Sunday, December 30, 2012

SLU: Will it be a good next 15 years or not?

Reviewing all the news stories of 2012 got me thinking about the horrible stuff that unfolded at Penn State University.  One of the most vivid memories I will have of that whole incident was the image of the students defending Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, the football program and the University amidst some pretty ugly evidence. Through all that uproar and outrage, I'm reminded of how much a college can mean to a city, state and region as well as to people personally.  And how much the actions of one man (Sandusky), or maybe 1 regime (Nittany Lions athletics) can at worse tarnish the reputation of a respected university or at a minimum place an undeniably disgusting/greedy blackspot on the timeline of an historic collegiate sports legacy.

It got me thinking about the intense, blind loyalty or even love some have for their University and everything that it means and represents.  From sports teams, to school colors, to the institution itself, Americans generally LOVE their local college/university and sports teams.

I'm not getting that vibe here though.  St. Louis, a city of ~318,000 people only has 2 universities.  The extremely small Harris-Stowe State University and the much larger and renowned St. Louis University.

Here's a little background on Harris-Stowe:
Harris–Stowe State University is a historically black public university located in Midtown St. Louis, Missouri.  Founded in 1857, Harris–Stowe State University is one of the oldest institutions of higher education in Missouri. Founded by the St. Louis Public Schools as a normal school, it was the first public teacher education institution west of the Mississippi River and the twelfth such institution in the United States. During most of this period, the emphasis focused on teacher education, however, Senate Bill 153 enacted in 1993 enhanced the mission of Harris–Stowe to include a wider selection of degree opportunities.  Harris–Stowe State University was called Harris–Stowe State College until it was renamed in August 2005.

Harris–Stowe State offers over twelve degree programs including: Bachelor of Science in Education, Bachelor of Science in Urban Education, Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with specialization areas, Bachelor of Science in Health Care Administration, Bachelor of Science in Accounting, Bachelor of Science in Hospitality and Tourism Management, Bachelor of Science in Information Systems and Computer Technology with specialization areas. (source)
The second of course is St. Louis University.
Saint Louis University is a private, co-educational Jesuit university located in St. Louis, Missouri, United States. Founded in 1818 by the Most Reverend Louis Guillaume Valentin Dubourg SLU is the oldest university west of the Mississippi River. It is one of 28 member institutions of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. The university is accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. SLU's athletic teams compete in NCAA's Division I and the Atlantic 10 Conference. It has a current enrollment of 13,785 students representing all 50 states and more than 77 foreign countries. There are currently 8,406 undergraduate students enrolled in SLU as well as 2,437 graduate students and 2,942 professional students. This year’s enrollment marks the first year that SLU’s enrollment passed 13,000. Of all the students, 59 percent are from out of state. The university provides undergraduate, graduate and professional programs. Its average class size is 23 and the student-faculty ratio is 13:1.

Its Madrid, Spain campus has from 600–650 students, a faculty of 110, an average class size of 18 and a student-faculty ratio of 8:1.

Saint Louis University (SLU) is located on Lindell Boulevard, originally outside the City of St. Louis in an area originally called Lindell's Grove, and is the second-oldest Jesuit college in the nation. The first M.D. degree awarded west of the Mississippi was conferred by Saint Louis University in 1836. (source)
Not too shabby, eh?  St. Louis is such an important city when it comes to firsts in American history and westward expansion.  We are truly the Gateway to the West and SLU is a part of that amazing American story.  A potential source of regional pride if there ever was one.

Other regional universities including McKendree University, Maryville University, Washington University of St. Louis, University of Missouri-St. Louis, Fontebonne University, Webster University, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and Lindenwood University are located outside of St. Louis' boundaries in the suburbs and small towns in Missouri and Illinois.

So for all intents and purposes, SLU is our only major division 1 university in the city and even the region.  Washington University in St. Louis has a fantastic global reputation and is a trusted key partner with and investor in St. Louis in the East Loop, Barnes-Jewish Medical Complex, Central West End, West End, Forest Park Southeast, Skinker-Debaliviere, and other neighborhoods of St. Louis.  Wash U is ranked the 14th best University in the nation, right between Johns Hopkins (Baltimore, MD) and Brown (Providence, RI)...not bad company, eh?  Wash U is essential to our region and have done and continue to do lots of great things for St. Louis even though they are located in University City, Missouri a streetcar suburban city of ~36,000 that abuts the western border of St. Louis.  Close, but no cigar (until the region can put aside its differences and just merge like other progressive cities/regions are doing)...Wash U continues to be a leader in the region and employs more people in the city than any other institution.

But back to St. Louis University...

For most of my time in St. Louis, I've lived far from St. Louis University.  Living in the farthest reaches of South City, I had such a fondness for SLU as an outside observer.  I'd occasionally drive around the Grand and Lindell area and look at that awesome cathedral and the old campus and just think what a beautiful setting for a school.  Furthermore, I split season tickets to Billikens basketball games in the Larry Hughes years, and became a big fan of his crossover dribble, Conference USA rivalries with other major urban universities, SLU basketball and the whole college game experience as a result.  Since then, SLU moved to a lower-grade conference that is way less competitive and has no local or otherwise rivalries...BORING to most outside of the die-hard fans.

However, I recently moved to a neighborhood much closer to SLU, so I've seen the other side of their campus in much more detail...the medical side mainly in the Gate District and the Tiffany neighborhoods. 

Now, I've got to be up front here.  I love SLU and want nothing more then for them to do well.  I root for them in basketball more than my alma mater.  They are now "my team".  If all goes as planned, my kids will attend undergraduate university here...and I'd be a proud papa.  My wife works for SLU, and she has a great job that she genuinely likes and really enjoys working at a non-profit higher place of learning.

Yet, St. Louis as a whole and especially residents and neighbors around SLU's main and medical campuses seem to be particularly split on SLU as a positive entity in St. Louis.  Some are adamantly against the destructive policies as seen near the medical campus in recent years.  They are tearing down all the homes immediately surrounding the medical campus.  Instead of trying to get medical residents, employees and students living near the hospital, center of advanced dental care, etc...SLU is demolishing homes, leaving more mowed weed fields/grass lawns with "No Trespassing" signs and zero development.  There are no communications, no plans revealed to those investing and living around the area, just seemingly mindless destruction and further isolation of the school from the city.

