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.