratives in our history. Our pioneer mythologies are rife with bombastic stories of planters or miners who want to rape the landscape (the film There Will Be Blood comes to mind), but also quiet stories about pioneers risking everything to start a new but uncertain life.

    If the Rust Belt is the new frontier, stories like this are inevitable.

  3. Matt says:

    I fully agree with the concluding paragraph of this post.

    I do take issue with the notion that positive imagery deserves the same level of scrutiny and push-back as negative projections of a declined city.

    The perception of St. Louis to the wider nation and world falls into three large camps:

    1) The Indifferent or Ignorant, who know little about the City, have never interacted with it, and can only pinpoint that it’s the location of the Arch and the Cardinals (if that)

    2) The General Anti-City [or Anti-Poor City] Population, who live in St. Louis suburbs and utilize any negative press to feed their confirmation bias against the City of St. Louis and their buyer’s justification for living/remaining in the suburbs. On a national level, I’m reminded on an article you wrote for New Geography–“The White City”*–wherein we’re reminded how whiter, wealthier cities’ residents will label themselves as “progressive” and cast judgment on “segregated” / “racist” / “dangerous” high poverty places like St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, etc.


    and 3) The Rust Belt Cognescenti, who are familiar with the nuances of declined Midwestern and Northeastern cities.

    Certainly the largest of the three groups is #1 and the smallest is #3, but the psychological impacts of the second group cannot be overstated.

    Imagine going to therapy after some traumatic event occurred in your own life. Instead of coaching you through your problems, the therapist instead snickered and demonized you at the reveal of each fault. I think you’d leave that office searching for any Pollyanna representations of yourself just to have the strength to go on! The civic psyche of battered cities is much the same. And I know you know this. It just bears saying/repeating.

    Point being: St. Louisans know their faults and flaws well. We also know that you don’t see any tourism ads saying, “We’re a socially complicated place. Come visit!”. Anywhere (well…okay, maybe Braddock). Without having seen Salvage City myself, it’s tough to make an absolute statement here, but I do think it is damaging to play to the very negative stereotypes that fuel disinvestment. On the flip side, most people watch fluff pieces and know what the angle is and file it away appropriately in the “civic cheerleading” folder.

  4. Rod says:

    On a recent trip to Connecticut, I took the Metro North train through Bridgeport, one of the great train wreck cities of America. Forty to 50 years ago it was the machine tool capital of the world. Today it is largely a blasted out ghetto. Nobody from more than ten miles away seems to have actually been there in memory

    What caught my eye about this place was the old factory buildings. Empty, of course, and many are probably trashed on the inside. What caught my eye was the fact that if these were located in Portland, Seattle or the Bay Area, they would long ago have been converted to residential lofts or software offices.

    Which got me to thinking…why doesn’t someone locally go into the better buildings there, take out the primo interior parts, and ship these west for inclusion in new buildings? Long ago (1980) I lived in the East Bay of San Francisco and Berkeley Architectural Salvage had some of hte most beautiful interior parts I’d ever seen. At the time, the Financial District of San Francisco was undergoing a high-rise building boom, and with all the great old buildings from before WW II being taken down, there was marble and cast bronze and old paneling available in spades. Literally, the wealth of a prior business boom was available in the warehouse, and if a person had been building a great house or loft, they would have had great pickings.

    I’m not talking about stealing here, like they do on the show, but surely there must be enough old buildings of moderate quality there that there are building parts that someone, somewhere else, would value. In an ideal world, we would rehabilitate the economy of Bridgeport. Realistically, that’s not going to happen for the next 25 to 50 years. Meanwhile, there’s a business opportunity in building parts recycling.

  5. Lou says:

    Next time get off at bridgeport and see all the new development going on in town from lofts to restaurants and retail. I thought the same thing as you until i got off the train.

    On a related note, the Northeast tends to concentrate poverty and urban dystopia into small pockets surrounded by amazing affluence like Camden, trenton, AC, Newark, Chester, Poughkeepsie, Reading, Waterbury, most parts of Philly etc. Bridgeport is beginning to turn it self around, being the center of one of the wealthiest counties in the US doesnt hurt.

