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Friday, June 25, 2010

Is St. Louis Truly Getting Better?

Over at Urban St. Louis forums, there is an excellent discussion afoot regarding whether or not St. Louis has truly turned a corner from its dark days of decline and despair in the latter half of the 20th Century.

The provocateur is a Fortune article from 1985, touting the city’s against-the-odds comeback. St. Louis Centre was “glittering” and Union Station’s shopping was an “extravaganza”. Tax breaks were luring in out-of-town investment and the stars were just finally aligning for the ailing city, according to the article.

Of course, most of the present stock of urban thinkers in St. Louis believes that the 1980s were a bleak time for the city—and that we’re now, even despite a deep recession, on a much better path. Homicide rates were ballooning then, businesses and people leaving, and landmarks were being felled by the day. Yet, the above article is a good demonstration that any city has reason to hope and will do so to survive. Certainly, St. Louis Centre seemed novel at the time, as the largest urban enclosed mall in the nation. With numbers not going the city’s way, I’m sure that a gigantic mall downtown seemed an epinephrine-like injection of confidence in a bleeding downtown.

This might all sound very scarily familiar. No, but things are really different this time! We're really emerging from a half-century slump this time, for sure, right? But what if, in 20 years, Culinaria is closed and the parking garage above sits mostly empty? What if Citygarden of today is the Kiener Plaza of tomorrow? I guess we should all hang our heads low and resign our efforts to improve our city: this incredible spike in reawakening neighborhoods and business districts, daring rehabbers, transit users and supporters, and generally creative civic energy is all a horribly mean and unfair taste of the sky at the top of the Ferris wheel. That sinking feeling is bound to return, and the ground is the only way off the ride.

In other words, our civic energy and collaboration right now is part of a cycle. There have been counterparts to each of us in the past—exact replicas in their passion and dedication to their city. Today, these same people are our harshest and most cynical critics, their own efforts having been shot down long ago under eerily similar circumstances. Or so they say.

I simply have to believe that it's not true. While some St. Louis boosterism is the work of naïve idealists, I say more power to them (to us, I should say!). Naïve idealists approach situations with an air of possibility; their critics tout a bitter “reality”. Truly, though, their very faith in such a reality helps to preserve it.

We need a special kind of idealism in the city.

We don’t need someone who’s so confident that a “glistening” mall downtown will save it that we don’t have a meaningful discussion of what a mall might do to an urban retail environment. We need an open civic dialogue to direct a constant stream of ideas to their proper source for refinement, as well as for enactment. We need great efforts at organizing motivated St. Louisans, such as UrbanSTL or City to River. We need to be aware of what challenges exists in our extant political and cultural structure, but also play selective amnesiacs when we hear “I told you so”. It’s a damning statement designed to punish people for taking a risk—and that’s the opposite of what we should be doing in St. Louis. 

The brand of idealism we need is the kind that generates ideas, endeavors to situate them in their proper context, and the kind that rejects the word “failure” outright. To stumble is to learn how to walk gracefully.

What is going on in St. Louis right now is nothing short of spectacular, and, I believe, largely irreversible if we continue on the same track. Note that conditional statement; it’s going to take sustained work to address all of our systemic issues. But, as with any person who entered long years of physical and social decline, the city of St. Louis needs first to learn to love itself again. It needs that shot in the arm. And I’m here, with hundreds of others of you reading now, to administer that shot. That's the stage we're in right now.

This is a place of tremendous character—one that develops only out of a unique struggle, a wear and tear, a patina. To deflect any criticism that we’re just the next generation of urban dwellers destined for disappointment, we must help fashion a place from which one can’t help but derive excitement, passion, and purpose in life. We can start by--we have started by--trumpeting this very special place to everyone we meet; by opening shops and restaurants and supporting the unique local ones that already exist; by doing our best to not just be tolerant of but inviting to people who are different; by better marketing our assets and developing honest and open solutions to our oft-mentioned problems.

