St. Louis and a New Definition of Civic Pride

What is civic pride? Constantly talking about your city? Telling everyone who will listen that your town is better than any place you’ve ever been? Attending a professional sporting event? Civic pride, what it is, its value, its state in St. Louis and what, if anything, can be done to increase pride in our city (and likely more) will be the topic of this week’s Stay Tuned, airing Thursday night at 9pm on The Nine Network and available online. I’ll be appearing, along with many others, to discuss the topic, but wanted to present the issue here for discussion in advance.

Shortly after moving to St. Louis in 2004, I was in Marco Island, Florida at a restaurant and heard a waitress ask the table next us if they wished to order a dessert. “I’ll take a Dutchman concrete from Ted Drewes,” the man said. That’s civic pride, I thought (yes, I actually think like that). St. Louisans are attached to our community and its traditions. But St. Louis civic pride is often an easy civic pride: frozen custard and baseball. Clearly civic pride is more complicated than that.

At a basic level, civic pride is evidenced when a community rallies around a cause. The new civic pride in St. Louis saw hundreds rally to preserve the Midtown Saucer (later named one of the Top 10 remarkable preservation wins of 2012 by the National Trust for Historic Places). The new civic pride is sometimes at odds with the traditional vision of pride linked to progress, of building and changing. I feel a sense of pride when visiting the saucer now (yes, eventhough it's occupied by a national chain). I’m proud of my city. However, this civic pride, the kind that criticizes, that challenges, that forces a city to be better, can be unsettling for a place and people more comfortable with a traditional definition.

Ted Drewes Frozen CustardCivic pride once meant the admiration of tall buildings, big infrastructure projects, cheering the local sports teams. This plaintive call to rally a community (build a new stadium!, help sell out the hockey game!, a new skyscraper!) remains strong, yet is perhaps on the wane. Still, a quick Internet search of “civic pride” returns an overwhelming number of professional sports references. The most egregious example may be from Milwaukee, where this past year a columnist demanded, “Show your civic pride, support the Bucks (NBA team),” claiming “The Bucks are as much a civic institution as the city's museums, Harley-Davidson and Miller Brewing.”

In the view of new civic pride, a privately owned entertainment company worth $300M may not garner the same loyalty as in the past. Are teams as much civic institutions as a city’s museums, or local iconic employers? Of course St. Louis may not have the same pride in AB-InBev as it once did for Anheuser-Busch, but you wouldn’t know it from the namesake’s local beer sales or tour visitors. A more traditional civic pride often seems akin to a booster club, maintaining that visitors and people from elsewhere shouldn’t hear of the city’s shortcomings, our faults and less pleasant histories, that our disagreements shouldn't be aired publicly. I don’t think the new civic pride is so easily bruised. The new civic pride is as much about appreciating the unique traits of our city and what we can build and create ourselves, than it is about what others give us.

What’s changed is two-fold: the ubiquitous Internet and social media mean that one need not accede to a social or civic hierarchy to participate in the city; individuals have turned to more local, even hyper-local civic interests. Both mean that critiques of often small things, a broken sidewalk or vacant building, can be aired immediately and publicly, unfiltered. Social media facilitates the formation of a new community and a new, focused, civic pride to emerge. While the book Bowling Alone famously lamented dwindling participation in traditional civic activities, it would seem unfounded to view civic pride as dimming. While having pride in smaller, more personal things may be a necessity in an economically stagnant city, it's likely that not since every street corner was the site of a social club have so many people been engaged in the civic discourse. We're defining our own pride.

imageExpectations have changed and civic pride no longer always waits for the corporate community, or “civic leaders” to lead. Individuals have access to more social networks, virtual and otherwise, and the critic is a fully developed component of civic pride. That prideful critic may ask if publicly funding a football stadium for a billionaire owner, or the revitalization and maintenance of a National Park is the best use of local funds. Perhaps a community is best served preserving and investing in itself in smaller ways that matter every day. In the past such views were more easily pigeonholed by various gatekeepers and overwhelmed by traditional media and bureaucracy.