  6. Rod says:


    What jobs there are driving the turnaround?,

  7. Adam says:

    “The challenge for St. Louis and other such place is to develop a maturing sense of confidence about who they are.”

    yeah, this is difficult when the media likes to focus on the negatives and any campaign to acknowledge the positives (such as the video you posted above) is derided as unrealistic because it doesn’t ALSO focus on the negatives. how does it portray confidence to preface every expression of pride with an apology for our shortcomings? this is an unrealistic demand that you wouldn’t ask of any of your darling cities.

  8. Matthew Hall says:

    Don’t assume people don’t like “socially complicated places.” I do and I think there are more who are looking for intriguing places. While the elite can “discover” the last buddist monastery in Pakistan, or some such thing, Americans can “discover” St. Louis.

  9. Adam says:

    “Want to see a real myth? Check out ‘Here Is St. Louis’ ”

    this is offensive. those are all shots of real people doing real things. nothing in that video was staged. Salvage City, on the other hand, is ENTIRELY staged. again, your requirement that every positive be tempered by a negative is absurd.

  10. Cochise says:

    It is wring to take what is not yours. Period.

    Staged or not, it’s wrong to represent this.

  11. Joe Schmoe says:

    Aaron Renn does not like St. Louis, he does pieces on pretty much every Midwestern city except St. Louis and think he even admitted one time that he had never been to St. Louis, which definitely doesn’t make him qualified to make a statement about what the “real” and “fake” St. Louis is. It’s funny how he can make an article about “Salvage City” and how its the real St. Louis, but he has never done an article about the show “Sweetie Pies” that is about a real family restaurant in a real rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in St. Louis, he never mentions that St. Louis has the 2nd largest rail system in the Midwest, he doesn’t talk about that St. Louis and the state of Missouri lead the country in historic rehabilitation with , its just all negativity.

  12. Rod Stevens says:

    It’s naive to think that a city can put out a happy-talk video and not deal with the negatives.

    Most Americans put St. Louis in close to if not the same company as Cleveland and Detroit- big cities with cratered manufacturing economies and bad school systems. These are the “brands” that these cities start with, and if they want to reposition themselves, they need to first recognize the consumer’s existing perception of them and deal with that honestly.

    Crime, schools, disinvestment, lack of high skill job opportunities, bad governance, aging infrastructure… these are just a few of the issues. You can’t neglect them. The consumer may want a reason to “buy”, to move or invest there, but rationalizing the decision requires an answer to the question, “How are they dealing with these?”. If a community has a strategy, put it out there. That will show good governance, a plan, self-recognition that they have problems and are addressing them. But to whistle past the issues is to confirm an outsider’s belief that there is no plan, that the reason these issues are so intractable today is that they are not being dealt with.

  13. @Joe Schmoe, who says I don’t like St. Louis? And I have been there. I haven’t spent as much time there as I’d like, but I have been. And I’ve posted about St., by others and myself. Here are a few, including positive to aspirational ones:

    But I stand by my post. Keep in mind, I tend to most often write about local issues when I think there’s a bigger picture for people to see. I’m not trying to simply shine a light on St. Louis, but rather to show how basically all similarly positioned cities have a tendency to do the same thing. I’m illustrating a common reality using St. Louis as a lens.

  14. Adam says:

    “It’s naive to think that a city can put out a happy-talk video and not deal with the negatives.”

    it’s maybe more naive to think that the negatives are being ignored because a city’s CVC produces a tourism video, or a group of citizens makes a video love-letter to their city, or people take issue with a reality TV show. watch the local news and you’ll see more civic self-deprecation than you can stomach. try going to a neighborhood meeting or a meeting of the Board of Alderman if you think nothing’s being discussed. it’s an absurd leap in logic to suggest that these things aren’t being addressed because citizens and the CVC aren’t making YouTube videos about them.

    as for media representation, everyone conveniently forgot about the recent Pruitt-Igoe documentary. it made an honest effort to analyze some of St. Louis’ socioeconomic problems and didn’t attempt to sugar-coat anything. and guess what: it was eagerly embraced and widely praised in St. Louis. why? you may not agree with his hypothesis but the director made an HONEST attempt to analyze longstanding problems. he did not make a vacuous, staged reality TV show. Spanish Lake is another highly anticipated, upcoming documentary dealing with racial issues in one of St. Louis’ northern inner suburbs.

