If a mayor is to take full credit and blame for everything within the city limits over their tenure, this is likely an argument for Mayor Slay. While St. Louis has many problems, and nextSTL continues to highlight quite a few of them, the reality is that the chief executive of this city is juggling macro trends of urban disinvestment, loss of manufacturing jobs and the billion dollar subsidies of suburban growth. Without dumbing down our expectations, success in St. Louis is going to look different than success in Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere.
The list of successes in St. Louis over the past decade are numerous. Neighborhoods from Old North to Wells-Goodfellow to The Grove have experienced a resurgence. Washington Avenue, Downtown West, the Central West End, all more vibrant than a decade ago. A secure source of funding for the Metro transit agency is in place. The Peabody Opera House is open. The first new bridge across the Mississippi, which will create a new northern entrance to downtown is nearly complete. Cherokee Street is a major cultural destination. Forest Park hasn’t looked so good since 1904. The mayor didn’t make these happen single-handedly by any means, but it’s happening on his watch.
Crime continues on the mayor’s watch as well, but just shouting “crime!” at an incumbent isn’t going to cut it. Is there too much crime? Yes. Always. Is crime spiraling out of control? No. We have asked quite a number of open-ended questions about crime on this site. We’ve highlighted the incredible racial disparity in homicides, for just one example. The knee-jerk defensiveness of the mayor’s office has been unnecessary and even misleading, but a fair reading of crime trends in the city does show increases that might point to negligence or incompetence. To his credit, Slay has pushed to return local control of the city’s police department for the first time since 1861. Oddly, this has managed to make him some enemies.
The implicit (and sometimes explicit) charge directed at the current mayor is that he doesn’t care about the north side. That he doesn’t care about black people. That his white neighborhood prevents him from understanding his city. In short, he’s racist. It’s ridiulous. Is there a discernible difference in policy or progress between Cincinnati’s Mark Mallory (who is black) and Slay? How about Detroit? Cleveland? No, no, no. Every historic American city struggles greatly with investing in areas of high poverty and neglect. The color of the mayor doesn’t seem to be predictive of success. Why would it be so in St. Louis?
It can be difficult to discern a quantitative difference between cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis. All experienced roughly 8% population decline from 2000-2010. Each has a current residential population of just more than 300,000. The three have many similarities, yet the perceptions of each are often different. Why? Of course it’s easy to admire other cities and other mayors when largely what you know about them comes to via a Twitter feed of like-minded urbanists, or simply the highlights gleaned from the national press. But there’s a qualitative difference in the city narratives as well. And the chief storyteller for any city is its mayor.
I spent all of 90 seconds chatting with Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory at a conference in Kansas City recently. He made me want to move to his city. I listened to Missoula, Montana Mayor John Engen accept an award at the conference, he made me want to visit Missoula (“I heard about this “smart growth” thing and thought it was a weight loss program, so I showed up.” He’s a larger man.) Francis Slay doesn’t do that. Reed held that promise for some time, offering a charisma and enthusiasm that may just will a city to be better, but the campaign and plans to implement that promise hasn’t materialized.
I don’t like the “lead from behind” mentality of city hall. In my experience, the phrase, “if the mayor leads on this it will lose” has been uttered two dozen too many times. Is it reality? Perhaps. In a region where a suburban county executive holds veto power over $100M downtown projects like a particularly dysfunctional mini UN, declining to lead isn’t always a cop-out. It’s also not an attractive leadership style, but it does present an opportunity. Have an idea, have it organized, present a win for Room 200 and you will likely find support.
As you can tell, his isn’t a sweeping endorsement of Slay policies or his coterie of often smirking, self-aggrandizing acolytes. It’s a call for you to cast a vote for Slay. Then use that vote to remind the mayor that you put him in office. Get engaged, push against the status quo and be heard. Be loud. Don’t join the mayor’s Vanguard Cabinet, demand a seat at the table on your own conditions. Build a political force. Join the emerging voices in this city and apply pressure to the system.
nextSTL largely operates under the assumption that what’s wrong with St. Louis isn’t the individuals with easy access to Room 200, but rather the absence of a vibrant conversation, of a progressive, younger, emerging voice within the city. This premise in its pure form tells us that it’s neither the mayor’s nor Walter Metcalf’s fault that the CityArchRiver project is making some historically horrible decisions. It’s the fault of us that a more progressive voice wasn’t organized and pushing a better vision a decade ago. The conversation is asymmetrical and we can only control one half.
