by Michael R. Allen
Yesterday, Mayor Francis Slay endorsed the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act in the State of the City address. What do we do today?
First introduced in February, the legislative proposal is just over two months old. In two months, a lot can be done. People can identify problematic legislation, lobby for amendments and work to secure major changes — or defeat. Obviously, though, people working alone or in small groups do not effect such changes. People need lobbies or organizations to catch the attention of elected officials.
With the Distressed Areas tax credit, a whole host of issues was raised. Land use, displacement of low-income owners and renters, historic preservation and the use of government to benefit single developers all came up. There are numerous advocacy groups doing work in these areas, but none took the tax credit proposal or Paul McKee’s north side project seriously enough to invest in a formal position.
Here we see the inherent inaction in the local political culture. Rather than risk losing a political fight, the guardians of the establishment would rather resign themselves to fatalism than make a decent effort to invest in an issue. Fatalism, after all, is intellectually respectful (and profoundly lazy). No one ever lost a bet by promising to do nothing.
Clearly, the location of McKee’s project enables the culture of complacency. The middle and upper classes of the region have long forsaken north St. Louis, or outright supported its annihilation. This attitude has enabled decades of decline then blamed upon stereotypical poor and African-American people willing to hold neglected areas together. These same classes control the organizations that could have provided a voice on the tax credit issue. The apathy is thus not surprising.
Those who have participated in organizations before who might recognize the urgency of the tax credit issue are elsewhere. Leadership in St. Louis is unsustainable, and new voices are quickly recuperated into the morass of complacent inaction or rejected outright. Those who are new to the game find little guidance and support and much cynicism here.
Meanwhile, the failure of political leadership leads to neighborhoods left undefended, people left without advocates, buildings left wrecked and a city ultimately cast into middling status by default. We can blame Mayor Slay or Lewis Reed for bringing us down all we want, but their victories are symptomatic of a culture of apathy everyone seems to cultivate. They are easy scapegoats for the self-righteous, and ascribing to them and their minions unlimited powers helps us feel better about not taking responsibility or aiding our friends who are trying desperately to create change.
If the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act is an inevitable legislative proposal, that means that we have taken the last two months and wasted opportunities to form a coalition to change the proposal into one more appropriate to St. Louis. Of course, accepting the inevitability of the proposal still does not excuse further inaction. However, from the Century Building battle on back to the Gateway Mall we see a string of isolated instances of activism where the leadership on the issues withered away and critical mass was fleeting. The irony is that these battles have reinforced the point that sustainable long-term vision and strong organization is needed to even get a seat at the decision-making table, let alone change the discourse of the establishment so our ideas are truly considered.
What do we do today? A better question may be what can we do? The need to create sustainable organizations related to urban development issues is crucial. The need to foster progressive political leadership is essential. Are these things within our grasp? Do we want them to be?