As a recent example, they are closing formerly through streets including Virginia Avenue in the Gate District neighborhood and taking away street parking presumably to guide patients and employees into pay lots that SLU owns.  Bye-bye urban street grid, hello fallow acres of nothingness and mowed weeds:



the formerly through Virginia Avenue near Rutger on SLU's medical campus

I'm not the first to make this observation, those much more informed and articulate than I have drafted posts on these topics.

I can't help but feel that SLU will continue its intents to fence off their campus from the surrounding neighborhoods and city.  They want no one other than SLU employees, students and associated patrons to be able to access the campus.  They are blocking out the residents with fences, no trespassing signs, etc.







Now on the other hand, SLU recently completed a beautiful athletic track for the Track and Field Team.  It is not fenced in, and neighbors are allowed to use it.  People play soccer in the middle, and walk/jog on the track.  It is awesome, has great views of Downtown and is a great place to get some exercise.




Secondly, there is a small garden/chicken farm right at Compton and Caroline maintained by the food sciences dept and the fruit, veggies, grains, herbs and eggs are used by the school and served to employees and students on the medical campus...this cafeteria called Fresh Gatherings operated by the school's Department of Nutrition and Dietetics is AWESOME and my wife brings home great stuff from here, and we buy family and friends reasonably priced fresh bread and spices grown, dried, processed and sold as gifts and cooking supplies.  Anything the cafeteria can't produce, they get locally to the best of their abilities.  Miller hams, Cherokee street tamales, Missouri/Illinois farmed-raised beef comes from within 150 miles of campus, etc.

They have a summer culinary camp for kids.  It's freaking awesome.  I would love my kids to ride their bikes to this summer camp.

I mean, wouldn't you love to live close to the campus to walk to work or a soccer game or a basketball game or rock show at the student center?  I would.  I would love to fly the Billiken flag and be proud, but they seem to not want the citizens and residents of Tiffany, Gate District, Midtown, etc to engage as part of the SLU world...they seem to want to get rid of people and places on the periphery of their campuses.

Furthermore on the negative tip, the recent loss of the Pevely dairy outbuildings and smoke stack (latter of which was listed on the historic register) were destroyed to make way for an ambulatory care extension...that they all of a sudden said, you know what, never mind on all that.  And now those that live around here or own property around here have to have passers by witness SLU's abandoned piles of debris as part of their daily lives.  Thanks a lot for that.  To pour salt in the wounds of those who like historic buildings and cities vs. suburbs, SLU threatened to move to the county if they didn't get to destroy these structures even though they own acres of already leveled, vacant property throughout the city.  A slap in the face to this proud city lover and many others.

Ideally, SLU would engage the community in their plans.  Most rational thinkers and investors in the area would put up with the lingering mounds of debris and mourn the loss of the Pevely office building and smokestack...but, if they were going to build a shiny new urban building sensitive to the surrounding city, then I would be totally cool with it.  If they had a long term plan to build new housing for its residents, students, etc, I'd be all for progress.  But that is not how the current administration rolls/rules.  Wash U behaves much better in the CWE, they don't leave people hanging, make bullying threats to the city leaders and preservationists alike...they seem to respect the city and want to be part of it and build it up not isolate it and privatize it.

SLU's leadership seem suspect at best from afar.  A recent vote of no confidence in the current president, Lawrence Biondi, by the faculty and students further erodes my confidence in the institution and its future.  Or, maybe this is a sign of brighter days of transparency and community cooperation as opposed to my way or the highway tactics.

I can't allow myself to believe that Biondi or SLU is evil or hates the city it resides in.  I just think they are arrogant, ignorant and short sighted.  I would like to think that they are trying to improve the campus; but it seems only to the benefit of SLU and not St. Louis.  I don't think those currently in charge understand that SLU should be striving to be part of the city and not a fenced off entity who feels stuck in the city.  This is why I think many locals and residents of St. Louis can't fully get behind SLU like other American college towns get behind their school/team.  Penn State this ain't.  University of Illinois, Butler, Mizzou...forget it, nothing like that.

I'm trying to be reasonable and get on board...but Biondi's regime makes it nearly impossible.  I mean look at the beautiful, modern, Canon-designed research building at Grand and Chouteau...it is utterly beautiful and awesome; but they surrounded it with a vast expanse of grass and fountains and fences and dead space that will NEVER add to my city.  It's an utter dead zone devoid of anyone...student, resident, employee, anything.  An urban moat on the outskirts of a castle.


I am concerned about SLU as a neighbor.  I am concerned about them as a University.  I am concerned about their reputation.  So is the faculty.  I want to feel loyal to SLU and be proud of the institution as a neighbor.  SLU is a great place, I want nothing for them to succeed and grow and continue to educate and invest.  I want my kids to go here...I want them to be responsible and respectful to STL.

SLU, please turn those acres of green pastures into something before you knock down another irreplaceable building.  Show us a plan, quit closing down our streets, quit knocking stuff down without so much as a peep as to what is going on.  Quit bullying the residents of St. Louis.  St. Louis leaders, quit pandering to these bullies...you look cheap and unimaginative and intimidated...weak.

SLU is our greatest historic place of higher learning in the city limits.  Please, please engage the community in your future...it can only help build trust, Billiken pride and loyalty to a fantastic historic university.  I'm ready to wave that blue and white flag.

Here's to a better future...why not start in 2013.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Word Of The Day: Ghetto

Alright kind readers of St. Louis, I'm continuing my spiel on words.  Words that are misunderstood or words that are unjustifiably viewed as inflammatory or unecessarily provocative or words that no longer represent what they were originally intended to.  Our words and how we use them.

These words will of course have an urban connection or at least a St. Louis connection, as this is St. Louis City Talk...right?  I took a stab at understanding the history and current context of the word Hoosier back in June, 2012.  And now I will explore the word ghetto...a word I hear almost daily when talking to people about STL issues.  This word is commonly used and excepted universally...yet to some it's inflammatory.  Those who would rather bury their heads in the sand on issues of race would rather not talk about this stuff and I've been criticized for using the word in blog posts.  I was taken aback by the inflammatory nature of this word to a small elitist minority who don't like this word, and truly don't understand why this word would be taboo in any circle when it's so darn descriptive and used by nearly everyone regardless of race or class.  While I try to be responsible in my writing and thoughtful of the words I choose, I loathe censorship and the demonization of some very useful modern English words.  Ghetto is one of these words.