I doubt the mayor remembers this, but I sat near him on the Arch grounds several years ago as a press conference was held announcing some milestone in the CityArchRiver project. He momentarily found himself standing alone and although a skeptic of the plan, I took the moment to say, “Mayor, thank you for all the work you’re putting into this project.” His reply, “It’s easy, I just do what Walter tells me to do.” Fair enough. It was an off-the-cuff remark, and I mean, we don’t want the mayor designing a park anyway, do we?
Those who rule are the ones who show up. When Mr. Metcalf (and the Danforth Foundation before) was selling this big idea to city hall, who was there with an alternative vision? From 2010 to until recently, I have served as chair of the organization City to River (citytoriver.org). The group advocates for reconnecting the neighborhoods of the central city to the riverfront. Unfortunately we have been seen by many as an opposition force, naysayers to a private-public partnership supporting our Arch. It’s not true, but we were late and fighting uphill the entire way. Convincing residents, MoDOT, the mayor and others is a big haul. (For the record, I’m fully convinced that I-70’s days downtown are numbered, it’s just a matter of when.) Those involved with City to River have showed up and worked very hard, and have made progress, but it’s still just a start.
Paul McKee shows up too. Who else has presented a vision for investment in the city’s north side on a scale that recognized the problem? We rightfully celebrate organizations like the Old North Restoration Group, but fail to recognize that their success is the result of decades of work and impacts a relatively modest portion of our city. We can’t wait for 45 new Old North’s to just appear. That’s obviously not the whole NorthSide story, but there’s a good argument to be made for the project. The problem is that a large number of you reading this could make the argument more forcefully than what we’ve seen from city hall.
More than once I’ve recoiled (and lashed out) at the charge that until a Tweet or “Like” equals a vote, young tech-savvy “progressives” in the city will continue to lose. Why? Because the playing field is obscenely tilted. We should forever reject the premise that money is the only or primary access point to our elected officials, and yet the critique offers an important lesson we ignore to our own detriment.
Those who show up are changing St. Louis. It’s not just the monied, connected status quo, we’re changing it. The Preservation Research Office, City Affair, City to River, SPACE Architects, STL-Style, Anastasis Films, Rally STL, Openly Disruptive (to mention just a small handful of which I’ve interacted with), and many, many others…all tugging at the reigns of St. Louis’ future. Understanding the weight of the system, and the inertia of the status quo isn’t defeatist, it’s empowering, reminding us to be engaged, to not wait for a mayor to bless our vision. Throwing out the bum in power (whoever that may be) will never itself bring about change.
The mayor’s race to this point has been a ridiculous charade devoid of any new vision for the city. The Lewis Reed camp evinces no new vision for St. Louis. Haven't been paying attention? Here’s their campaign message: Slay is corrupt, has failed at managing crime and doesn’t like the north side. It would seem that there is no challenge to the status quo at all, but simply a desire to be at the head of the existing political pile. That’s not a vision that anyone should be excited to endorse. That’s also not exactly the Reed campaign’s vision, but something must fill the vacuum. What’s missing is any discussion at all about the two largest projects in the city in decades. Neither NorthSide, nor the CityArchRiver project (and what about Ballpark Village, the Rams, transit expansion, historic tax credits…) have occupied any space in this election.
The issue at hand is whether a vote for Lewis Reed or one cast for Mayor Slay will do more to further our cause. In this regard, we would rather try our hand at being a productive, positive force in the city rather than the antagonistic voice throwing accusations straight out of a three decades old volume of Divisive City Politics for Dummies and seeing what sticks. It’s true a three-term incumbent can play defense and exercise the privileges of power, but this only makes it more important that a challenger offer a clear alternative vision. Despite early promise, this hasn’t happened. Ultimately what we want isn’t about who’s mayor, at least not until there’s an alternative carrying a more positive, progressive vision for our city.