And big is out in other ways. While this region may be still be dominated by Cardinal red, local is in. STL-Style, a local design shop, extolls a love for all things and (nearly) all places St. Louis, but it’s most famous for neighborhood, and even specific street, T-shirts (South Grand, Benton Park, Dogtown, 70 Grand Bus). It’s a national trend, one can literally wear city pride on their sleeve in cities from Seattle to Youngstown. There’s an (re?) awareness that individuals can greatly impact their own street and neighborhood, that what matters most is what we see out our front door.

The civic pride that demands more of ourselves is surely the one that will do more to create a better community. The local movement has eroded the myth of trickledown pride, that big projects by their very nature bestow upon all that see them a new confidence. A city with pride will have a story to tell, a message to send. It may not look to an imposing edifice for pride, but at a healthy, vibrant community. The legacy sources of pride, manufacturing, music history and more should be recognized, even celebrated as our city’s identity, but a new civic pride, a healthy civic pride, must come from our own work.

My definition of civic pride: working to make one’s community better. It’s not a passive cheer or attending an event, it’s a personal investment in where one lives, in what one sees every day, the small, the ordinary things that shape us. This necessarily demands both appreciating the existing community and demanding that it improve. While the criticizing, challenging, and urging that forces a city to be better, will be unsettling for many, for others it’s the very definition of what makes a city their own. It’s the new civic pride.

You can follow the discussion on Twitter at #StayTunedSTL.

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  • Great article!

  • rgbose

    fwiw according to the SuperFans of SNL in the 80s civic pride was definitely unwavering support of Da Bears

  • Dan

    You are so right Mr. Ihnen! Civic pride is working to make one’s community better. You couldn’t have said it any better. It’s people like you who inspire others to make St. Louis a unique and healthy place again.

  • Zack S.

    Who’s listed as a recipient of Corporate citizenship award? The St. Louis Rams.

    Again what is with this hipster fairytale that money not spent on the Rams is going to be allocated for a metrolink extension or something. You need state and federal funds for those projects. Is running the Rams out of town going to free up LRA properties for development? Are we spending any less than any other school district?

    What exactly is going to happen when you run the Rams off??

    Alex, you’re right. When a friend’s in town I show them the restaurants, the parks, the neighborhoods etc.

    But do ya know why they’re in town? Do ya Alex?

    To see a Cards game. To see a Rams game. To see a Blues game. They’re from Chicago and want to come for a Cardinals/Cubs game. They wanna catch a weekend Cards series and a Rams game on Sunday. They wanna go to a Blues playoff game and opening day.

    In July 2009 when you people were drooling over how many people were downtown? All that density? Cardinals did that.

    We’ve got our teams, let’s keep them. That’s the first step, the next 50 years are yours.

    • Eric Matthew Wilkinson

      The cardinals had nothing to do with the density downtown. The redevelopment of Wash Ave. started in the late 90s, well before the cardinals wanted a new stadium. In fact, the only development outside of the stadium that the cardinals have been responsible has been a complete failure for years now; Ballpark village is still a hole in the ground. Actually, I think they filled in that hole. Do you know what Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Portland, Toronto, San Antonio, Anchorage, Las Vegas, Norfolk, Omaha, Richmond, Milwaukee, Columbus, Madison, Albuquerque, Memphis, Orlando, Charleston, Raleigh, Lincoln, San Jose, Tucson, Honolulu, London, Pensacola, Boston, and Boulder all have in common? None of them have NFL teams. There is flawed logic in thinking that a city needs professional sports to sustain itself. If it does, then it is doing something seriously wrong and has implemented failed policies that put all the cities eggs in one economic basket. The most successful NFL cities put the needs of those who actually live in the city first. Then comes a drive to attract a diverse job base in forward-looking fields. Only then should support for a sports team be considered. A sports team can offer a lot to a city that is already successful or that has policies in place that make that team one part of the overall plan. But failing to take a sports team for what it is — a diversion and entertainment event — and making it the life-blood of the city by portraying it as something we should spend millions of dollars on is a recipe for failure; both civicly and economically. And if the Mayor’s office and the various civic organizations didn’t have to spend so much time and money fidgeting with silly football stadium designs and negotiations with an arrogant loosing football team then maybe they could actually go out and get some of those federal funds and grant monies for civic projects that actually matter; like the metrolink expansion you seem to think has nothing to do with the sophomoric Rams nonsense.

  • “In the view of new civic pride, a privately owned entertainment company worth $300M may not garner the same loyalty as in the past. Are teams as much civic institutions as a city’s museums, or local iconic employers?”

