Friday, November 19, 2010

Looking for Leadership on Regional Cohesion

Will this flag someday fly over ALL of St. Louis?
This week, the Post-Dispatch continued its excellent "Can St. Louis Compete?" series, analyzing the region's disproportionate focus on real estate development rather than job creation, and the competitive and counter-productive use of tax incentives by the region's numerous governmental entities.  It seems pretty clear that if the paper's query ended "With Itself?", the answer would be a resounding "yes."

There are, of course, no easy solutions to the problems examined by the series, rooted as they are in complex and intertwined financial, political, and social issues.  I believe, however, that the re-entry of the City of St. Louis into St. Louis Countyif not a full-scale consolidation of the City and the Countywould be a step in the right direction.  This spring, I wrote a post on reunification, arguing that "re-joining the City to the County would help foster a sense of regional cooperation that is lacking now, to the greater good of all of St. Louis."  While only a cursory overview of the issues (and probably oversimplistic in its analysis), I continue to believe in its central premise that reunification would be a long-term net positive for all of St. Louis.

Of course, as many others have said, rejoining the City and the County would not be a "silver bullet" to solve the region's problems.  Such "solutions" don't exist in the real world.  Without complementary reform efforts, such as changing the way in which intra-regional municipalities use local tax incentives (particularly tax increment financing) in an "inefficient, zero-sum competition for tax base with their neighbors", it's possible that reunification would have very little effect at all.  To me, though, the question isn't whether reunification solves the problems the region faces (it certainly won't), but whether it is a stephowever smallin the right direction.

Admittedly, it may not be.  As some suggest, enhanced collaboration among specific organizations and interest groups may be more effective and efficient than changes to governmental structure.  There is certainly evidence that city-county consolidations don't always result in the cost savings touted by their advocates, and even that they can do more harm than good.  And concerns held by residents of the City (e.g., ceding control over urban issues to the County) and the County (e.g., the assumption of liabilities from the financially struggling City) are not irrational. 

To me, though, it seems intuitive (and real-life examples from elsewhere suggest) that a united City and County would become stronger over the long term.  If nothing else, the re-entry of the City into the County would be a symbolic step toward increased regional cooperation, and ultimately may advance a new paradigm of competing against other regions instead of ourselves.  As business columnist David Nicklaus said in Tuesday's online discussion, "The outside world sees us as one metro region, and the more we look at ourselves that way, the better off we'll be."

Of course, we cannot know the precise effects of reunification before it occurs.  What we do know, though, is that St. LouisALL of St. Louisneeds to analyze these questions critically, to the point of starting to come up with some answers.  For too long, we have heard about the problems caused, at least in part, by the ultra-divided nature of our region, and by our self-defeating infighting.  How long do we have to hear about the problems, before we start demanding solutions?

Perhaps those demands are about to multiply.  Gauging by the (mostly) thoughtful online comments to one of the series' articles, the region's citizens are engaged in the discussion and are looking for answers. In addition, there are rumors in the air about the formation of a citizens' group to begin advocating for the re-entry of the City into the County.  The conversation will be further advanced with the publication (probably in a month or so) of the next installment of the "Can St. Louis Compete?" series, which will focus specifically on our governmental structure.

It is my hope that the increased focus and public engagement on these issues will act as a catalyst for policymakers and business leaders alike to begin identifying waysspecific waysto begin tackling these oft-cited problems.  Again, it is certainly possible that reunification is not the answer.  But if that is not one of our first steps, then whatspecificallyis?  What are the first steps we should take together to begin competing more with other regionsfor businesses, jobs, and residentsthan with ourselves?  

And who is going to lead the discussion?  City of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, for one, has long advocated the City's re-entry into the County.  Mayor Slay amplified his position on the issue earlier this year, taking to his blog, Twitter account, and the media with calls for a vote on the re-entry of the City into the County within two years.  Mayor Slay rightly noted that there would have to be a "huge benefit" to the County for reunification to work, and described the process as "slow" and "with much public debate."  In a discussion I had with the Mayor's office earlier this year, I was told that a push for reunification would begin after the County Executive election in November, assuming that the County Executive (Charlie Dooley) was agreeable to it.

The public debate seems to be well underway, and I believe that the Mayor's position has not changed.  What is less clear (to me, anyway) is the extent to which County leaders are stepping to the plate.  "Dooley's Merger" became a heated issue in the waning days of County Executive Dooley's campaign against challenger Bill Corrigan, with County Executive Dooley backing off earlier statements in support of "merger." 

