A Story from St. Louis

St. Louis is spinning right now! We are just now starting to see real movement out of years of inaction after events in Ferguson rocked our community. We were severely divided. My father-in-law is a retired police officer from St. Charles County, near St. Louis, and my daughter is a social justice-minded teenager and aspiring artists. I am a political operative who wrote the St. Louis County policy on human relations, created a bi-state human relations commission and has worked for progressive politicians who often put inequity on the table. Needless to say, my daughter’s mouth takes after me.

A couple of years ago, when Ferguson erupted, members of my family immediately took polar opposite sides on issues. Many saw Mike Brown as a punk who got what was coming to him for attacking a police officer. My daughter posted a lot on social media about how people are treated by police, especially people of color. Something she believed was unfair and needs correcting. This was met by backlash from my in-laws. My side of the family is largely non-existent on social media because they’re teachers and you all can’t control your kids.

My wife ended up in the middle of a firestorm. She was being told by her brothers and sister what to do, which is never a good place to be. Her father wasn’t talking to anyone in my house and posted some hurtful things about his grand-daughter online. Sides were taken and there was no shaking anyone out of it. Essentially we all moved on from each other for a while.

That’s St. Louis for you. We’re a bunch of municipalities of different ages and maturity who occasionally take sides against each other. Now, the question is: If we could come together, can we address our issues and actually solve problems?

St. Louis City is a charter city in Missouri. It has about 308,000 people according to the census bureau’s 2017 estimate. The city has been shrinking since the middle of last century and has been ranked last according to some reports in growth. Updated reports place St. Louis a little higher these days. But, if you’re in the business of big sales, that isn’t enough for most people these days. We’re in a global economy and we need to act like it.

The city separated from the county over the same issue: You can’t tell me what to do or who to be.

The solution we are debating is should we get the family back together. The reality is that we’re different people since our big fight. In St. Louis we call this split “The Great Divorce.” The event, outcome and failed resolution have had drastic consequences. But so too has other policy on the region.

We once had an amazing trolley system. We were a connected place. Kenneth Johnson’s Crabgrass Frontier describes a St. Louis where weekenders would go to Kirkwood and Webster Groves. Those lines were scrapped in favor of automobiles and the interstate highway system bulldozed through neighborhoods speeding up suburbanization into St. Louis County.

The way we are connected in this region constantly changes. We continue to lay tracks, invest in a virtual persona, and rebuild those highways. As such, the conversation has evolved and a resolution is expected to be put in front of us in 2020. While the outcome is not certain, a parent’s command of you will fix this is hoped for by some and frightens many in the region.

Some claim the many municipalities in the county hamper economic growth. And others point to the city as an example of being too big and failed. Social media is being filled with pockets of the city where neighborhoods look rundown. Neither side recognizes the thriving neighborhoods of the region that exist because of and despite the separation. Our focus is on the question of, can we thrive better if we act more as a singular family unit under one direction?

Do we lose our individual perspective if we act as one? Will we be seen only as one if we join forces?

Over the summer and fall, I spent a lot of time in Michigan for work. I had never heard of Troy, Sterling Heights or Royal Oak, which are all suburbs of Detroit. This place is massive. Detroit itself is reported as 142.9 square miles through a Google search. The Census Bureau calculates the urbanized area to be 1,337 square miles. That makes it 11th in the U.S. in the urbanized area even though Detroit City ranks 64th in size by area compared to other major cities. It should be noted that 14 of the cities on that list above Detroit don’t have a population of 100,000.

So in this global economy, if it makes sense for St. Louis City and County to merge, why not Detroit? Well, first, St. Louis City is 66 square miles according to a Google search, other estimates have it being less. Either way, that’s a pretty small community. But there are still over 300,000 people living in that little place.

Using Census figures Governing Magazine puts the density of St. Louis City at 5,030 people per square miles. You’ll notice that’s respectably high for population density.

St. Louis County is another story. Google says it’s 523 square miles. The City of Wildwood in St. Louis County is 67.08 square miles making it larger by area than St. Louis City. The Census estimates the counties population to be 996,726 residents. The county is almost eight times the size and only three times the population. Could it be more populous if one government was managing growth?

It’s been a few years since the uproar in my family. We’ve largely grown in our own ways since then, much like the region where we all live. There hasn’t been much reconciliation from anyone. We do our best to support each other in our own ways. The parallels to the city and county are striking. Both issues will always be there. It’s become a part of who we are in many ways.

Nobody has the opportunity on any side to just walk away from each other because we are, in all reality, bound to each other for good and bad.

It is said cities are creatures of the state. If a city acts outside the intentions of the state’s interest they can be forced down a different path. In 2020 we may see the state take St. Louis City and County down another path. Emotions are high on both sides. Personal identity is at stake and individuality is on the line.

So what will we do? Will we see the common interest is not what our individual want reflect but that together we can address the bigger problems. Or should we hold on to what we want at this time despite the fact years pass and new needs emerge?

I invite you to explore St. Louis and discover how much fun you can have here. I’ll be exploring St. Louis over time and discussing what I enjoy here. If you have questions message me and I’ll try to point you in the right direction. But I would point out that I can’t contrive your experience. You will need to explore what works for you along your own path.