    True, in the not too distant past, a sports team was the accepted definition of civic pride.

    Under the “new” civic pride that’s gaining strength, though, a savvy franchise realizes it is better served by being a contributing partner in civic pride — a resource not the source. Earnest community engagement/outreach. A combination of smart, bold development for the future and respectful nods toward the past. Mainly, the understanding that a better, more active city makes for a better, more active fan-base.

    With negotiations underway for a new/updated Rams stadium and surrounding area, and the omnipresent Ballpark Village development, we should see soon if St. Louis’ major sports teams are on board with the new civic pride or if they will hold on to the traditional definition. As for the Blues, the post-lockout regime did a great job of defining its support of (and role in) the new civic pride — I can only assume the new ownership group will continue those efforts and build on them.

  • STLNative

    Hey guys…going through the comments and such. I can tell you that there are businesses out there purposely keeping locations vacant, rather than, filling them with fresh businesses that would if fact benefit the city. I know this because I experienced it first hand. I have called about 3 vacant buildings I was interested in launching my resale clothing store, and I received zero effort from the building’s owners in leasing out the space. They have told me bluntly that they are CHOOSING to keep the buildings vacant and that they have “no plans” on leasing them out anytime soon. Now to me, that is ridiculous, especially when there is so much “St Louis Pride” floating around, and knowing St. Louis’s notorious reputation with vacant buildings (look at the Salisbury/Natural Bridge area in North City). I have seen neighborhoods rise, fall, and in some cases…rise again (Tower Grove, Maplewood, Richmond Heights..etc) in my lifetime (3rd generation St. Louis native, my daughter is the 4th….grandmother lived in the same house in Maplewood for 40+ years, both of my parents were St. Louis cops…i could go on and on.) I have hometown pride. I came back to St. Louis to raise my family, and launch my small business, but surprisingly I am getting a lot of friction from other St. Louis businesses when I try to go forward in doing my small part to help improve the St. Louis area. Not everyone carries such strong pride for this area as others do, and it’s those people that are preventing progress on the smaller scale.

    • I’ve had similar experiences trying to find a building that’s mixed use. I found one that had two commercial spaces on the ground floor and living space on the upper floors. The taxes remain unpaid for a greater than 3 year period, and yet, I’m unable to figure out how to get the building and put two businesses in there.

      • Alex Ihnen

        I think this article might be of interest to you both: “Held for Future Development: Who Controls the Future of Vacant Land in St. Louis?”

        • Yes, the LRA aspect is interesting. Honestly, I’m more interested in how easy this city makes it for a property owner to sit on a building and for how long they’re allowed to do so with debts on the city’s books related to that owner or that specific property.

          • The building across from my apartment is vacant, poorly boarded up, and, until a recent “exterior structural inspection” request, the bricks were falling off. The owner, though, pays only ~$160/yr in taxes. I would guess he ends up with a few other fees…but that’s nothing! There’s nothing prompting him to develop or sell that property.

          • Alex Ihnen

            Absolutely. A good part of our writing about the LRA is really to highlight what/who the LRA isn’t and that private property owners are a more significant problem (often, at least). The city finds few options: rack up fines, the owner defaults and the city gets the property. Then what? That takes three years and basically only happens with property taxes aren’t paid. There needs to be new and different incentives to push property toward development.

      • Ebo

        Can you guys elaborate at all on the where that happened? I know in Soulard we just formed a committee to try and address some of the properties that have been siting vacant for awhile, I am surprised more neighborhoods aren’t actively trying to fill up empty storefronts.

  • Zack S.

    Oh I also wanted to say we don’t need to skimp The Rams billionaire owner in order to invest north of Delmar. The reason we haven’t seen investment north of Delmar is because those in power are waiting for it to empty out. Once it does, then they’ll invest but not a moment sooner. How long has French been trying to get HTC’s for places in his ward?

    But in the meantime they’ll host vacancy conferences and make plans, biding their time.

    • Adam

      “…skimp the Rams billionaire…”

      hilarious. yeah, lets shovel money at a billionaire so he can make more money.