I know this is the touchy-feel realm I'm in right now. And it's also vague. But I think many readers will know how to interpret these broad statements. I just have a terrible feeling that the moment we start to believe that we even have the option to let all of this great momentum slip away, it will. Let's stay positive, focused, and do what's right for our city no matter who's declaring the odds of success.


STLgasm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
STLgasm said...

Damn, Matt. You nearly brought tears to my eyes. I have every reason to be hopeful about the future of our city. I remember the dismal early '90s in St. Louis-- boarded up buildings seemed nearly as common as occupied ones, even in neighborhoods such as Benton Park and Shaw. The city felt so forlorn and forgotten-- I loved it even in its shabby condition. Today, a new spirit of the city has emerged, and it is attracting not only self-proclaimed "city nerds" like ourselves, but young, artistic people from all over the world. Back in the '90s, I think a lot of people felt stuck, and almost apologetic about living here. But not anymore. People seem proud of the city, and realize what a special place it is. I have even noticed an increase in Wash. U. grads from the East Coast sticking around because they love the creative energy (and relative affordability) of this city. We've hit a critical mass, and it has taken on a life of its own. There's no going back-- St. Louis has reaffirmed its relevance in the world. I truly think we live in one of America's greatest cities. Few cities have reached the level of prominence that St. Louis has in its history, and because of that, we always have a standard to aim for. We're getting there in true St. Louis fashion... slowly, but surely.

UrbanReviewSTL said...

I was only 23 when I moved to St. Louis in 1990. Attitudes from both residents and others in the region were vastly different then. The desire by the public to have a pedestrian friendly downtown is very real today, it wasn't 20 years ago. I'm more hopeful than I've ever been.

Michael R. Allen said...

Yes, it is, and even if it were not -- why would we give up? The people who kept trying 30 years ago built the foundation for the people trying today.

Anonymous said...

It is nice to hear the latest party line from Slay and associates and Les Gullibles. "Yes, things are getting better. St. Louis is growing like Topsy." Truly, just look at Ballpark Village and the lies that were spun in order to get a new stadium for the Cardinals and money in the campaign coffers of our proud elected "leadership." (No tax breaks, moving to East St. Louis, a thriving commercial district called "Ballpark Village") Lies are floated about everything. It is all so tired (and tiresome). And the Bottle District. St. Louis Centre. Union Station. Downtown hotels. The Manchester Shopping District. Now they are opening new cans of bs: opening up St. Louis to the River, a sandwitch company moves into Laclede's Landing, a new bar here and there, etc., etc. Don't forget to mention the grand opening of a thriving commercial district in Old North St. Louis, and the revival of Golterman's Sorrow. Les Gullibles pin their hopes on these flashes in the pan and on the North City give-away, when the skids were greased with campaign contributions, not by demand for these projects. Slay and Company have done nothing but create a "King of North City." Guess what: the kind isn't wearing any cloths, despite the ravings of his fans that the finest raiment mirrors his grand intentions. The bottom line is: St. Louis will start to move when it gets positive leadership, and there is nobody visible on the sidelines who is going to take over and deliver this. It is not in the culture of this city.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt M. said...

Anonymous --

You can have your cynicism. Package, sell it, see who buys it: it's going to be other washed out naysayers whose valuable contributions will sadly be ignored since they've already resigned or moved on.

I can tell you who won't be buying: the stock of incredible people who see an opening right now, an opportunity to influence the system you see as permanently rooted. Our Court Slogers, Paul Hohmanns, Alex Ihnens, Jeff and Randy Vineses...they'll all be be doing while you're naysaying. I put much more stock in the former.

And that was meant to be the takeaway of this post: I don't view it as a choice, as you must, based on what you've written, to allow this city to be led into the doldrums again. We have to make it different this time.

Few people I know believe that Paul McKee's vision will occur as it has been spelled out, nor do they put all hope in it (or any other development project). The "Les Gullibles" I know seem to put faith in the building of a coalition of people who care--tomorrow's leaders.

Please spare us the deafening negativity. Let's work toward a positive, affirmative vision together.

Anonymous said...

Who is Court Sloger?

JivecitySTL said...

