by Michael R. Allen
Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining Paul J. McKee, Jr., Antonio French and Stephen Acree for the panel on “Regeneration” during Open/Closed, a groundbreaking conference on vacant property in St. Louis. Perhaps the majesty of Joseph Conradi’s design of the Most holy Trinity Church sanctuary prevented any expected rancor, but I credit both the deft moderation of Cynthia Jordan and the spirit of the conference itself for leading the discussion away from any predictable drama.
Drama would have been a distraction. I confess to wanting deliberately to focus on specific goals and actions during what was often an abstract — but healthy — conversation. The reason for this was that Open/Closed showed how much common ground exists between people supposedly diametrically opposed in goals. What I heard was that most panelists want to dream big but work hard, and everyone wants to revitalize the economy of the city as well as cure its cultural defects. Vacant property is a huge problem, but we all know that it is a symptom of regional stasis and city disease that we must end.
We have a lot of work ahead, and we need to develop the 21st century approach to renewing St. Louis. Every panelist and speaker at Open/Closed is working on a version of that approach, sometimes — as with Paul McKee, Jr. and I — in conflict. Differences in approach are not big problems so long as there are so few people searching for a new way forward. Our challenge is to use our common ground to grow the number of people and resources being deployed to transform the city and make the region a national magnet. We can debate the finer points of Land Reutilization Authority policy or Northside Regeneration’s development program, but until there is robust demand for vacant land held by the city, McKee or anyone else, we are chasing minor targets.
The challenge ahead is transforming such wide agreement on the major problems facing St. Louis into workable actions. Otherwise we are just having lovely conversations about some very ugly problems that will continue to worsen. I hesitate to offer a string of abstract things we need to do to rebuild city government, cut through racism, rally behind entrepreneurs and other things that people talked about this weekend. The bottom line really is that anyone who recognizes that vacancy in St. Louis — especially the intensive abandonment of north St. Louis — is the symptom of a declining culture has to get to work rebuilding that culture. Some of us can afford to have our family foundations target grants or loans, others can start organizing block units, some can buy and rehab vacant buildings and others can use their official positions to create policies that direct scarce resources to neighborhoods that actually need targeted public money. (Oh, and we all can vote.) The problem in enormous, but the cure is collective.
I commend Next STL, Frontier St. Louis, Rebuild Foundation and the other organizers of Open/Closed. Your work itself is an action step — the next step is ours.