Certainly, language evolves to meet the needs of the present day.  As an example, think of what images the word gangster brings up.  The gangster of 1920 is nothing like the present day gangster.  Google it if you don't believe me.  1920's:


Now think of what gangster means to the general population since right around the time when NWA broke in the 1980's and still exists today and is self proliferated by black people across the country, who re-coined the term as the more modern 'gangsta':


The word carries the same definition, but the times define the image or the description as a very different one based on the needs of the current times.  It's still a great word that should never be taboo.  It evolved quite well to meet the society of the day. 

Furthermore, think of other recently validated words such as "ginormous" which was recently added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.  Enormous or gigantic just wasn't big enough, eh?  Ginormous burrito...it just rolls off the 21st century tongue so well.  Popular culture and technology usually drive new words into the language.  Doh and phat were recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary, which is widely considered the leading authority on the English language.  You may not like these words, but they are not taboo either...they should not be censored or forbidden.

But back to ghetto.  Some think this word should not be used in it's modern context.  Some in the politically correct set in STL think it's racially charged and should never be uttered by a white person.  I'm of the opinion after living in St. Louis for 18 years that not talking about issues of race and ignoring our problems are the worst thing you can do.  Get over yourselves St. Louisans...the city is split nearly 50:50 between white and black people.  We are equal in numbers so quit being so damn offended and thin skinned.  We are what we are and we need to talk about it and get along under honest terms.

Now let's take a quick run through the history of the word ghetto.

According to Meriam-Webster, it's an Italian word whose first known use was back in 1611.  It's from Venetian dialect gh├Ęto island where Jews were forced to live, literally, foundry (located on the island).  Other sources will tell you ghetto was originally used in Venice derived from the word Borghetto, meaning Little Borgo, a cluster of homes and buildings often outside Italian city walls, to describe the area where Jews, tradespeople or agricultural workers were compelled to live. In rural Italy, Borghetto is not necessarily a pejorative term.

So although the Italians are known for the origin, it is steeped in Jewish history and connotation.

And here's the Merriam-Webster definition:

1: a quarter of a city in which Jews were formerly required to live

2: a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure

3a : an isolated group b : a situation that resembles a ghetto especially in conferring inferior status or limiting opportunity

So there you have it.  It's a word dating back to 1611 coined by the Italians with a strong connection to forced isolation/persecution of Jews.

But let's break down the 3 definitions cited.  The primary definition is the historical one, the secondary definition is the more current one and the third one is getting much closer to the modern day use of the word.

I think many in St. Louis know how the word is used today in the context of our fair city.  It's got nothing to do with people of the Jewish faith...nothing.   If someone asks you if you shop at the ghetto Schnucks, you know they don't mean the one with the killer latkes and matzo ball soup.

Ghetto isn't really used to describe an ethnic enclave either.  Few probably refer to the Hill as a ghetto (Italian-American heritage).  Nor, Bevo Mill as a ghetto (Bosnian/Croat/Roma immigrants).  Nobody thinks of the 3 neighborhoods of Dogtown as a ghetto (Irish-American heritage).  Few probably refer to North Pointe as a ghetto (more owner- occupied, middle class African-American neighborhood).

The modern use of the word ghetto is no longer really referring to a physical settlement or enclave or even a place at all; it might not even be a noun, rather more of an adjective to describe a run down, crime ridden, violent, low-dignity, hopeless kind of place.

Ghetto is not a bad word, at least I don't think it is.  It's a fact that today ghetto describes a particular behavior/mindset and scenario.  I've heard all races use it casually.  Google it and click on images.  You'll see both the historical and modern context illustrated for you quite clearly if you don't know what I mean.

It's an extremely descriptive word.  "Do you shop at the ghetto Schnucks or the one on the Hill?"  "Are the state streets ghetto by you?"  "I heard that alley is pretty ghetto." "Is your part of the block ghetto?"  "Yadi's tats are so ghetto".  This is how I've heard the word used in St. Louis.

Ghetto also desribes a behavior and a look more than anything.  Trust me, those described as ghetto go to great lengths to let you know they are ghetto.  Black people own this style and mindset...yet some white people emulated it for sure.  From the hair cut to the language to the volume of speak to the dress...it's a honed look that one tries very hard to achieve...being ghetto is not an accident these days, its a learned behavior. It's a look, a style, a lifestyle...not unlike 'hipsters' which I will tackle in a future post.  It's like a hoosier, only another set of people...it's proud ownership of a low-brow lifestyle and vibe.

Will this word continue to evolve?  Will it become a bad word that white parents don't allow their children to say for fear of them being accused as a racist?  Will it be something people say under their breath and pause before saying in mixed company?  Or, will it be a word that is completely shameless and free to use without offense or inflamation of the politically correct set...a word that hones in on a particular situation without confusion or ambiguity?  Where are we headed with this word?

In St. Louis we have no shortage of ghetto behavior and scenes in our neighborhoods.  One could venture to say it's our biggest problem at displacing and frustrating non-ghetto people.  This ghetto image and prevalence in many places of St. Louis displaces many people whether they admit it or not.  Ghetto carries a price.

Look no further than the tony areas such as the East and suburban West Loop, Central West End or Washington Avenue to see how a ghetto element can change things from fun to violent pretty quickly.  This ghetto behavior carries a tremendous additional overhead that businesses and residents have to deal with.  These areas are spending big dollars and resources to install cameras and extra security and police tactics to try and deal with ghetto behavior (or as the current mayoral office says: "knuckleheads" cause they are scared of the word's racial undertones).

Ghetto is a mindset, and it's prevalent in St. Louis.  It's overwhelming in some areas.  It's startling and scary at times.  The worst thing is the utter ignorance and self destructiveness that is passed down very openly to the next generation as ghetto "parents" beget ghetto kids in a self-perpetuating cycle that seems to only get worse in St. Louis.  I think choosing ghetto behavior is simply defined as willful ignorance.

