Thursday, October 22, 2009

St. Louis Renewal: Views From The Vanguard Regional Roundtable

If you didn't have a chance to read our initial coverage of the UrbanNexus event here in town, Next American City has posted some of the responses from the Vanguard Regional Roundtable.

The conversation, "on retaining and attractive creative individuals," was captured in the following questions and responses, of which I have selected what I believe to be the most interesting and relevant:

What is St. Louis doing right?

St. Louis has an open door atmosphere for young people. The cost of living is cheap, the cost of real estate is relatively cheap and the old civic establishment is tiring. Getting involved is very easy here. The establishment really is too lazy to lock the door, and young people can accomplish a lot of things in politics, art and other areas if they try. Making connections to like-minded people is easy here, because of the smaller size of the urban core. St. Louis is wonderfully unpretentious, so anything can and does go here. While older generations are slow to embrace change, young people here aren’t as caught up in identity, image and material life as they are in other cities. You don’t have to impress people here to get a seat at the table—you just have to have a good idea or be a hard worker. Hell, you can build your own table if none of the existing ones suit you. That’s why I stay—this city is accessible and its culture is far more open to change than the naysayers think. A city that has come so far down in its stature has nothing to lose, and everything to gain—that’s liberating!

What is our biggest impediment in progress? Where doe St. Louis fall short?
segregation/racism: I think it is disgusting how as you drive through our city you can literally see the red lines that were drawn on real estate maps back in the ‘70s. This block-to-block culture has created tension when you have mansions, a barbed wire fence and then a street of tenement bldgs. It has also devastated our city’s tax-base which feeds into the poor public schools and other public services. This creates the vicious cycle of poverty and the tension/misunderstandings that come from this. I am disgusted by the inability that many of our citizens—both black and white—who don’t know how to interact respectfully with folks from different racial/ethnic backgrounds.

It is very hard to break into St Louis. It took us, my wife and I, almost two years to get to know people from St Louis despite trying very hard. A lot of people that come to the Universities have the same feeling. Most say something like this: “You start talking to someone from St Louis and the first thing they ask you is where did you go to High School. The conversation stops when you answer.” I have no idea why this is the case, but I have heard a lot of people say this.

In a related point; I have also heard from many women who are married to people working at WashU, UMSL and SLU that they are bored, that they cannot find anything to do here, that their only social interaction is with other university people. These women are professionals, artists, activists… but they have a hard time getting settled here. The problem seems to be, one the one hand, the university community tend to be closed in itself, and on the other, that the job possibilities for women are somehow precarious. I know of a lot of academic couples that have a very hard time adjusting in St Louis for this reason.

There are thousands of undergrads living in St Louis that do not know the city. When they finish, they leave. Undergrads are a lost resource. They are very flexible since they are starting to live on their own and don’t know yet where they want to go. Many of them are also rich and able to invest money in the city. Engaging them early may make them stay.

I want to highlight that last point. Engaging undergrad, grad students, and young adults in St. Louis seems like the low hanging fruit. They are already here, they tend to have more access to resources, and they bring can creativity and passion into the city.

To read all of the responses, click here.

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