Holiday in St. Louis

Going home for the holidays always provides fodder for a family essay, but this is not one of those opportunities. My visit was not stressful, there was no crazy uncle berating my liberal lifestyle in the “big city”, nobody pressured me to get married and have children. I caught up with family and visited dear friends.

Nevertheless, I cannot return to St. Louis without experiencing a sense of ennui, a stifling sensation that strikes the moment I leave the jetway and enter Lambert’s East Terminal. Progress is marked by the closing of the smoking lounge. What some might consider comfortable familiarity is more honestly described as profound stagnation.

With the advantage of reflection the entire visit can be characterized by the word static. It describes the landscape, it describes the urban development, and as we all witnessed with the #Ferguson affair, it describes the personal attitudes of those in power. St. Louis revels in maintaining the existing order of all things. Despite it being a Democratic bastion in Missouri politics, it is one of the most conservative cities I have experienced.

My hotel was in Clayton, the county seat. If you are not familiar with St. Louis, it is where the Grand Jury examined evidence against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown. It represents both power and wealth. Clayton has some of the most prestigious homes, an impressive public school district, and the best business address (relative to St. Louis, of course.)

Downtown Clayton at Bonhomme and Bemiston avenues.

Downtown Clayton at Bonhomme and Bemiston avenues.

Nothing has changed much since my departure six years ago. There have been a couple of small projects, not the kind of growth you want to see in a healthy city. The view from my hotel window told a valid story, one of a bucolic neighborhood that is under no pressure to change. Showing up its neighbors, the brick and glass building in the right background of the photo is a new county jail (although by “new” I mean ten years old.) Most of this urban hub speaks to the glory days of the 1960s.

This is the pace one becomes used to when traveling St. Louis history; what exists serves the status quo and what could be threatens it.

A brief visit to the St. Louis Public Library in downtown served to remind me of the logistical difficulties navigating what is, by all appearances, a small town. The library is a truly beautiful building and I was excited to spend a couple of hours reviewing microfilm of the daily newspapers from the late 1970s. Unfortunately it took me almost 45 minutes to park, not because the neighborhood was busy, but because I had to drive back to midtown in order to find enough quarters to feed the parking meter.

Most serendipitous was an article I came across from 1977 about an urban planning conference held to address population decline in the city. An academic from Washington University in St. Louis asserted that population flight to the suburbs — already a concern at that time—was actually good because it would leave the cosmopolitan demographic in place. In St. Louis-speak that means the poor whites and people of color will move to the county and leave the élite alone in their grand houses. The political machine will remain intact. Life will improve by remaining static.

The old Schnuck’s market at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads.

The old Schnuck’s market at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads.

That didn’t work out so well. Worse is that the flight is continuing to erode the county as people flee to exurban communities. Public policies promote flight to the surrounding townships in controlled ways: infrastructure provides the means while eminent domain provides the bludgeon. The unfortunate consequence is an impotence within the core neighborhoods. Even the abandoned Schnuck’s grocery store at the corner of Hanley and Clayton roads—one of the most heavily trafficked intersections Clayton—has not been able to attract a viable development project for over six years. Growth is being exported in order to maintain the familiar.

The situation is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ opening to The Great Divorce. He describes a city that has continued to spread as its residents move farther from each other, until they are barely cognizant of their neighbors. Lewis was illustrating purgatory, and sometimes I wonder if that same sense of limbo exists in St. Louis.

Sameness. Order. Who would dare to rock the boat?

Different faces at the news desks told familiar stories during the morning broadcasts (I wonder if they realized it?) The old feud between Reverend Larry Rice and downtown power brokers took a step forward. Rice, the leader of the New Life Evangelical Center and brash champion of the homeless, is going to be shutdown by the city. The NLEC has provided a safety net and shelter for the homeless in downtown St. Louis for three decades; the city has relied on his private organization in lieu of funding their own program.

As if something psychoactive is in the water supply, the élite believe that closing Rice’s shelter will eliminate the homeless in downtown St. Louis. Instead of recognizing the need for Rice’s shelter and his ability to provide a private solution to a public problem, politicians and developers will scatter the consequences of capitalism to the doorways and park benches that lie below downtown’s renovated loft warehouses.

What lies beneath the 1977 urban planning conference, the Larry Rice feud, and yes, even Ferguson? Social stasis. St. Louis is stuck in a mid-19th century framework while the world grows around and through it. Instead of adapting to powerful social forces, those in power reinforce the defensive walls. The pressure builds.

People like me move away and grow. When we return we see the anachronisms that surround us. Hence the ennui that permeates. Like a dysfunctional love affair, there is deep knowledge that things won’t get better. Attitudes haven’t changed for two centuries, optimism would be folly. Declaring “irreconcilable differences” and asking for a divorce is the only choice. Oh, you might remain sociable at family functions, but the trust and intimacy are gone. The investment has petered out.