I'm not alone in my fears of ignorance:
"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thoughts?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Brightside Demonstration Garden at Vandeventer and Kingshighway

The Brightside demonstration garden at the intersection of Southwest Avenue, Shenandoah Avenue, Kingshighway and Vandeventer in the Southwest Garden Neighborhood is nearing completion and looking quite inviting and eye-catching:


Built in 2011, the Brightside St. Louis Demonstration Garden features microcosms of Missouri’s wetland, glade, prairie and woodland habitats. The garden is designed to help educate visitors on best planting and environmentally sustainable practices – ones that can be implemented in yard and neighborhood gardens.


Our goal with the demonstration garden, growing at the corner of
Butterfly on milkweed at the Brightside St. Louis demonstration garden
Kingshighway and Shenandoah, is to help build environmental awareness and cultivate environmental stewardship through educational workshops and interpretative signage. 
The Brightside Demonstration Garden includes a rain garden, a sedge meadow, a butterfly garden and lots and lots of Missouri native plants. Our garden is complete with stone pavers, porous concrete/asphalt, rain barrels and, coming soon, a cistern to enhance water quality by allowing water to permeate into the ground to recharge groundwater to restore urban streams, limit sediment runoff and naturally filter out pollutants.
Major funding to establish the garden was provided through an EPA grant Region 7 through the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. 
Come visit the Brightside St. Louis Demonstration Garden for yourself. The garden is open at all times. For group presentations, please contact us at the Brightside St. Louis office to make arrangements. And while you’re on-site, be sure to pick up native plant information courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation and Grow Native (source).

Brightside may be better known to many as 'Operation Brightside' its former moniker:
Brightside St. Louis, originally named Operation Brightside, was founded in 1982 by Mayor Schoemehl and campaign chairman G. Duncan Bauman, the then publisher of the St. Louis Globe Democrat. It was the response to a 1981 survey that was conducted in which St. Louis residents felt the number one problem facing the city was the fact that it was dirty.
Brightside and two other operations, the Lupus Foundation of America Heartland Chapter and Pro-Motion Physical Therapy occupy the handsome storefronts at 4640-4646 Shenandoah Avenue, just east of Kingshighway and Vandeventer.
Brightside offices along Shenandoah Avenue

Some of the interesting elements of this building are the porous paver stone sidewalks and the street trees planted between the building and the easement along Shenandoah.  The easement is planted with low growing perennials to suck up rain runoff.  It will be fun to watch these trees grow to see if this is a good model.

unconventionally placed street trees and easement plantings 

There is some public art sculpture/bike racks made of bike forks to emulate black-eyed susan and purple cone flowers right in front of the building where you can park your bike under the awnings should it rain:
The building's most familiar site from Kingshighway:
Some of the more interesting and progressive construction tactics and landscaping include porous concrete, paver stone areas, porous chat internal walkways, a no-mow zone around the building and rain barrels to decrease run off and use the rain water for the plants.  The choice of plants is top notch including natives to attract nesting birds and migrating butterflies.  These include Tussock Sedge, native grasses, American Beautyberry, New England Aster, Purple Prairie Clover, Woodland Spiderwort, Virginia Sweetspire, etc.
 rain barrels on the back of the building to collect rainwater from downspouts
porous concrete was poured to decrease runoff on the south side slope

There are some iconic man-made elements to this space including the grand entryway on the sidewalk of Shenandoah Avenue that places a Monarch butterfly larvae creeping up the side of the gate transitioning into an adult butterfly floating toward the sky with large shade-providing purple coneflowers in the background.  This place will look great when the perennials are in bloom and attracting animals from insects to mammals.  I can imagine checking out a book at the Kingshighway Library branch across the street and sitting in the garden to enjoy the comfy confines of this space.
Here's a look inside the demonstration garden which is still a place of beauty due to the natural plantings and landscape on a blustery December afternoon:
 chat walkway running parallel with Kingshighway
 northern edge along Shenandoah Avenue
elevated plank walkway leading from the parking lot to the center of the garden
 the eastern-facing view of the chat walkway from the Kingshighway side
 the western-facing edge with tall grasses and stone elements
the photographer's assistant in yellow, fetching the wide angle lens
center of the garden provides a venue for education or other programming with  stone seating around the perimeter

Many foundations, personal and corporate donations assisted in the realization of this project, including gifts from the Cornelson Family Foundation, William A. Kerr Foundation, Employees Community Fund of Boeing St. Louis, Edward K. Love Conservation Foundation, Dana Brown Charitable Trust, Alberici Construction, City of St. Louis, Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources, and many others:
paver stones commemorating the donations of local business, foundations and personal donors

A city should attract the eye and bring interest from its busiest corridors.  It should enhance the environment and complement the walk along its sidewalks and transit stops and libraries.  It should provide a place to relax and view flora and fauna in an urban setting.  This demonstration garden achieves that.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The most up and coming neighborhood in the city

"Up and coming" is a label that could be put on many St. Louis neighborhoods. 

But, what does up and coming mean? It's highly subjective.  To me, it's a neighborhood that has already hit rock bottom and it on its way up and will be a desireable, functional, vibrant, active, stable, safe place in 5-10 years.  These are neighborhoods that have a plan in place to organize, market and revitalize itself.  There has to be an energy and continuity.  The plan can include residential rehabs, harboring creative nightlife options, attracting walkable dining, cafes, retail, businesses, etc.  A nice park for people to walk their dogs or go to chill, hang out with kids or jog/walk, etc.

You can make an argument for Forest Park Southeast, Fox Park, Benton Park West, Old North, Hyde Park, St. Louis Place, Gravois Park...maybe others.

I think Shaw, Tower Grove South, North Hampton, Southampton, St. Louis Hills, Boulevard Heights, Compton Heights, Holly Hills, Lindenwood Park, etc have already reached the promised land and/or peak capacity.  Some I mentioned above have a diversity of residents & incomes and urban/walkable places, some do not.  But the above seem to have reached a capacity of some sort, whether it be occupancy or urban framework.  That also plays into up-and-coming to me.  A place where all kinds of people want to live and feel comfortable.  A place with optimism and a future that feels exciting vs. staid and same old same old status quo.

