Is Columbia singin’ soul yet?

Saturday, March 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:31 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Columbia has a Division I school, three Wal-Marts, underground caves and an airport. But does CoMo have soul?

Just to clarify, the question is not: Is Columbia a nice place to live? It’s not: Is Columbia a safe place to live? And it’s sure as heck not: Is Columbia a decent place to raise children? The question here, open to more personal interpretation, asks if our town has soul, man… dude?

Are you riding the CoMo soul train?

How do you spend Saturday afternoons?

A. You hit up Home Depot, Columbia Mall, maybe Linens ’n Things. Subtract 10 points. B. You’re still sleeping from Friday night’s escapades at Lou’s Palace. Add 30 points. C. Aisling at Schnucks, which is to say, interpretive-dance shopping. Add 50 points.

Where do you stuff your face?

A. Subtract one point for each item you’ve ordered off a dollar menu in the last year. B. Grabbing steak and eggs at Ernie’s Cafe and Steak House gets you 12 points. C. You might get brained at the Bullpen Cafe, but you get 20.5 points (an extra half point for eating the brain sandwich).

How do you rec out?

A. Gold’s Gym. Stop pumping and take away five points. B. Softball league. Worth five points. C. A jog on the Katy Trail with your oversized mutt gets 15 points.

Where do you rock out?

A. Shattered. Get rid of that high school senior and subtract 40 points. B. Mojo’s. Despite your Sad Bastard sweater, give yourself 8 points. C. Blue Fugue. You’re a hipster, but you get 15 points.

What’s your coffee cup?

A. Subtract one point for each soy milk latte from Starbucks. B. Add one point for each brew from Lakota. C. Add 10 points for each cup of joe at Cherry Street Artisan.

Where did you see your last movie?

A. Hollywood Stadium 14. Subtract 14 points. B. Moberly Five & Drive. Add one point. C. Ragtag Cinemacafe. Add 10 points.

What are you listening to?

A. Subtract 100 points for every Britney Spears track on your iPod. B. Add one point if you’ve seen Witch’s Hat. C. Give yourself a pat on the back and 15 points if you’ve seen The Doxies.

Where do you do your soul food shopping?

A. Wal-Mart, yeah, it’s a tad souless. Roll back 19.99 points. B. The no-gas gas station on Hitt Street for beer, chips and smokes. Three style points. C. Add 15 points for every visit to World Harvest. Lower than negative 1,000 points: Your soulfulness is beyond the help of mere mortals. Between negative 1,000 and zero: You have no Columbia soul, and you probably don’t care. Anything above zero: You don’t need this test to prove you’re on the Columbia soul train.

Las Vegas has a mayor who gives classes on martini making (buy gin, pour into glass), and as such probably wouldn’t be elected outside Sin City. Columbia’s mayor, Darwin Hindman, cherished though he is, could head a city council just about anywhere in the Continental 48. We celebrate TWO sets of stand-alone columns, landmarking two edifices that burned to the ground. Columbia is home to a Schnucks market that not only allowed some crazy Californian to hold an aisling contest, but also permitted a film crew to tape it for the world. (Aisling, in a word, pits costumed contestants with decorated shopping carts against one another.)

That said, do we have soul?

Not a simple query. When asked, many CoMoians stuttered, confused, not sure quite what we meant.

Soul is the life energy. Soul is what differentiates one city from another. Soul is the spiritual force that governs earthly matters — the way we eat, the way we entertain ourselves, the way we shelter from the elements, the booze we sometimes drink to excess. Everything.

Soul isn’t just an African-American thing, says Elizabeth Birks, a member of the student program committee at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Yes, much of black culture bursts with soul because it’s pulsating with life and because it’s proudly different. No matter what our race, however, we can appreciate a plate piled high with ribs and collard greens balanced on a knee steadily rising and falling to the sounds of James Brown. Soul, man, soul.

But a Polish neighborhood in Chicago has that same individuality and energy — albeit it with a twist. A lively accordion polka, fed by pierogies, pilsner and kielbasa, belts out a different kind of soul.

Back to the point: Does Columbia possess that high-octane vibe? Downtown throbs with young people. Visitors hasten about The District, moving to and from music and theater venues not available outside those 43 blocks. The True/False Film Festival and the Jazz Series Pub Crawl are two among many events that provide proof of and momentum for vitality.

A couple of weeks before the True/False Film Festival took over, the event’s director, David Wilson, insisted soul abounds here. The city, he said, is free from the monetary concerns of culture centers like New York City, and therefore can produce less generic artistic expressions.

