Chicago isn't a terribly far vantage point from which to look upon St. Louis neither in terms of geographic distance nor time. The nearly 14 years I have lived away from my hometown are four less than the number I lived there. Still, while not yet quite feeling like a fully assimilated Chicagoan, I am unquestionably an expatriate and appreciative of the chance to share my perspective with The Commonspace's readers.
My hometown proper is, in fact, not the city of St. Louis, but a small north suburban municipality. However, when I think about St. Louis I think of the city and that is mostly what I'm writing about for this dispatch. The city is the core of the metropolitan area and what, more than anything else, gives it its distinctive character. The suburbs, though certainly each has its unique attributes and special attractions, are largely the same as the suburbs to be found ringing most American cities.
I left St. Louis to attend college in Chicago and, while the excellent institution that I had the great fortune to attend was the main attraction, no small part of the appeal of the school was its setting. Chicago seemed like the Delmar Loop and Central West End of my youth writ large over an entire city. It's not, of course; a couple of whirlwind trips as a kid, an active imagination and an adolescent eagerness to live in a "real city" combined to conjure up such an erroneous belief.
Since I've been away, I have a much better appreciation for the good quality of life that the St. Louis area has to offer and the general friendliness of its inhabitants. In fact, the two cities have quite a lot in common, obviously just on a different scale. In both can be found: great theater, good nightlife and clubs, top-notch symphonies (the temporary hiatus of one apparently about to come to an end), galleries and arts venues, terrific restaurants, art-house movie theaters, architecturally significant buildings and interesting neighborhoods, good bookstores and thriving immigrant communities. Excellent institutions of higher learning attract students from around the country to both cities. Major corporations and innovative small businesses dot their landscapes. Each played pivotal historical roles in the development of our nation.
Nearly all Chicagoans I've met who have been to St. Louis seem to have genuinely positive impressions of the place. Time and again I've heard "great town" and "I really like St. Louis," sentiments that seem to be based on more than just a desire to be polite to a former resident. People mention having enjoyed their visits to Soulard, Laclede's Landing, the Hill, the Central West End, the Arch, Busch Stadium, the brewery, University City (not technically in St. Louis, but close enough), the Zoo, and yes, even the Bowling Hall of Fame. I wish more knew about the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the Art Museum, the Jewel Box and that Forest Park is one of the nation's largest urban parks, eclipsing Central Park by more than 500 acres.
Still, when I'm home for visits and head into the city, my heart aches a bit for it sometimes feels like I'm driving past the ruins of a formerly great civilization. This being America, the "ruins," boarded up buildings and vacant lots, are typically less than 100 years old and one could see and say much the same about many other American cities. Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Kansas City to name just a few are the urban demographers' "hollow cores" around which more thriving suburbs and exurbs circle.
In places like Chicago, New York, San Francisco and even Portland, as well as many European cities, you can see what St. Louis used to be a vibrant urban metropolis. These American cities are, compared to most, anachronisms.
Taken as a whole, if St. Louis were a house, it would be a ramshackle one, the grounds overrun with weeds, a few windows busted out and the paint peeling. Nevertheless, you could see its potential: a great art-glass window obscured by ivy, an ornate carved mantle over the fireplace, old rose bushes peeking out from the formerly well-groomed flowerbeds and a fountain ready to be restored and returned to life. You would definitely see evidence that rehab work was underway, even if on a very uncertain schedule.
The St. Louis I treasure isn't one that ever has precisely existed though particular elements of it did once and others do now but one that might someday. It's a city with a much higher population density where it would be possible, if one chose, to exist without daily reliance on an automobile thanks to a more extensive public transportation network. Its neighborhoods would feature a mix of residential, retail and commercial activity. In short, I suppose, a place that would meet with the approval of Jane Jacobs, the author of that hallowed text of urban partisans, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
There are certainly signs to have emerged in the time since I've been gone that a slow-motion renaissance could be underway: the expansion commerce and culture in the Central West End, including the rebirth of the Chase; University City's commercial district pushing outwards, past Skinker and into the city; the galleries, lofts and theaters on Washington; the quirky and unique City Museum; new development around St. Louis University; new shops and restaurants along Grand Avenue south of the highway; crowds drawn downtown to the Savvis Center; the slow expansion of Metrolink; and the forthcoming Ball Park Village.
To be fair, there have been setbacks, too. The once bustling St. Louis Centre is virtually an empty shell, its erstwhile anchor tenants shuttered. Union Station is not quite the draw it was once. Between the 1990 and 2000 census the city continued a population slide begun more than 30 years ago.
If there's a glaring deficiency in my view of St. Louis, it's in not knowing much about its southern neighborhoods. Growing up, I spent little time there and barely venture there on my returns. I own up to this shortcoming and suspect that no small part of the credit due for what keeps the city a going concern without slighting the contributions of those who live and work downtown, west or on the north side are the people, businesses and institutions on the city's south side.
This future St. Louis of which I dream I do not believe depends on the success of utopian schemes but it does require new thinking about how to meet great challenges. The perception of city life, and sadly the reality for many present urban dwellers, is crime-infested neighborhoods, open gang warfare and inadequate schools overwhelmed with meeting the greater needs of their impoverished students. Evident progress on these fronts is vital for crafting a new image of the city.
A revived St. Louis could also come about should larger changes in the economy cause more people to seek the efficiencies possible in urban living. Even a greater hunger for the cultural and intellectual opportunities that have always attracted people to cities could draw some back.
To conclude, I am optimistic about St. Louis and what it might become. Inherent in the American character and mythos is a strong desire to seek the new and to expand frontiers. This trait bears some, but not all, of the responsibility for the city's decline. However, there is likely a limit to how far the metropolitan area can extend itself. Eventually, the old might come to be seen as new again if more people realize that they should turn inwards rather than outwards to see the future and the possibilities it holds.
Michael Weir works in state government in Illinois.