"The bottom line is: St. Louis will start to move when it gets positive leadership, and there is nobody visible on the sidelines who is going to take over and deliver this. It is not in the culture of this city."

^Well it certainly won't be YOU leading the revolution. You talk about 'positive leadership' yet your tone is overwhelmingly negative. The pessimism you (and many other jaded naysayers) extol is far more detrimental to the city than an inept mayoral administration. Thankfully there are plenty of people out there doing things to improve this city despite your hollow attempts to invalidate them.

Anonymous said...

"It is all so tired (and tiresome)."

anon, that's a whole lot of wasted keystrokes for someone so tired. turn that frown upside down! go get involved in revitalizing your city - maybe you'll even make some friends! or an actual difference!!! (ixnay on the ackassjay though.) but if you're looking for some lazy, like-minded despondents to preach to, they went THATAWAY!

Mark Groth said...

Great post!!!!

The main difference to me from the 1980's St. Louis to the city of today is that we are about to see a 10 year population increase. I think we may have hit rock bottom and the bleeding of residents has stopped.

Also, with all the depressing crap going on (oil in gulf, 401K declines, endless wars in the middle east, unemployment) the thing that gives me hope and inspiration is still right outside the door. This city looks better than it has in years and the optimism of the next gen is palpable and keeps me engaged.

Oh yeah, and in the 80's there was no internet to keep all the like minded optimists organized and informed, the work of Steve Patterson, Alex Ihnen, Michael Allen, etc will continue to inspire others to positive action.

Brian said...

My frame of reference goes back to 1989, when I started going to high school in the city. That point in time and the next few years after it had to be the lowest point in the city's history. While the city has always had its share of boosters and urban pioneers, things seemed pretty bleak as a whole. But with an almost completely depressed urban core came great opportunity (opportunity which still exists in many parts of the city). Developers and creative entrepreneurs were willing and able to capitalize on that opportunity and strengthen the city, broadening its appeal. The city's strong points became even stronger. It's hard to believe that the Chase was boarded up and abandoned back when I was in college - its renovation was what really elevated the CWE to its current state. Neighborhoods like Lafayette Square and Soulard, which were nice back in the 90s, gained an incredible amount of strength. Urban pioneers saved those neighborhoods back in the 70s and 80s, and then the next wave of urban enthusiasts helped take them to the next level in the late 90s and 00s. Suddenly, neighborhoods that were previously left for dead, like Cherokee and The Grove, were receiving an influx of investment. And Old North could be STL's most amazing success story when all is said and done.

What concerns me, however, is downtown - although I may be hyper-sensitive to what goes on there due to my blog. We can all agree that Washington Avenue has undergone an amazing transformation, and downtown's growing residential base has helped stabilize and revitalize it, it worries me to think of all the businesses downtown has lost and continues to lose to the suburbs - law firms, in particular. I believe that the real key to downtown revitalization lies in filling its vacant office space, which is unfortunately abundant. It's businesses that will provide the crucial daytime population needed to support retail, restaurants, hotels, etc. Once downtown is able to grow its employment base, everything else will fall into place. It's all a matter of convincing the right people not only that downtown is a smart business decision, but that they can play a major role in downtown's success by locating there.

Court Sloger said...

I'm Court Sloger. Hi Anonymous! Thanks for the kind words Matt.

Brian S said...

I love this Blog! I was born and raised in Dutchtown from 1970 to 1998. I rented for a while in Dogtown and South Hampton while finishing SLU in the early 90s at the height of the crack wars in the then 10th (now 20th ish) Ward.

In 1998 I left for Chicago as a volunteer and wasn't sure what next. Well. after 13 years in Chicago, I am very excited to move back to my home town. The renewal of STL city life has been incredible. I grew up in the State Streets at the Indian Streets and have lived in rough hoods in Chicago too, and that doesn't bother me. What makes the difference is the critical mass of determined city dwellers. I feel that in STL for the first time since the mid-80s! I may become quickly disillusioned, but I can't wait to give da Lou the good ole' Hoosier try, again.

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