Monday, November 17, 2008

Writing the Metro East

If we had a body of popular literary works focusing on public transportation in the Metro East and St. Louis, how would the outcome of the Prop M vote been different? Wouldn’t the existence of poems and short stories, novels and illustrated narratives showcasing the light rail have progressively shaped the public imagination regarding what it means to travel along the tracks in Missouri and southern Illinois?

Those are the kinds of questions we’re inclined to ask when we consider writings by Margaret Atwood who focuses on Toronto, Edward Jones who concentrates on Washington D.C., and Colson Whitehead who reps for New York City. Actually, a whole host of writers have tackled the dynamics of the city that apparently never sleeps.

Check out the massive collection Writing New York: A Literary Anthology, and it becomes clear that generations of creative artists, including Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Henry James, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Don DeLillo, and Vijay Sesha, utilized the city as a backdrop and foreground for their literary works.

We realize that creative writers are hardly responsible for how the public perceives cities and regions. Nonetheless, their literary art can have some effects, right?

Creative literature encourages readers to believe in the safety, violence, cleanliness, dirtiness, history and hipness of particular cities. Writers influence readers to explore local fashion trends and regional cooking. Most of all, literary artists convince readers that some cities “work” better than others.

And the very processes of writing about a region can also stimulate new ways of thinking about that area and its residents. In our own experiences writing about the Metro East with our focus on the light rail, we have learned that we have a rich body of underground artists in our region.

We have also started to view the area as a competitive arena for schools and businesses.

It’s probably a stretch to assume that the prior existence of a body of creative writings about the Metro East could have swayed the Prop M vote in the direction that we favored. But the bigger point might be a consideration of the influence that literary art showcasing light rail travel or transit in general can have on the public imagination.

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