I am producing a conference in May about how places like St. Louis, scuffed up, scarred and humble, are likely the future of the US economy – once we get over propping up megabanks and tolerating private equity scams and pursuing retrograde fantasies. St. Louis has a real raison-d’être where it always has – a confluence of three rivers and many railroads in the middle of a fertile continent. Yet there is pushback against my bullishness on my adopted city, and not from where you would guess. The pessimism isn’t from snarky New Yorkers asking if the Midwest is still covered in Conestoga Wagons. Nor is from the Left Coasters sniping, “Ah yes, the Midwest, that place everybody escapes.” Actually, they usually like the idea.
No, the biggest resistance is from St. Louisans themselves. When you say, “This place could be in the midst of a major renaissance,” you can sometimes expect “Don’t waste your energy. Things here are the way they always have been. Things in St. Louis never change.”
Well, except that they do. They have changed, and they are changing.
I have only resided here a paltry three years, and already I can track major changes to the landscape, almost all of them positive and increasingly in frequency and velocity. Want a list?
The Grove: When I first started hanging out at The Gramophone, I had trouble finding people on the streets. Now I have trouble finding parking on the streets. (Valet? What fresh hell is this?) Soho – Rise Coffee – Urban Chestnut – TV shows at Sweetie Pie’s – new music venues – more everything. In three years the place has gone from transitional to happening and won’t stop for a long time.
The Musial Bridge: That thing is majestic, useful and brand new, the sign of a city investing in its future.
Cherokee: When my friends started living and working there five years ago, they raved about the place and its potential. To me, it looked hit with the ugly stick and rubbed with sad ham, to quote Patton Oswalt. But today, all that grit is giving way to an entrepreneurial spirit that grows straight through the cracks in the sidewalk. Fully-loaded coworking center: check. Fancy whisky bar: check. Outlandish and character-filled watering holes? Check. Art is appearing on buildings, excitement is building on the street.
South Grand: Beautification projects, new sidewalks, more delineated parking – the place looks more open for business every day.
Washington Ave: I met my wife in 2004 and have been coming to St. Louis yearly ever since. While Baltimore frittered its downtown development energy on the ESPN Zone, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Barnes and Noble, Washington Ave has slowly crept up, block by block, business by business, one project at a time. Ten years later, the developments of Bawlmer’s Inner Harbor are deeply in debt, and Washington Ave. moves ever closer to being one of America’s great streets.
The list goes on, and as my friends remind me, these trends didn’t start in 2010 when I moved here, but maybe in the mid-90s. We are experiencing an epic shift and the signs of it are all around us. They may take your Cardinals and toasted raviolis and high school references from your cold, dead hands, but make no mistake – you live in a city that is changing.