Central West End Forest Park Southeast Green Space

The BJC Park Lease and the Public Sphere

by Michael R. Allen

To all those people who bemoan the fact that some citizens are hesitant to grant BJC Healthcare a 99-year lease of a supposed forgotten corner of Forest Park: please examine the public sphere in the age of neoliberalism. Under policies at all levels of government, the ideal of the public good has become politically gauche. To talk openly about holding the stewardship of park land by our city government over the economic benefit of BJC’s expansion seems a political third rail, when even twenty-five years ago widespread opposition would have been a given, and few city officials would dare have favored a 99-year lease of public land to a private hospital group headed by a real estate developer.

In the past few years, we have watched the public school system sell off or discard assets of the public trust; not so long ago, the public hospital system was dismantled; city government has gone from a collective trust among citizens to provide for their needs to a near-sighted machine for favors, cobbled-together compromises and defensive gestures. Things that should belong to the citizens have been sold off or promised to private interest, and there seems to be widespread acceptance among leaders that government is now a tool for endorsement and acceleration of market forces. Once, government was the check against those forces that ensured that no matter what the city’s commercial fortunes the citizens had good parks, clean water, schools and the infrastructure needed for living.

While the opposition to the Forest Park lease may be more symbolic than anything given that BJC already has a lease on the land it is posed to get, the opposition recognizes the precedent the lease sets for future “needs” by big corporations like BJC. The lease makes law the trend of using city government to aid the powerful at the expense of safeguarding the public trust.

In that light, the lonely votes of opposition cast by Alderman Jeffrey Boyd (D-22nd) and Aldermanic President James Shrewsbury on the perfection of the lease deal are not foolish or ignorant acts. After all, BJC could seriously have chosen many other lands for the expansion project; the site is a red herring of epic proportion. They are the bare minimum we should expect of our elected officials in an age in which the very purpose of democratic government is under attack by hyper-capitalists who have managed to influence our government, nonprofit and intellectual spheres. This attack should be resisted everywhere, but it is especially pernicious on an urban city with relatively scarce resources like St. Louis.

Thankfully, we have two representatives in city government who are wary of the attack on the public sphere. We may every well have a third, if Comptroller Darlene Green votes against the lease when the final and binding vote by the Board of Estimate and Apportionment takes place.