North St. Louis

All Power to the Imagination

by Michael R. Allen

The title of this blog entry was the rallying cry of student protesters in Paris 40 years ago yesterday. (Read more about the events of May 1968 here.) What a wonderful exclamation — power not to institutions, leaders, groups of people or even the revolutionary movement. The students wanted all power for imagination — the faculty every human being shares, that allows for the envisioning of a new world.

Without imagination, we couldn’t think through changing our own circumstances. Now, granted that some people have mighty fine circumstances and probably don’t want to imagine a change in the world that may benefit others. The rest of us, though, need to have the power to envision our neighborhoods and own lives improved physically, economically and spiritually. In St. Louis, imagination fuels the work of my neighbors in Old North St. Louis as much as it keeps developers like Craig Heller going. Sometimes it’s not acknowledged, and rarely gets political play, but we need imagination to make this city a better place.

Without imagination, we are resigned to existing conditions. Without daring to envision a city that does not let half of its geographic area collapse — without daring to imagine a city where the antiquated 1916 charter (now a suicide pact) is overturned — without making plans to include every citizen, not just the best-bred and best-educated, in decision-making at all levels — without thinking that we can create standards for the quality of development that would ensure world-class results — we have a city that has long since accepted mediocrity through default.

Change without imagination is tantamount to continued loss of opportunities. We can’t let the technocrats plan our future through financing formulas. Without a vision — a dream — of what shape we want St. Louis to be in, we won’t be able to resist or even influence the people whose dull plans are despoiling the landscape that once was an international city.

The situation surrounding the near north side is one great example. There is plenty of imagination for what Old North, Hyde Park and other neighborhoods should look like, but how empowered is the vision? These areas are under attack through speculation, Big Dull Plans, political apathy, redlining and persistent political defeat. What people there need to do is proclaim their vision for their home — a vision easily defined to neighbors and strangers alike. Without dreams, no neighborhood can resist the infiltration of a Great Plan. Without a truly imaginative vision offered, the Great Plan may seem like a work of imagination. Maybe it is. But what mind imagines a decades of deprivation, building collapses, arson and poverty followed by wholesale clearance? That’s not the work of imagination — that what happens without it.