By Jack Seigel
Tuesday night I attended the Better Together event where five dynamic speakers imagined what St Louis could be.
They presented over the backdrop of a fragmented region, rife with duplicative services. A place where we compete against each other at our own expense. A region content to leave people behind. And one that is slow to change.
One speaker presented the analogy that the region has so many tables chances are your leaders’ aren’t sitting at the right one. For people who need help and don’t have time to wait, this is an unacceptable reality. One that produces suffering, protects hierarchies and squashes opportunity. We can do better.
Because people in the packed theatre largely knew the Better Together position on fragmentation, the speakers were not explicit with calls for consolidation or mergers. Instead, they all took a step back to sketch out what St Louis could be. Their ideas centered on racial equity, equitable economic development, education, innovation, and widespread but sustainable growth.
The event opened and ended with optimism.
Jason Hall explained his deep love for the region and ways that entrepreneurship can jumpstart economic development. He demanded better than the status quo but in a reasonable yet hopeful manner. The final speaker, Kira Van Neil, expressed how living in St Louis made her better. Where we live should make us better. With some work, more people could say that about St Louis.
The most powerful part of the event was in the second speech.
Rebeccah Bennett imagined the life of a black boy growing up in the reimagined St Louis. The boy who receives excellent prenatal care, is embraced by his neighborhood, has access to quality education that sparks his curiosity. He lives the life we want for our children.
This story was a two-sided coin. Inherent in the ideal is that those outcomes are currently atypical for black boys in St Louis. They exist at the margins, not the center of our communities and institutions.
Every single person in the room knew that Rebeccah’s story was a fairytale for black boys today. And so she had to imagine it. And now we have to build it. Black boys deserve that future.
Next, 24th Ward Alderman Scott Ogilvie explained that he was one of the more than 500 city council members in the region. He told the history of successful consolidation efforts in cities like New York and Toronto. And also explained that while the region has not experienced population growth, it has become more and more spread out and suburban. This leaves neighborhoods behind and leads to neglect and abandonment.
That imagery played nicely into Travis Sheridan’s description of a house seen from two angles. This phenomenological perspective explained that from the south the house looks like it needs work but can be fixed. From the North, the same house presents as being too far gone. Like a house, we should abandon. It didn’t take much to stretch the analogy to North and South St Louis City.
Travis also provided some lessons we should hold onto when reimagining St Louis. He is more worried about improving the lives of the people that live here, not just chasing population growth to grow the tax base. Our government owes something to the people who already call the city home.
I would add that a larger tax base does not help if we continue to take revenue away from the schools to fund development projects in parts of the city that don’t need the subsidies. Abuse of development incentives is a big reason why we are in this mess in the first place. And school funding was another lesson.
Travis called for a refocus on fundamentals with an emphasis on literacy. Finally, he called for wealth creation and not job creation because poverty-wage jobs are not the answer for growth in a thriving region.
I left the event wanting more. Specifically, more concrete ways to move towards the reimagined St Louis. And so I’m eagerly awaiting Better Together’s recommendations to combat fragmentation and improve the St Louis Region.
Jack Seigel is a community organizer and political consultant. Born and raised in St Louis, he is currently a first-year MSW student at Washington University. His interests are progressive public policy and criminal justice reform.