    • T-Leb

      Zach S. I’ve seen that movie too: RoboCop 3 is a science fiction action film, released in 1993, set in the near future in a dystopian metropolitan Detroit, Michigan, and filmed in Atlanta, Georgia. Most of the buildings seen in the film were slated for demolition to make way for facilities for the 1996 Olympics.

  • bailorg

    Your definition seems to deal more with what I would call neighborhood pride rather than civic pride.

    To me civic pride is about something more than just being proud of the small changes going on in your neighborhood, but instead something that the whole city, or even metro area, can be proud of. Yes, the small changes that add up are important to improving the quality of life of a city, but civic pride is bigger than that. Civic pride is about something that anyone who calls themselves a St. Louisan can be proud of, which is precisely why sports teams, cultural institutions, and landmarks still are traditional sources of civic pride.

    In terms of criticism, the problem with criticism, even when your intentions are good, is that it is inherently negative. It is easy to criticize the visions and plans of others; criticism without providing a positive vision of your own just breeds cynicism. I’m not saying you have to be a constant cheerleader, but if you are going to criticize, you should spend just as much time presenting your own positive vision as you do criticizing if you want to be productive.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I certainly see your point, but why I’m trying to get across is a difference in expectations. A region can be known for loving its neighborhoods, or take pride in historic preservation, right? Ultimately I believe that such a focus is better for the local economy, better for the city and better for residents. I didn’t go into other cities, but perhaps there’s a correlation between city pride (attachment) and a city’s economic health. Perhaps the subject of another post… And I apologize if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember the last time I’ve criticized something without offering a my own positive vision.

  • Zack S.

    I think I wanna vomit. Congratulations you happened to move a city just as its started to turn the corner. Where were you the past 50 years? Where were any of you hipsters? You know what endured? You know who stayed in the city? The St. Louis Cardinals, The St. Louis Blues. You know who wants to stay for the next 50 and beyond? The St. Louis Rams. They’re not the ones keeping people out of the city or pushing them out or holding the city back.

    You bend and misshape and extract and warp and distort pride to fit your own little agenda. Enough funds aren’t being diverted to your projects so having pride in a sports team isn’t really pride, as you define it. Not only do sports have zero value economically, but they do nothing to make their communities better, in your bubble.

    “Game 6 was nothing compared to the pride I felt when I saw that an abandoned storefront was being converted to a gluten-free craft brewery Football pub.” – Alexn Inhen

    You absolutely hate that St. Louis is a sports town and you draw this homogenous line in the sand. Sports or flying saucers, yuppies or northside poverty, them or us. Where’s your rallying cry for inclusion? Are you going to even attend the MLK parade? It ain’t the Blues that are pushing people out of the city its the people of your ilk who turn a blind eye to social problems this city has. You won’t even venture north of delmar to have a face-to-face conversation with someone to discuss these issues. You just hope the people go away so you can save the buildings.

    Oh, and the Cardinals cap with the STL insignia meant civic pride an entire century before STL-Style and their overpriced t-shirts showed up,

    I’m happy to see hipsters moving to the city (for the 5 years they’ll be here before they’re off to portland or brooklyn or austin) but you didn’t discover St. Louis, contrary to popular thought the entire city didn’t empty out. Here’s the thing Alex, you don’t get to make St. Louis entirely over.

    Oh and I’ll be protesting tax dollars to be spent on an MLS stadium, I sincerely hope you’ll be there too, but I somehow doubt it.

    • stlhistory

      That’s a lot of resentment.

      I don’t think Alex was suggesting a lot of what you took away from the post, or at least I didn’t take those things from it. I think the point was that civic pride isn’t narrowly defined by only sports allegiance or big renewal projects; not that those can’t be or aren’t elements of civic pride, but that its definition has expanded to other things now, too. There’s room in this city to be proud of lots of things, not just the Cardinals and other, traditional elements of civic pride.