So if you had to vote on St. Louis' most up and coming neighborhood what would it be?  You can vote for up to 3.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Recruiting New Citizens For The Future

We need more people in St. Louis.  We've lost ~500,000 in ~50 years.  I would not be surprised if we lose more in the 2020 census count.  A simple stop to the mass exodus would surely be touted by the city leaders as a success, even without a numeric gain in people.  This will be hard to listen to and hard to stomach.  It's like them saying:  "whew, we finally hit rock bottom, we can only go up from here".  And of course rock bottom will have been hit during their tenure.  So how are we going to get more people to choose St. Louis?  Where will they come from?

The obvious solution would be to merge the 90 cities and huge swaths of unincorporated regions of St. Louis County with St. Louis.  But I don't see this happening anytime soon.

In light of the lack of regional cooperation, we could try to go toe to toe with the suburbs and wage a campaign based on luring the generations of people who exited the city in droves for the suburbs.  But to me that's a tough sell.  I am of the opinion that people who left the city and still live in the metropolitan region did so for race and class issues and moving back would be considered a failure to many...a step in the wrong direction for the sons/daughters of those who exited for greener pastures in the staid burbs. 

So what are you going to do, where do you best focus your efforts?

For my money, you focus on folks outside the metropolitan region.  We need more people that can see St. Louis is a new light.  People who don't quit before trying, like so many naysayers in this region.  We need more immigrants, we need more diversity (other than just the white and black people who make up over 90% of the St. Louis population) we need outsiders with a fresh take.  Wouldn't it be great to have a Chinatown area of STL?  Build upon the small but amazingly awesome Hispanic/Latino community around St. Cecilia's and Cherokee Street?  Build upon the small but no less awesome Southeast Asian population we have...we need that to be a vibrant city.

And maybe above all, we simply need more employable/skilled/educated people living in the city.  Let's be frank for a moment and admit that we have a huge problem of high school drop outs living in this town with a very thin family structure to support them.  Sadly, their futures are not very bright and at the end of the day, they are not engaged in a positive future for St. Louis.  They are the face of crime and failures in our schools.

Some will say vocational training, education and family planning is what we need to elevate the current class that are willfully ignorant of a dignified lifestyle and wanting to put their kids in the best possible position for future success.  I agree, but it is going to take decades to reverse the trend of high school drop outs, poor parent/family structure and ghetto/thug mentality prevalent in St. Louis.  This is a societal problem and we need a quicker fix than that.  We need immediate action.  Immigrants can help dilute out the real or perceived problems we currently face with our reputation and our curb appeal. 

So how do we lure in productive members of society to be part of St. Louis' future?

In my mind there are two basic things:

1.  Focus on luring in young employable/educated/talented/skilled people in their 20s.
2.  Make St. Louis a national destination for immigrants from anywhere around the globe.

St. Louis is very affordable and cool and has huge underdog post-rust belt big city attributes.  The future is bright in St. Louis City and we need more hard working, intelligent, skilled minds and bodies here that can contribute and devote time to the things that will continue to right the ship.

Let's face it, being educated and/or hard working is your ticket to success in this country.  Success means financial stability.  Financial stability means more personal time.  More personal time means more community and volunteer time.  We need an informed electorate that can make educated decisions for our leadership and civic structure and will look past the color of a candidates skin to cast their vote at the ballot box.  That simply doesn't work and it's antiquated and boring and divides us. 

We need leaders that can focus their efforts on bringing in tax paying, productive members of society to St. Louis.  This does not mean turning your back on the droves of people who live here who are poor, uneducated and woefully unemployable.  It will bring in a generation that can help fix things and elevate our neighborhoods north to south and bring in a tax base.  I feel we are in this fight alone and will get little help and only increasing competition from the small cities and suburbs around us for the tax dollars and residents.

Why not have an urban outreach arm of concerned citizens to recruit at local and regional universities.  Advertising and communication efforts to recruit educated people to the city.  For example, there are some AMAZING agricultural universities in this country.  Maybe urbanists could team up with the Monsantos and the Wash Us and the Solaes and the Sigmas and the Cortexs to advertise the amazing local technology providers and researchers and team it up to sell the local amenities and urban renaissance that is St. Louis.  It's a cheap place to live and play...we should be at Cornell, Iowa State, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas A&M, etc touting our fine scientific employers and city living (which is what younger workers want).  This group could lobby the realty organizations to share the positives of St. Louis City living.  I cannot tell you how many professionals I've encountered from outside the region who were teamed up with a realtor that dissuaded the new arrivals (in some cases passionately) to not even SHOP the city.  That's damaging and misguided.  We need to be able to counter that.

People in their 20s are going to find it harder and harder to buy a home in the big U.S. cities if current lending terms continue to favor those with $ for substantial down payments and rents continue to raise as a result.  St. Louis is still cheap enough to make owning a home a definite possibility.

Secondly, we need to promote immigration from outside the U.S.  The last noticeable wave of immigrants came from Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Romania, etc. during the political unrest and wars of the 1990s.  This immigration was a boon to St. Louis.  As a result we have new faces, language, dialects, food styles, traditions, minarets, etc.  These people have added to our culture.  Drive down Gravois south of Chippewa and count how many storefronts are occupied by former Eastern European business owners and patrons.  These people are hard working and industrious.  They want places to continue their heritage, lifestyle and culture.  The doors are of course open to anyone else who wants to go.  We are missing the boat by not acknowledging this group of people with 'Little Sarejevo' status or whatever.
We need another noticeable wave of immigration.  We need more dialects, we need more industrious people who don't say "I/we can't" before they even try.  I would like to hear current Mayor Slay or opponent Lewis Reed role out their vision for increasing our population and density in St. Louis.  Their policies since taking office are clearly not working.  Some new ideas need to be vetted and executed.

