North St. Louis Northside Regeneration People

Future, Past: Meet the Present

by Michael R. Allen

With tomorrow’s aldermanic hearing on the NorthSide bills, I think back to September 23. This was the date of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Commission’s meeting in which that body unanimously approved the TIF for the first two phases of the NorthSide project. I think of that meeting as the “Night of Dichotomy” because just a few block away at Left Bank Books’ downtown store was another gathering: a panel discussion sponsored by Next American City called Urbanexus.

I missed most of the Urbanexus panel unsuccessfully trying to get a seat at the TIF Commission, but I know that the panel featured some of our town’s best and brightest minds, including moderator Chris King, editorial director for the St. Louis American, Alderman Antonio French (D-21st) and Cherokee Street gadabout Galen Gondolfi. The crowd was as interesting as the panel. The store was jam-packed, with many faces that I had never seen before. Something magical is afoot when the Jeremiah, the Amish hobo of the north riverfront, is one of the most familiar faces in sight!

I don’t really recall much from the panel discussion, save Antonio French’s rousing call to change the city’s zoning code. What I can’t stop thinking about was how there was this ideas-focused, future-oriented convergence taking place at the same time and in the same radius as a public meting fraught with the predictable tensions and turmoil of the city’s past sixty years. The old scene was mired in age-old divisions and rife with anger, while the new scene was full of ideas but a little disconnected from the harsh reality of civic heavy-lifting.

I was able to plug into the Urbanexus events earlier in the day. My day started with a driving tour of the city that I led with Jeff and Randy Vines. In attendance were Diana Lind and Pooja Shah of Next American City, Sarah Szurpicki of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange, Sharon Carney from the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and Payton Chung of Chicago. The tour was a mad dash starting downtown and winding through everywhere from Old North to Clayton.

Steven Smith, Pooja Shah, Diana Lind, Sharon Carney and Jeff Vines discuss St. Louis at The Royale.

The tour was a hit! Our out of town guests loved the city and its neighborhoods. One comment that came up again and again was how the city neighborhoods have strong identities and how even the most distressed areas retain street life and commercial cores. The tour-goers were very impressed by the north side, which they had read about in relation to the NorthSide project. No one saw the wasteland they had suspected might be there. In fact, the Detroit contingent was a little jealous!

Sarah Szurpicki and the Vines brothers outside of Urban Eats in Dutchtown.

After the tour, there was a lunch meeting called the Vanguard Regional Roundup. Next American City has kindly posted a recap here. That meeting was held at Urban Eats in Dutchtown, the brainchild of John Chen and Caya Aufiero. I left in a mood unwilling to deal with the TIF Commission hearing later that day. We had a great discussion about St. Louis that included not only some usual-suspects locals but people from Chicago, Philadelphia, Asheville and Detroit — and it was refreshing, insightful, realistic and productive. Then it was back to work. However, work imbued with such deliberation and connection to the outside world felt a little more purposeful.

You know that future we are all talking about? We’re building it now.