    • Alex Ihnen

      (I don’t even know why I reply, but…) I don’t even really like soccer. I don’t eat gluten free anything. My last name is spelled “I-h-n-e-n”. I wear a tie…all day. I don’t own a fixie. I really like going north of Delmar and have done it more than a few times. I even spent a couple hundred hours planning, creating and then running a conference highlighting the issue of vacancy in our community – asking that the entire city take the issue seriously and come up with a plan. Each of the past two years that event happened…you got it, north of Delmar. I think that our city should take more pride in the history and people – the city – north of Delmar than we do in the Rams, for instance. What if the $400M or whatever the billionaire owner of the Rams wants us to pay for the team to stay were instead used to invest in the people and places north of Delmar, in you (presumably you’re north of Delmar)? I would love that. I sat absolutely glued to my TV during game 6 – with my Cardinals hat on (I even grew up a Cubs fan – blame my geographic happenstance in Indiana). For the past 50 years I’ve been here and there (I’m 36) and have been in St. Louis for 8 years now. I don’t want anyone to go away. I’m sorry that my (quite limited in scope) writing about my pride in St. Louis offended you and seems at odds with your experience. Hopefully we can meet someday face to face and find some common ground. This is a wonderful city that’s under appreciated. There’s nothing wrong with feeling pride in the Cardinals, or Blues or Rams, but their presence hasn’t lifted the city. The hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives paid to them hasn’t resulted in new residents or jobs in the city. That very well may not be their fault, but they’re not the saviors some believe them to be. Given our city’s history of the past half century, doesn’t it seem natural to ask if it might be time to try something new? In my experience, people from many cities celebrate their sports teams, feel a lot of pride in them, but if you ask them to show you their city, they don’t take you to a stadium, but to a restaurant, a neighborhood, a city park, a street, someplace unique and meaningful. I wrote this in part to refute those who charge someone having pride in anything other than sports teams, the Arch – the traditional civic pride icons – with hating the city. It’s OK to love St. Louis because of its neighborhoods, buildings, small businesses and people. Maybe that’s all I’m saying.

      • Zack S.

        my pride knows no bounds, you can bet your rear end I’m proud of the resurgence of this cities neighborhoods parks museums and other institutions of high society but it is in ADDITION to my pride of this cities teams. I never got the chance to grow up going to the Kiel Opera House but I’ve been to it many times since its reopening and I’m damn proud to have it back. I watched the premiere of the St Louis Cardinals World Championship DVD there. I never said sports saved this city but I don’t think it inhibits this cities growth and maturity as you do. I think we can make better use of our sports, “Lombardi” was a big success on Broadway, I say let’s have one of our playwrights pen “Musial” or the Superbowl Season and add some shows to Sun Theatre when it re-opens. You urbanists don’t have to be so exclusionary.

        I’m not angry, I don’t resent you Alex I-H-N-E-N and I don’t live north of Delmar but I ‘d also like to see its citizens upwardly mobile, something that also hasn’t been done in 50 years in this city.

        And I never vaunted Sports as something to save the city but I don’t think its in the way either – my point is for the longest its all we’ve had and its something to be appreciated. You want to lay blame at someone’s doorstep lay it at the foot of leadership.

        I want to see more mass transit and 2 way streets downtown and more neighborhoods come back. Nobody says you can’t have pride in progress. I’m grateful that Matt Mourning founded this site and for the new blood at city hall passing Prop R and Alderman French fighting for the northside.

        I also love the Arch and would love to better connect the city to its grounds.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Hey – look at that, we have a whole lot in common! 🙂

        • T-Leb

          You say “parks museums and other institutions of high society” but when I visited Central Library downtown I read this quote from the man who said access to public library was reason for his success in life.
          “I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. A taste for reading drives out lower tastes.” Andrew Carnegie.

    • STLgasm

      Overpriced t-shirts? $22.95 for a custom printed t-shirt of pretty high quality on your choice of any size, style and color produced on the spot seems like a pretty good deal to me, especially when compared to almost any other specialty boutique out there. If you want cheap t-shirts, go to Wal-Mart– you’ll get what you pay for and not a penny more. But we are not Wal-Mart, and I’m quite proud of that.
      I realize I’m digressing from the main point, but I felt it necessary to defend my business– one powered by pure love and devotion for this city and its people that has been going strong since 2001.

    • Adam

      wow. yeah, you read this article completely wrong.

      and i’ll agree that the cardinals are an institution that garners pride. as are the blues. they both have history here. can’t say the same for the rams. HOWEVER, even storied institutions can become detrimental – regardless of your personal feelings about them – if they start sucking up too many resources (not saying the cardinals are there yet, although this ballpark village fiasco has caused me to lose respect for their management. certainly not the blues. the rams though… not so sure.)

    • slengel

      You are such a cliche.