We need outsiders.  We need new blood.  We need more immigrants.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Kids In The City

Okay, I know most readers of my blog are urbanists, etc.  Kids and fatherhood are usually topics I try to avoid as most people I've met who read this blog are usually younger than I and without kids.  And, raising kids is obviously a pretty personal thing; stuff usually left off the Internet and kept private.  But, I see a crisis here in STL that is really worth talking about, and I hope to make a couple points without getting too personal.  But parents talking about kids and raising kids in a city vs. a suburb or small town can easily get personal fast.  So I hope not to offend or come across as judgemental on how/where one chooses to raise a family.

Let me start with a disturbing fact:

28,895 people up and left the city in the 10 years from 2000-2010.  21,999 of those who left (~76%) were under 20 years of age. 

Of the 21,999 people under 20 who left, the biggest block of 17,433 were between the ages of 5-14:  school age kids. 

That is a big loss, right?  Now give it some thought.  Is that a direct reflection of parents leaving the city because of the perceived and/or real problems with the public and charter schools?  You would certainly think so.

Another look at the numbers will tell you St. Louis showed a gain of young people in their 20s where an increase of 5,925 was observed.  A gain of 14,471 of the so called "empty nesters" between the ages of 50-64 was also seen.  Nice, we're doing good attracting young, post-high school people and parents of post-high school children who want a hip, vibrant, non-suburban lifestyle.  Yet, we're taking a beating on school aged kids.

I think this is telling of the greatest problems we have to face in the next regime and generations.  Schools and crime.  Whether perceived or real, these 2 problems displace more decent people than anything else.

It's going to be brutal to hear entrenched city leaders in the 2013 mayoral race talk about what a great job they are doing when clearly, people are voting with their feet and continue to leave, sinking us to < 319,000 people.

There's a very personal side to this story of kids being pulled out of the city by parents.  Here are my thoughts as a parent of 3:

One could surmise that kids are not welcome here; that STL is a bad place to be a kid or raise kids.  But, you've got to wonder, what kind of kids are leaving?  Are well educated/wealthy St. Louis Hills parents packing up the beautiful little college bound things in the leather seated mini-vans and heading for the greener pastures of Kirkwood, Wentzville, Millstadt or Chesterfield where the yards are bigger and the neighbors are more homogeneous, right-minded or well-heeled?  Or, are cognizant, active/loving urban minded parents who are trying to live a humble life in the public education system, in a used car in an affordable apartment/house, in a city neighborhood, packing it up because they've been frustrated and disenfranchised by their city public/charter school experience and can't afford or don't want to attend private schools?  Or, are young, low-income single moms with multiple kids leaving to find a way elsewhere because they can't get a footing in STL and are making a jump to the county?  Or lastly, are nice families who want the best for their kids hearing the sensational local news and reading the paper and deciding to not even research or consider options in St. Louis for their kids and are actively planning on vacating for the burbs once junior gets to be school aged...no questions asked? 

I don't have the answers, but judging by the numbers, the ratio is roughly 3 kids/teenagers per every 1 adult heading out of town.  If I had to guess it is probably more young, poor single mothers taking a couple kids and leaving.  If it were married families or committed couples, the numbers would be more balanced toward adults:minors leaving St. Louis.  A further look at the 2010 numbers will tell you that African-Americans are leaving at a much greater rate than any other racial class counted by the census.  Most losses were from the most run down north city neighborhoods where counts were ~ 20% lower.

Yikes.

Anyhow, the reasons for mass minor exodus are probably a little of all of the above (and possibly other) scenarios.  The thing I know for sure is lots of kids are leaving the city.  Each one a lost opportunity for the future.  Each one a citizen that will no longer identify with St. Louis as his/her childhood home or experience.

So where does that leave those of us who have chosen to stay in St. Louis with school aged kids?  More importantly, where does that leave the next generation of parents considering kids or with kids nearing school age?

Let me give you a taste of my experience with the SLPS...

I consider myself an active dad, I love my kids and my wife and want nothing more than for them to live a happy life where they can have some say in what they do for a living and work toward what they think is right or wrong in the world.  Choices are huge with me.  If you have no choices in your schooling and your career and your future in general, you can feel cornered and defensive...sometimes defeated.  And animals act weird and out of their element when they are cornered. Fight or flight is a psychological concept I've always been interested in and STL living keeps me on the edge of that fight or flight teeter totter.

Living in St. Louis can be a constant fight.  The odds are stacked against you when it comes to raising a family.  When junior turns 5, you don't just walk up to the local public school administration office to sign your kid up for the shiny new neighborhood school closest to your home where you are met with smiles and open arms and plenty of other happy families, familiar faces and neighbors with precious little things in tow.  It isn't like that.  Many of the employees at the SLPS have gotten/retained their jobs due to nepotism and other antiquated ways of entitlement.  Many are accountable to no one and the service you get is horrible and enough to turn a normal, dignified person away after the first interaction.  Many cannot speak proper English, many will yell at you, or are raging racists and will not file your requests if you get cross wise with them or call them out on their behavior or performance.  Yes, we recently gained partial accreditation and that is fantastic, but somebody needs to clean house in the administrative arm of the SLPS.  Many of the teachers, counselors, principals, etc work their butts off and are top shelf educators and administrators.  But if your VERY FIRST touch point with the public schools is some racist, non-coherent person who hates their job, that can be enough to make you walk away.  Why would you want your kids to be around this type of person, right?  It can only go down hill from here, first impressions are very important as a parent.  You can lose decent people immediately, before they have even given the educators and schools a chance to work with your kid(s).  And you know what the most popular move is for a parent who is disenfranchised?  You guessed it:  move to the burbs.

Furthermore, neighborhood schools were abolished for racial de-segregation reasons clearly needed at the time in the 20th Century, but not so much now.  In essence, this deseg action eroded much of what was good about neighborhood schools and played a hand in destroying the fabric of neighborhoods and adding a tremendous overhead of busing and extended school days for kids that should have more time to study and play then sit on a bus for an hour or more to get to a decent school, regardless of where you live.  I realize I am over simplifying the complex history of a deseg policy, but some parents who leave for the county just want their kids to go to school with their neighbors kids.  Simple, right?  Can't blame someone for that.