“Things have soul not because you make money, but because you can’t do anything else,” Wilson says. “People make art here because they have to, not because it’s going to hang in some fancy gallery. The same with music and film.”

Beyond special events, just having a thriving downtown in the face of the soul-less big box, suburban-sprawl-development that surrounds, and in some cases, invades the city, shows at least a budding acquaintance with soul.

Carrie Gartner, director of Columbia’s Special Business District, recognizes our downtown isn’t perfect. But, she says, “from my perspective, cities that lack soul are generic; they look like everyone else. Columbia is not like that. It has unique buildings, unique businesses and unique people. When you walk around The District, you’re never confused as to where you are.

“You feel like you belong. In cities without soul, you tend to lose your sense of self.”

And then there’s Columbia’s rock’n homemade music scene. Dig it, daddio. Richard King, owner of The Blue Note, says he doesn’t know soul’s dictionary definition, but he thinks the music lovers and performers here have it.

“I know the people in my world, the people I see, have lots of soul,” King says. “Sometimes you can just look in somebody’s eyes and say he’s got soul. You can’t put your finger on it. Looks are a lot of it, but it’s attitude, too. It’s a crazy combination of those things.”

If you stop with energy, arts and music, the city has soul. No argument. But, oh jeeze, man, that stops short and leaves out stuff that can’t be ignored.

Like what’s feeding all this downtown energy? It’s certainly not the culinary scene. Now don’t get all huffy and start naming restaurants everybody loves as examples. Sure, Booches has soul because it dishes out burgers on wax paper and refuses to sell french fries, which is insane, but cool. And Heidelberg has soul because it’s a tradition. If you strike up a conversation with some Mizzou alum in O’Hare Airport five years from now, you’ll probably touch on the Heidelberg for at least a few minutes. But pizza, hamburgers and deep-fried appetizers don’t set Columbia apart from any chain joint.

Soulful cities have a dish or two that smack people in the face, that say, “You’re in our city now.” Philadelphia has cheesesteaks. During every nationally televised Eagles game, viewers get at least one glimpse of a guy at Pat’s or Geno’s layering a hoagie roll with cut rib eye and Cheese Whiz. Guaranteed. Over in Kansas City, a barbecue connoisseur can dip a fork into the sauce and, eyes closed, name not just the city, not just the restaurant, but probably the booth he’s sitting in.

Barbecue experts don’t think there’s anything funny about saucing debates, but the soul equation definitely demands humor.

Lisa Simpson tells us Pablo Neruda said laughter is the language of the soul. And who can argue with one of the smartest people on television? So a city with soul apparently needs a comic perspective. Strong soul, mighty soul, cannot only laugh at itself, but takes a perverse sense of pride in zinging its own flaws. Residents of Madison, Wis., a liberal-leaning college town with a reputation for soul, love their city, but they jokingly describe it as 78 square miles surrounded by reality. They know much of the state sees them as a snooty, tooty pie-in-the-sky enclave of impractical, academic nonsense. Madison embraces that image with a laugh and a shrug.

Susan Lampert Smith, a columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, says her city, well-known for its bratwurst, pickled gill fish and ice fishing, does have soul. It’s just a frozen soul.

People drive from Milwaukee to Madison for sausage scrambler with gravy and cheese at Mickey’s Dairy Barn, across the street from an old Civil War camp. But as tasty as a scrambler is, for Smith it’s the ability to laugh at how opinionated Madisonites can’t approve a public works project without a huge argument that sets the city apart from everyone outside its borders.

“Without our sense of humor, we’d be just like everybody else in the state fishing through holes in the ice,” she says.

Columbia may take itself just a tad too seriously. That’s not to say there aren’t funny people in CoMo or that Deja Vu doesn’t have some kneeslapping stand-ups, but the town lacks an overarching sense of what makes us all ridiculous, and in this life there is no shortage of the ridiculous, no matter where you are.

So do we have soul or not, already?

“I don’t think so,” says Birks, an MU senior. “I feel bad about saying that, but I don’t think it does. I would say soul is a state of mind. You either have it or you don’t. It’s a voice within that allows you to express poetry in your actions.”

Of course, if we’re confused about our image, we can always pay someone to figure it out for us — and we did. Back in 2004, the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau spent $45,000 for “experts” to create the slogan that defines us as “the smart, innovative, artsy, eclectic, clever, savvy, vibrant, too-dynamic-to-fit-into-a-short-tagline city.” Hey, maybe we do have that self-effacing humor, after all. Or maybe not.

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