By Alison Hillhouse, MTV Insights
“I tell all of my friends out on the West Coast, St. Louis is the City of Dreams. You can do whatever you want here if you have the will and ambition.”
— Lisa Govro, young entrepreneur
Yes, St. Louis. Not New York, not San Francisco, not Austin, not Chicago. Pockets of young people are choosing the road less travelled and flocking to cities that offer more of a “blank canvas” on which to create their dreams. Think Nashville, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and St. Louis … cities that have not been known as “hot spots” for recent grads, cities that young people have historically avoided in favor of the surrounding suburbs. But things are changing, as MTV research shows 70% of young people want to live out their 20’s in a downtown or near a downtown, not the suburbs. Where many older people see urban decay and crime in these cities, Millennials see opportunity.
MTV recently travelled to St. Louis and met with young tech entrepreneurs, non-profit founders and artists to learn more about the groundswell of young people revitalizing and re-crafting this urban landscape (they balked at the word “movement” which seemed to try too hard at pinning down the amorphous energy bubbling up). These urban pioneers are launching tech-startups in abandoned buildings, starting art collectives in old breweries, remaking turn-of-the-century homes and building pockets of commerce where young people can live, work, consume and bike everywhere. Universally they are connected to the mission of revitalizing the city and creating a community of likeminded individuals.
Why Millennials are saying “yes” to reviving cities:
Make an Impact
Young people want to make a tangible positive impact on their world, and feel more empowered to do so than ever before. Across the country, they are realizing that a smaller city, especially one that’s seen decay, offers an opportunity to create projects and launch businesses that can significantly change an urban landscape. According to MTV research, 80% of Millennials feel like it’s important to “revive cities in decay.”
In St. Louis, we learned of “Sloup” – a micro-funding monthly soup dinner where mostly young people pitch art or community improvement ideas, and attendees vote on which to implement with the proceeds from that night.
Community activist/artist Becca Moore, 25 explains, “I received a lot of pressure from people like, ‘why aren’t you moving to NYC, LA, or Chicago’… but the opportunities I have in a city like St. Louis are more exciting… I’m able to plug in right away and be involved in projects that impact the community.”
While a new coffee shop in Brooklyn is a dime a dozen, Small’s Tea Shop in St. Louis, recently launched by Lisa Govro, plays a role in the revitalization of the historic Cherokee Street neighborhood that thrived in the early 1900’s. Young people and Mexican immigrants are working together here to create a new community that’s a hotbed of artist collectives, tech start-ups, quirky shops and popular Mexican restaurants…. somewhat paralleling San Fran’s Mission district.
Sloup MicroFunding Dinner
Space, budget and freedom to experiment
Young people in smaller cities boast of the opportunities to start a project in “beta mode,” try it out, and if it fails, start something new… all while maintaining a lower cost of living (Yes, it’s possible to live in a beautiful Victorian-era home in St. Louis with a handful of friends for just $160 a month).
With such a low cost of living, it’s not surprising that St. Louis is becoming more attractive to young start-up founders and artists. As developer Matt Ström, 26 says, “St. Louis is becoming a good place to start a business – it’s part of the ‘Silicone Prairie.’” Mallory Nezam, 27, notes, “My friends are brilliant artists in New York and have this little chunk of time to do art between 3AM and 6AM– but people in St. Louis have that time, all the time.”
As Moore says, “I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do this if I had to move to another city and hustle to pay rent… my extra time and energy goes into projects that I really care about. The barriers are lower in a lot of rust belt cities – you can see your projects gain traction a lot faster.”
Popular band Sleepy Kitty recently relocated from their “tiny cramped space” in Chicago to their duplex “Art Castle” on Cherokee Street, where they have a music studio, a graphic arts studio and living space all-in-one.
Sleepy Kitty’s “Art Castle” - duplex art/living space in an old brewery
In cities with multitudes of abandoned storefronts, warehouses and dirt-cheap turn-of-the century homes, it feels like anything is possible… like BANK projects, an old drive-through bank repurposed into an art gallery by recent college grads.
Daniel Burnett, part of the Screwed Arts Collective, is inspired by the fact that St. Louis is a “grimy city.” He explains, “I think a lot of young people are tired of over-produced culture. Making everything shiny and plastic has its place, but even a lot of pop culture is embracing grimy elements. Grimy means you can get away with a little more, people are more relaxed, living is cheap, urban decay is prevalent.
In mid-sized cities like St. Louis, young creators speak positively about the tight knit community where people are “nice,” “welcoming” and “eager” to partner with you to make things happen. Ström says, “You have to be careful who you tell your ideas to – not because they’ll take your idea, but because the next day you’ll have tons of texts and emails from people saying “I heard you are thinking of doing this thing, I’m so excited. How can I help?” And Amy Flauaus, former Brooklyn resident and owner of Strange Overtones vintage shop, says, “It would take a lot for me to leave St. Louis at this point. Everyone just seems so happy here.”