Additionally, some SLPS schools perform very poorly, some are not safe and have a tremendous amount of knuckleheads/punks filling the seats...many of these kids have no active parents who want them to do better and have more opportunities than they did.  Willful ignorance abounds.  Many have no responsible father in the picture at all.  That's just a sorry fact.  Some don't get any re-enforcement at home to focus on homework and they suffer as a result.  This obviously lowers the quality of education for others in the room and exhausts the teachers and the system.  The thing is, many of the SLPS are simply not an option for any normal, loving parent who wants a dignified, safe learning environment for their kids.

As a result, in St. Louis as an active parent, you have to work extra hard to find the more rare, suitable options for your kids if you want to live here and have them in the best position to get a quality education and childhood school experience.  It's not easy like it is in say west county, where you just pay your crazy high property taxes, fill out the papers at Parkway West and all the dominoes start falling and you are just a happy little fish swimming with the stream.  No, St. Louis isn't like that.  If you want the good options, you've got to fight for them and in some cases you've got to have luck on your side as well.

You have to be informed.  You have to be active and prepared for a fight to get a decent way for your kids.  Sometimes that fight can be exhausting and sometimes contentious.  It keeps my finger on the eject button constantly.  If my kids are wronged and it's out of my control, I'll have to bolt for U.City (the Yale or Jail district), Oakville or Maplewood or some other civilized suburban city to try things out there.  Yet, there are great public, charter and affordable private schools in the city.  More choices exist now than they did previously and for that I'm thankful.  I think there are options a normal family who want their kids to succeed in an urban, diverse environment would consider.  I hear about more and more of them as I listen to other parents and neighbors talking.

I assume that many parents on the brink of a big decision to stay or go know that they are not up for the fight and choose the path of least resistance:  move to the burbs.  That may sound lazy, but can you really blame them?

With all that in mind, let me tell ya, raising kids in the city has been a blessing...so far.  It's a lot of work, and it takes effort.  Let me also tell you that I'd by lying if I didn't say we also have gone through some pretty serious fight or flight scenarios.  An STL parent puts up with lots of crap that many of my suburban parent friends simply do not.  However, these suburban parents don't live in places that I find nearly as interesting and beautiful, but that's another story.  But, it has been an inspiration to live here, one that is completely unattainable in many of the burbs.  The chances of meeting someone I see eye to eye with on many levels (including parenting) are much greater here than other places.  I know what some are thinking...those are adult, selfish needs and its just not right raising a kid in the city.

However, the honest story is that we think we are doing better for our kids future to live in a city where they'll be exposed to a much more broad spectrum of kids and experiences than what we had growing up in smallish towns.

Here are some pluses for me:  my kids are exposed to constant beauty, taste, history and arts in their surroundings. My wife has a background in the fine arts; it's part of why I fell for her back when I was 19.  We have a long history of enjoying the beauty that St. Louis offers in the museums, galleries, stores, parks, restaurants, neighborhoods, buildings and streets.  It's an inspiring place.  I'm a simpleton, and can appreciate a blooming tree in Tower Grove Park or a Marsden Hartley painting in the SLAM, or hearing a favorite song on KDHX and just be floored and completely happy.  I am all about feel and experience...and going out to lunch or hanging out in Ballwin, Olivette or Creve Coeur has never matched the fun and inspiration and welcomeness I've felt in STL spaces that fill old buildings where the brick and mortar and hand cut lumber add to the authenticity of the overall visit.  Take the same pizza and serve it up in a strip mall in Marlborough, MO or a renovated, former beer malt house in St. Louis (think PW Pizza) and I'll take the latter any day.  It will be the same pizza, but a better experience.  One I don't mind spending the cash on and one I'd recommend to friends.

My kids have attended a magnet school in the SLPS for many years now, and I love the building they are in, the neighborhood and many of the families/kids that go there.  The school draws people from all over the city and county from different economic backgrounds.  It's as diverse as a St. Louis school can be I suppose.  Additionally, as a middle class-raised in the suburbs white dude, I like the fact that there are African-American authority figures at their school.  In my up bringing there were black bus drivers, janitors and maintenance men, but few to no black teachers, principals, counselors, etc.  Their current principal holds a PhD and is an African-American woman.  So, playing with, living with, attending school with and listening/learning/looking up to people from different races is exactly what this city and America in general probably needs to get over a lot of the racist B.S. that holds us back greatly.

But the ultimate bottom line is this...I think they are getting an excellent education, and they are smarter and more focused than I ever was as a kid.  The public schools have many amazingly smart, dedicated and hard working teachers and administrators.  We've been lucky enough to have great teachers almost every year for all 3 of our kids.  We are happy, my kids are happy.  But you have to fight for these happy scenarios...the good thing is we are not unique, other families who have fought for their kids best interests are among us.  You walk together in great numbers and you get to be surrounded by extremely dedicated parents from all walks of life from all parts of the city...and you walk side by side with those that have chosen the good fight just like you.  The trials and tribulations are shared...but at the end of the day you're a city person who is succeeding with children that are succeeding as well.  You stayed, fought and just may win.

Now, I know there are plenty who don't have good things to say about schools no matter where they are.  I'm not trying to polish turds here, I'm not bragging, I'm not saying St. Louis has an advantage in any way over the 90 suburban cities in the county...I'm simply trying to explain that you can find a decent path for your family in St. Louis.  It ain't gonna be easy and it won't be perfect...but I don't think there is a perfect school anywhere.  I just wish parents and kids who are succeeding in St. Louis would speak up and tell their story a little...more on that in a minute...

Back to the census data...based on the numerical increases, I like the fact that we have thriving, energetic, young people in their 20s here.  They inspire me and make me hopeful for the future.  STL is an easy sell to young suburban or creative class kids looking for more than their boring childhood environs; or, gay people who want to feel more welcome than a rural/suburban setting can provide, empty nesting progressives seeking an active/walkable scene, entrepreneurs looking for a deal, immigrants who want to live/start a business on the cheap, lovers of architecture, history, I can go on and on about the easy STL sell.

But there's something we don't talk enough about:  we need families and kids that grow up here in order to be an even stronger city in the future.  Again, we lost 29,000 people from 2000-2010.  3/4 were under 20 years old.  Damn. It's the fight of our next decade to sell this place and retain middle class people with school-age kids.  Yep...I really believe this to be true.  It's bigger than crime and black/white racism.

