Revitalizing St. Louis While Grandpa Naps

The beauty and possibility of the City of St. Louis is seen differently by a 25-year old and a 75-year-old. Generational mindsets are inherently unavoidable, and these continually differing perspectives are what have kept The City alive since it was founded in 1764. At the infancy of the 21st Century, it is the younger generations who will steer St. Louis back to prominence as a great American city, despite what Grandpa thinks.

St. Louis is an overly sentimental town, fueled by its nostalgia for the good ‘ole days of sleeping in Forest Park in the summer, attending Teen Town dances with Bob Cuban, hanging out at Highland Amusement Park, taking street cars to dozens of movie theaters, walking to the corner bakery… Distill these memories to their essence and it’s about community; sharing group experiences or interacting with neighborhoods on a daily basis.

For the Baby Boomer generation and older, their nostalgic tales of St. Louis tend to collectively end somewhere in the early 1970s. It is interesting that this coincides with the rapid spreading of population to areas far beyond our inner-ring suburbs (which are rather urban in their layout and density). This suggests that the need to separate from the actual and perceived problems of the “urban condition” also robbed them of the sociability that created the rosy glow of St. Louis Nostalgia.

For the Gen X and younger generations growing up with stories of how great St. Louis used to be, we couldn’t help but notice that most of these memories took place within a finite area. We saw these places firsthand when elders would drive us through “the old neighborhood,” acting as paranoid (“Is you door locked?”) tour guides on a sentimental journey. Their sadness over what used to be could not dampen our fascination with what still remained.

As a sweeping generalization, many of today’s St. Louis City dwellers are the children of the people who once fled. Come time to set up our own homes, we needed affordability, vitality, and something different from our Suburban upbringing. On this last point, every generation instinctively wants to be the opposite of their parents, at least for a little while, and what better way to break away then to head back to the places the parents abandoned?

I was part of the Suburban Gen X contingent that began moving into The City in the late 80s/early 90s because we could live cheaply in cool old buildings, be where most of the good clubs were and explore the possibilities of a more exotic landscape. Many of our former City-dwelling parents were aghast, as they still saw it as the place they had to leave because it had become intolerable; why in the hell would we want to live there?

As seen from their perspective, speeding through on Interstate 70 feeling lucky to have gotten out, it’s a valid question. But time always evolves, and The City takes on a new face about every 10 years, though you don’t know that until you get off the highways and experience it. It’s OK if the elders do not want to partake once more, because every City requires the fresh eyes of the young (and immigrants) to realize its new chapters of potential.

Regardless of age, I have yet to run into any new City resident who purposelly moved here because of the new football stadium, new baseball stadium, new Convention Center or St. Louis Centre. It has never been about the “transformative” revitalizing” projects that City Fathers claim are necessary to attract more people; these land- and money-hogging projects typically attract people renting parking and seats by the hour. And seldom do I hear a City dweller wish there was more parking. Yet parking and “revitalizing” projects define the actions of City Hall for the last 30 years, and this disconnect between political perception and resident reality is what creates frustration, which in turns presents a warped reputation to those outside the City limits.

It should be noted that the simple majority of City Hall decision-makers are Baby Boomers or older, and they are, generally, working under the old mindset of past generations fleeing the City and how to get back what was lost. They tend to remain in the crises mode of surviving a draught rather than tending to the indigenous gardens that have sprung up around them.

Downtown St. Louis is a good example of this “missing the forest for the trees” mindset. Tangible signs of revitalization have been brought about by residents living in rehabbed lofts, and all the businesses created to cater to them. And one advantage of living downtown is the ability to mothball the car for long stretches of time, so parking is not the top priority on the list. But the actual residents and small businesses who contribute financially and socially to the long-term sustainability of Downtown often appear to be less important to City Hall than bribing corporations to stay with tax incentives, creating more parking garages, and catering to the types of St. Louis Countians who would never live here, even if you paid them.

Begging acceptance from those who don’t want you as you are is a sign of weakness and low self-esteem, and in St. Louis City, this behavior has become unacceptable to the thousands who love this City for what it is right now, and for what it will become when treated with encouragement and respect. It is younger generations – free of our elders’ urban condition baggage – who make this City great, and they do so despite the anachronistic and oft-dismissive behavior of a City Hall that claims to be Pro-City, but whose actions too often reveal a lingering Suburban envy.

Truly transformative strength lies in the eagerness and actions of younger generations who have willingly relocated to our City because of its historical patina, and its colorful personality derived from surviving the gross inequities of an urban renewal past. Alongside the seasoned residents who have never left the City are the life-affirming actions from new generations of Aldermen who empower the residents of their wards to redevelop their neighborhoods on a grassroots, block-by-block level.  While these types of projects don’t get the big headlines, there is positive proof that reviving one intersection will assuredly spread strength to the blocks surrounding it. And this is how St. Louis originally grew in the 19th century – block-by-block rather than large-scale sweeping gestures. That is one aspect of the Glory Days of Old that is worth replicating today.

Though it has not been overtly stated, it feels as if a goal of City Hall is to return to a peak population of 850,000. But bear in mind that it was over-crowded at that number, which is one of the reasons why so many people left, and it makes no logical sense to cling to a 1950s ideal in the 21st century. The health and reputation of our City is better served by accepting and encouraging what we actually are right now rather than trying to replicate a past that was nowhere near as ideal as nostalgia has painted it.

As emotionally trying as it can be, there comes a time when older generations have to cede stewardship so that younger generations can successfully evolve what they pioneered. The City of St. Louis is currently experiencing the tension inherent in eschewing an old mindset for the benefit of modern urban evolution. But after so many decades of being a sleeping giant, this tension is a good thing because it means the heart is once again pumping blood to the extremities. St. Louis now has the strength to match our grassroots desire to be one of the great American cities of the 21st century, and we’ll do it behind Grandpa’s back!

Toby's blog B.E.L.T was recently named one of the "50 Most Amazing Architectural Photography Blogs". Read more from Toby here.