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David Linzee

The Onion Peels Layer From City's Self-Esteem

December 14, 2011
Last week stltoday.com brought me the news that our fair city has been insulted yet again. Fortunately, I was at the office and too busy to read about it, but soon it was up on a nearby screen, and my co-workers were gathering to laugh and shake their heads.

The satirical website The Onion was running a mock news story about how the Obama administration had created 4 million new jobs, but they were all in St. Louis. Only jobseekers willing to tolerate high crime and a bleak cultural scene need apply. The Republicans were preparing to attack Obama for such a perverse act of public service as creating jobs in St. Louis.

Stltoday invited its readers to respond. One or two defended our hometown, noting that the division of city and county makes St. Louis's violent crime statistics look much worse than they are, and that few cities of our size can boast of superior cultural institutions and a livelier arts and entertainment scene. But nobody really took the Onion on. I have to agree; you can't argue against a joke. You just look as if you don't get the joke.

We're used to media scorn. The Onion has mocked us before, when one of their writers confessed that he had failed to visit "historic St. Louis." The same day it published the jobs story, another magazine/website, Men's Health, released a purportedly serious study, putting St. Louis on a list of Ten Saddest Cities.

St. Louisans know that if it's an "America's Best" list, we'll be near the bottom, and if it's "Worst" we'll top it. News outlets love to put these quickie studies on the Web. They have the authority of statistics, so they get attention, and of course it's much cheaper to crunch numbers than send journalists out to dig up real news. So I shrug them off.

Others don't. They maintain that being the butt of jokes, the city that always loses the numbers games, does us real harm. They conjure up a scene in a faraway skyscraper. Around the table are meeting corporate executives considering where to open a new branch, entrepreneurs looking for a place to start a business, venture capitalists seeking a start-up to back. Somebody says, "How about St. Louis?" Pause. Somebody else says, "Did you see The Onion?" Chortles, rising to guffaws. The first guy says, "OK. Kansas City?"

The scene is chilling to imagine. But should we let it drive us to compete in the urban prestige sweepstakes? Competition has reached an absurd pitch in all areas of American life, from our obsession with spectator sports to our never-ending political campaigns to TV reality shows. In my field, we have the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges in America. Everyone in education I've talked to considers the rankings almost meaningless. And nobody denies their effectiveness in drawing applicants.

But is it worth the effort to compete in the city beauty contest? Even if you do well, the link between a prestigious urban image and economic development is tenuous. And we are not doing well. We try to put together a splashy government-private sector international effort to show what a happening place we are and end up taking a pratfall. Remember Aerotropolis? We lure business with tax breaks and other incentives to build a development downtown and end up with a field. Remember Ballpark Village?

As for those top 10 and bottom 10 lists, there's something absurd about boiling down unemployment rates, house prices and school test scores and concluding that Garden Spot, Calif., or Paradise, Colo., is The Best Place to Live in America. Who would take such a determination seriously? I can only imagine the rootless, emotionally detached character George Clooney played in "Up in the Air." I see him sitting in an airport, scanning his laptop for a place to finally settle down: "Look at these numbers! I'll make Garden Spot my home."

Most of us don't pick our home off the shelf like any other product. If we had our druthers, we'd live near family and friends. As time passed, we'd get to know the history of the place, and acquire memories linked to various spots, and that would be home.

But there is the money and career side of American life, and many of us move somewhere else to chase our dream, which usually starts with a job. If the job is exciting, we accept the trade-off. But these days, it's more likely to be sore necessity driving us to uproot and take what we can get.

That's the situation that was the target of The Onion's satirical attack. St. Louis was only collateral damage, if that's any comfort to us.

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