Now that I've been a parent of ~10 years with 3 kids and the blessing of a devoted mom/wife that runs the family and is as up for the city experience as I...I know my kids are on a path to a life of beauty and respect for their surroundings and history and nature that I want them to have.

I must admit, I have a bit of a defiant spirit in me.  When I see and hear people I don't necessarily like or respect on any level railing against the city, I want to tell them to fuck off, or better yet, prove them wrong.  But the city really does stack the cards against you when it comes to raising kids with all the modern amenities and with all the suburban pressures that exist.  There's not cheer-leading squads, lacrosse teams, baseball teams at the city's best magnet schools.  Nor for charters.  If you want that stuff, you'll have to work hard to get them involved in CYC, YMCA or other ventures; or, you'll have to move to the higher tax districts and live in a place where you may not have a decent park, history, bar, restaurant or just "places" in general to be; or send them to private schools. 

The elementary city school my kids go to doesn't have organized sports teams, so you have to look elsewhere to get kids involved in sports.  The Catholic schools and the YMCA can help fill this gap..but again, it's extra work and $ for the parents to make this happen.  It's not part of the package.  This drives some away as well.

It's hard work and takes a lot more effort to raise kids to the best of your ability here in St. Louis and that is the honest reality of the current situation.  If you are willing to be active and put the extra work it takes to get your kids involved in the right situations for them, you can make it here.   You can be very happy.  Things are not as bad as the media makes it out to be.  The fact is, most people that complain and bitch about the city schools have ZERO first hand experience with them.  I would urge parents of young children to research the reasonable possibilities for an education before they leave.  Be part of the solution and not the ongoing problem.

In keeping with that last statement, I am going to try and do my part and take on a new side project...I will be researching city private, charter and public schools and interviewing parents on their experiences.  How do you get in?  Is there a lotto?  What are the costs?  Where do you go to get enrollment info and tours?  What are the other families like at that school? 

At the end of the day, I hope to have a guide (not unlike my neighborhood guides) for expecting parents and families/couples with kids to access real information from real people...not haters.  I hope to keep it real and talk about pros and cons.

If you are a parent with kids in a city school and would like to represent...drop me a line if you'd like to meet for coffee/beer/whatever and do a quick 30 minute interview of "your story".  I will respect your anonymity if you so choose.  We can also do an interview over the phone or email if its easier.

I honestly feel that we have hit rock bottom in many of parts of this city and that better days are ahead.  I feel that if decent, hard working parents with nice families who are mostly happy with their kids education would speak up, we could counter the negative stories and the uninformed haters as well.

If you would like to do your part, I can be contacted here:

groth_stl@hotmail.com

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Few Of My Favorite Things In 2012

Here's a list of developments or newly discovered things that leave me with a happy feel looking back at 2012 and eternally optimistic for St. Louis in 2013:

1. Partial accreditation for SLPS (baby steps)
2. Prop R passed:  reducing the number of alderman only makes sense when you lose 0.5M people in 50 years!
3. Prop A passed:  local control of police just makes sense!
4. Christine Ingrassia is running for alderman in Ward 6!
5. Griffin Delivery rocks and delivers to Fox Park!  It matches my core passions:  supporting small business, promoting walking/biking, kick ass food at my doorstep
6. The Central Library renovation is nothing short of spectacular.  I can't wait to spend an entire day there burning music and looking at old STL maps.
7. Urban Chestnut Beer Garden...they were able to take a surface parking lot and turn it into an urban oasis for European beer lovers.
8. Discovering the Cafe Ventana Muffaletta...I love sitting at the bar when the windows are open in the Spring and Fall.
9. MX building adding new life to the eastern portion of Washington Blvd.  Snarfs Sandwich Shop, Pi Pizza, the Collective and the movie theatre will make this a fun part of the street and a destination for people who LIVE here!
10. Siete Luminarias cactus sopes, tamales at the candy shop near California/Cherokee

St. Louis continues to be a city where I can constantly discover new things, enjoy raising my family, meet new/amazing people and feel optimistic in spite of all the negatives. 

Here's to a happy and progressive 2013!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Central Library Renovation

Every once in awhile an amazing transformation occurs.  Our city molts and sheds its skin constantly revealing something new and utterly exciting.  The recent $70M renovation of the Central Library, the crowned jewel of our amazing library system, is nothing short of stunning.  This library has been etched into my urban experience.  I have memories of the old library which was magnificent, if not sometimes a little drab in feel.

The renovation is an inspiration of what good design and execution can bring.  The old touches have been meticulously restored.  I am so happy it still feels like the old library.  However, the amazing use of modern lighting and new arrangements are nothing short of perfect.

The new, mod seating is comfortable and sleek, yet private.  The new atrium is sharp, elegant, bright and open.  This place utterly blew me away today.  Cannon Design should be praised to the high heavens.  The mix of old and new was pulled off like no other I have seen.

Cass Gilbert designed the Central Library at 1301 Olive Street in the Downtown West neighborhood.  The masterpiece was built in 1912 and 100 years later, I can confidently say has become a shining new and creative example of how our city and its amazing architecture can be cutting edge and elegant for another 100 years.

I am going to shut up and share some photos I took today, the day of the Grand Re-opening.  If you are a St. Louisan, today you should be proud and optimistic of our future.  If this gem can rise from the patina to become an utterly amazing, bright place...so can the rest of the city.

Go visit this new space and let me know what YOU think.

Today was a dreary, rainy winter day...but the old 1912 beauty was still shining:










The turtle footed lights, the flag pole, the metal doors, the lion fountains are all  scrubbed and functioning.  The fountains have water flowing for the first time in over 50 years:










The new Locust Street entrance across from Lucas Park is probably my favorite.  The water features are calming and the structure itself is set apart from the Gilbert building and is covered in literary entries.








The stuff we all know and love is still there...but the lighting that was employed brighten up some of the darker corners of the old building.  New signage, artwork and photography was added to train the eye to new parts of the library.













































The new seating is mod and perfectly placed for privacy and utility:










The new atrium and modern touches are sharp and elegant:



















There is a new theatre as well:


I love it here.  I love St. Louis.  This place is a work of art, go experience a St. Louis treasure: