St. Louis skyline at night. Photograph by author.
My adopted city of Saint Louis has increasingly been the focus of national media in the past six months. While coverage formerly focused on Saint Louis being designated as America's Most Dangerous City in 2006 or dwelled on the sordid tale of Michael Devlin. Compared to these stories almost anything would seem an improvement, especially for a city with notoriously low civic esteem. While a lack of vision and regressive attitudes still constitute the largest challenge to Saint Louis, the view from outside has begun to change markedly.
While the summary demolition of Charles Colbert's San Luis Apartments was viewed with concern outside the city, the NorthSide project has been commended for its visionary scale with the caution that "If it's done right, it could be transformative" and potentially an example to the rest of the Rust Belt. Whether that example is positive remains to be seen, but eyes around the nation are watching and we must demand a higher standard and cannot allow this opportunity to become a failure.
Saint Louis CityGarden -- a project by the Gateway Foundation designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz. Photograph by author.
City Garden, the most significant improvement to the city of Saint Louis since the restoration of Forest Park, and like Forest Park, is an extremely positive example of the utility of public/private partnerships in the face of diminished local planning. City Garden has received glowing reviews in a number of sources from parenting and travel magazines to industry publications. East West Gateway's Great Streets pilot program on South Grand has provided momentum for a sorely overdue assessment of the urban design of commercial corridors in the city and provides a vision for a move away from the strict prioritization of single-occupant automobile transit on city streets. While the trial narrowing of Grand has gotten the most attention, the participatory process leading to the proposed option set an excellent local example by combining education with participation.
Visitors to the UrbanNexus conference included Sarah Szurpicki of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange and Sharon Carney of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance pictured here with Jeff Vines at Chouteau's Landing. Photograph by author.
Perhaps it was the growing national recognition of a changing attitude that brought Next American City to St. Louis for a conference. I was honored to be invited to participate on a panel of emerging voices in the Vanguard Regional Roundtable. As Michael Allen has noted, the Next American City conference was fated to be in both chronological and philosophical opposition to another event: the hearing on the McKee NorthSide TIFF request.
The latest public exposure is perhaps the most striking: Richard Layman, author of Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space is examining St. Louis Metro's Moving Transit Forward planning campaign. As a transplant to St. Louis I find the transit issue infuriating. While most outsiders will readily admit that both the St. Louis Metrolink light rail system and MetroBus system is effective and even unexpectedly good for a city of St. Louis's resources, the local perception is that public transportation here is defunct, unworkable, and that ownership of an automobile is essential for daily life. At a recent conference on urban issues Alvin Reid, editor of the St. Louis Argus compared the MetroLink to a toy. As an example of a functional system he pointed to Washington's metro system.
This is exactly what makes Layman's post so interesting. The subtitle is "St. Louis regional transit planning process as a model for what needs to be done in the DC Metropolitan region." Layman focuses on the efforts of metro to educate the public as part of the process. This is a long overdue effort. In hindsight it was poor communication and an inability to justify the importance of Metro funding that doomed last year's Proposition M. In a vacuum of information it ceased to be an initiative on badly needed expansion, and instead became a referendum on past problems. Metro must take an active role in justifying its importance to the region and in educating residents. To echo Layman, another needed step would be to clarify the subsidization of automotive transportation to eliminate the transit-welfare stigma. Despite the antipathy towards transit frequently evidenced here, it is gratifying to know that Metro's ambitious and inclusive new initiative is at least recognized outside of the Mississippi valley.
For the first time in years Saint Louis is receiving noteworthy attention on the national stage. With attention comes increased expectations. We must build on the foundation of participatory involvement and education evidenced in the best projects of this past year, reject negativity and insecurity, and advocate for a city that can once again serve as an example to the region and to the nation beyond.