The Apotheosis of St. Louis

I spent the last few days proselytizing for St. Louis to the prospective graduate students interviewing at Washington University. Our program in plant biology is top notch, but sometimes our location in the Midwest, and in St. Louis in particular, weakens our offer to recruits. Not surprisingly, I’m an advocate for the character of St. Louis that I feel shines through after just a modicum of time spent looking. The old French parts of town. The separate neighborhoods that together make a community. The brick. The beer. Oh the beer! St. Louis turns 250 this year and in honor of that milestone and to solidify my arguments for STL I want to discuss the city’s strong qualities, its faults, and where I hope to see it go in the future.

Like any city, St. Louis is really comprised of a series of sometimes-distinct, sometimes-overlapping neighborhoods. And, like any city, this provides strength through diversity, but also a sense of isolation for particular neighborhoods that are trapped by blight. St. Louis is a relatively old city in the American interior, and the French roots that define our founding anchor the city in traditions and culture that enrich it. The farther east you go toward the Mississippi, the more apparent these French roots are in the architecture and culture.

Traveling west moves you forward in time. Through the Louisiana Purchase to Victorian era architecture and the 1904 World’s Fair that formed Forest Park and the final neighborhoods within the city limits. This geography-time link provides ample history to explore; all you have to do is point yourself in a direction and bring a sense of curiosity.

I feel that the neighborhood divisions make it easy to explore the richness and diversity of St. Louis. When you move to a new city, grappling with the new culture and finding the best places is a daunting task. But once you have a feel for the layout of the neighborhoods, the prospect of exploration becomes manageable. Feel like Italian food? Hit up The Hill. Bar hopping on brick-paved streets? Head to Soulard. St. Louis is a surprisingly bike-friendly city as well. If you make it to the middle of the city, you’ll find yourself about a 15 minute bike ride from everywhere.

What else sets St. Louis apart? Excellent public transportation. A surprising abundance of urban community gardens. A craft beer culture that rivals larger beer cities. A Midwestern sense of friendliness that builds communities. And the Cardinals.

St. Louis has to grapple with enormous challenges too. The population of the city declined again from 2000 to 2010, even though the Downtown population continued to grow at a strong clip. There is pervasive racial and socioeconomic segregation. Barely-accredited public schools limit the city population’s opportunities and push those with means out to the suburbs. The relationship between the City of St. Louis and its suburbs is another obstacle facing the region.

In 1876, the city of St. Louis voted to emancipate itself from the surrounding county and form an independent city. The city residents wanted to keep the county from siphoning tax revenue away from the urban core. 

The legacy of that decision remains today. The county is comprised of dozens of small “cities” each with their own municipal services, while the city suffers for lack of funds. Proposals to reunite the communities have been put forward for years, but have gone nowhere. This leaves the county municipalities needlessly duplicating services and keeps major sources of tax revenue potentially out of city coffers. Perhaps more importantly, it divides the region into city-versus-county debates that fragment the population.

To move forward and prosper in the 21st century, St. Louis has to address—at least—three major challenges: reunification of city and county, attracting young people, and reducing segregation.

Reunification will produce a region united in recruiting new businesses (instead of a competing with neighbors through tax incentives). City and county residents will have the incentive to plan for the future of the region rather than just focusing on their neighborhood. Although I am a proud resident of the City and a proponent for the benefits of an urban experience, I support reunification to unite these communities in moving forward.

Just like our graduate program, St. Louis needs to attract and hold on to the young people who will move into—and stay in—the city and boost the economy. St. Louis hosts a burgeoning technology hub that is poised to attract the kind of talent looking for alternatives to Silicon Valley. Our cost of living is very modest. We claim a number of top universities and companies that already attract bright and talented people who are starting their education and careers.

St. Louis can hold on to this population by developing communities that support a work-life balance. That means being able to commute without a car and walk to find daily necessities. It means developing communities around common spaces and common interests. Perhaps most importantly, it means having good school options so that the brightest people who come to live and work in St. Louis don’t bolt for the county as soon as kindergarten rolls around.

Finally, the segregation that divides North and South City (and other areas as well) really limits the potential of St. Louis. Unfortunately, this is a topic about which I need to learn a lot more. I am not an economist, nor a sociologist, nor an urban planner. But I know that the Delmar Divide has been profiled on a British news show, and that’s not a good claim to fame. Improving schools, improving economic opportunities, and distributing the growth of the region evenly will move the region forward as a whole. This challenge is perhaps the greatest one, and undoubtedly will require creative solutions addressing many problems from multiple angles.

St. Louis probably won’t be my home forever. I want to see so many other places in this country (and maybe even a few outside of it) that I doubt I will remain in STL for more than a handful of years. However, I have adopted St. Louis very quickly as my home. We fit together. I always tell my friends that I thought I liked Cleveland (and I did!) until I came to St. Louis. I want to see the city grow and thrive. And I want to see people—especially my generation—give St. Louis a chance to make them feel at home as well. 

The Apotheosis of St. Louis