  15. Matthew Hall says:

    Rod, I don’t think most Americans who give st. louis a thought put St. louis in the same company as Cleveland or Detroit. Anyone whose experienced each city certainly doesn’t. St. Louis isn’t working with as negative a ‘brand’ as you suggest.

  16. Rod Stevens says:


    Maybe yes, maybe no. If I were St. Louis, I would want to test that brand, not with its own people, the local clients who paid for the video, but with the real customers, the money and talent the community wants to draw: the graduates of the country’s top engineering schools, the pension fund managers who decide what cap rate they will accept on a given real estate investment, the executives of companies that are growing and thinking about acquiring a local venture. Is the community holding on to what to the money and talent it does generate, or if not, why not? This is the kind of audit most places, strong and weak should do, and most don’t. The underdogs could get comparative advantage by doing so.

  17. Michael says:

    I guess the claim of this blog posting is all true for every city. Media can greatly affect the perception of others towards a certain place. Media brings the audience to the featured place in an instant, however if a city has negativeness in it, media can sometimes be exaggerated.
    The city involved, when criticized, should be open for correction and make something to improve the morale of their own city. Thanks for this post, anyways!

  18. Rod says:

    St. Louis has real problems. A corrupt and lousy school system. (family members experienced this first hand teaching there.) It also has distinct qualities that, parlayed right, could help it compete, not as a low-cost producer, but in some niche fields.

    The starting point for cities is candid recognition of their strengths and weaknesses, taking pride and building on what they do well, and addressing what they do poorly. I have yet to see a video that says, “Yes, we have real challenges, and here is what we are going about those. Meanwhile, here are the opportunities for you. Come see why we’re the kind of place you should consider”. Forget the symphony, the parks, the latest light rail line. Focus on business and career opportunities. That’s what the young person who’s taken on debt for college and grad school is looking at.

  19. Adam says:

    “I have yet to see a video that says…”

    “Yes, we have real challenges, and here is what we are going [to do] about those.”

    Unless there’s some evidence that advertising the problems would somehow help to solve them, I don’t understand why any city should be expected to do this. And again, there’s a real double-standard at play here. Chicago’s public schools are bad too, but I don’t here anybody requiring that Chicago make a statement about its public schools in every tourism video.

    “Meanwhile, here are the opportunities for you. Come see why we’re the kind of place you should consider”

    Rod, google and read about the St. Louis tech, startup, and bio-science scenes, including the associated partnerships among local schools, incubators, and corporations. It’s been all over the media lately. It’s not hard to find if you look for it.

  20. Rod says:

    Matthew: a member of my extended family taught in a center city school therr where the administration was rigging results of state wide tests. It went to the front page of the paper and the district did nothing about it. That kind of thing drives away talent. Your competition isn’t Cleveland or Chicago, it’s Singapore.

  21. Jeff says:

    Agree with Adam on all points. Anyone who purports to be an expert in cities should at least make a point to dig beyond the surface and not simply take statistics at face value. This city deserves more than a weekend visit around downtown. Cities are complex– they shouldn’t be dismissed or generalized based on rankings alone, which i think this blog tends to do very often. St. Louis is one of America’s great legacy cities, and has an urban character and sense of place that most cities can only dream of.

  22. Rod says:

    The locals undoubtedly love it. They are the ones who have chosen not to move away. And urbanists like you and me love these places as well. Unfortunately, the people making investment decisions, as well as talent being recruited there, probably won’t take the time to dig well below the surface, and yet they’re the ones you need to convince. Having read the newspaper stories about factory closings, murder rates, problem schools, etc., they are going to come skeptical. The only way to turn them around is to squarely face the questioning with local success stories, not happy talk.

  23. Adam says:

    “The only way to turn them around is to squarely face the questioning with local success stories, not happy talk.”

    AGAIN, google and read about the St. Louis tech, startup, and bio-science scenes, including the associated partnerships among local schools, incubators, and corporations (things that investors care about). It’s been all over the media lately. Of course, it’s not going to show up if you only google “crime”, “bad schools”, etc.

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