Since the election, County Executive Dooley's public stance on the issue has been somewhat muddled.  He has stated that "the city-county merger issue will not be one of my priorities in the next term," described reunification to the Post-Dispatch as "not a Dooley or a Slay thing," and argued that "It's got to be what the people want. And apparently, people are not interested in doing it right now."  Subsequently, though, he has clarified to The Riverfront Times that the "merger" topic is not "off the table," and that he is open to discussing the idea if it will help the economy of both the county and city, bring jobs and make the region better."

There is no doubt that any proposed reunification of the City and County is politically tricky, and that the public's input is critical.  Equally clear, though, is that moving the ball forward will also require strong top-down political leadership.  Merger may not be "a priority," but beginning to identify concrete solutions to the problems it is intended to address must be.  It is incumbent on all of the political leaders of our communityin the City, the County, Missouri, and Illinoisto work cooperatively to determine how to strengthen the region for the future.  That is certainly underway to some extent already; hopefully the focus will sharpen in upcoming months.

It is timebeyond timefor strengthened regional cohesion, whether that takes the form of formal consolidation or merely enhanced internal collaboration.  Either way, it's time for our region to stand together as ST. LOUISUNITED.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why St. Louis Should Vote for Simone

Those of you on Twitter are almost certainly aware of the ongoing "Vote for Simone" campaign.  This post is for my millions (and millions!) of readers who are not on Twitter or otherwise haven't heard about Simone's contributions to St. Louis.

Simone Bernstein is the 18-year old founder of St. Louis Volunteen, a comprehensive online database of St. Louis volunteer opportunities, geared toward matching youth volunteers with the service needs of charitable organizations.  Simone also has focused on opening up volunteer opportunities to youths under 18, which are typically limited due to safety and liability issues.  Using her website and social networking sites like Twitter, Simone posts volunteer assignments and promotes a variety of charitable causes.
Through St. Louis Volunteen, Simone's efforts have resulted in placing more than 1,500 area students into volunteer opportunities.  In addition, almost fifty St. Louis organizations are now willing to consider volunteers under the age of eighteen.  Simone also was instrumental in organizing the First St. Louis Youth and Family Volunteer Fair, which connected over 25 organizations and 500 interested volunteers at the Magic House.

Simone has now been named a 2010 "Woman of Worth" by L'Oreal Paris, which recognizes Simone as "an inspiring volunteer, an outstanding achiever, and a beautiful person who's making a difference in her community."  She already has received a $5,000 award for her charity of choice, and is in the running for a $25,000 award if voted as the Woman of Worth National Honoree.

In Simone's own words:  "I was fortunate to be selected as one of 10 females throughout the US for the L'Oreal Paris Women of Worth award.  I am one of the youngest honorees and the only one from the Midwest.

L'Oreal Paris has donated $5,000 directly to continue providing funding for future Youth and Family Volunteer Fairs at the St. Louis Magic House.  The next Youth and Family Volunteer Fair will be Sunday, April 10, 2011.  The event is a great way to promote and share an organization's mission with the community.

I have a chance at winning a huge grant of $25,000. I would like to put those funds to use for funded summer volunteer enrichment programs for inner-city youth. Middle and upper class kids are encouraged to volunteer, but transportation and finances make it more challenging for inner-city youth.  ALL funds will go back to programs that focus on youth." 

Simone named the following organizations as ones that "are passionate about helping youth and utilize youth volunteers," and that she would like to help with her grant proceeds if she wins:  St. Louis Crisis Nursery (@StlCrisisKids); St. Louis Making Music (@Stlmakingmusic); the Education Exchange Corps (@EduXchangecorps); Scope Missouri (@ScopeMO); and the Danforth Center's World Food Day.
Simone has done a lot for the greater good of the St. Louis communityparticularly for an 18-year old.  Her efforts should be encouraged and rewarded. Let's all take a few seconds and return a good deed to her, and help her become the National Honoree by voting (and asking others to vote) for her.

Unlike some contests, you only have to vote once (per e-mail address), and it literally takes only a couple of seconds to vote.  Voting ends on November 24th.  The Women of Worth honorees will be recognized at a dinner in New York City on December 9th, at which the National Honoree will be announced. 

Vote for Simone!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Autumn in Tower Grove Park

Vine-covered tree near Grand Blvd.
entrance to Tower Grove Park
Any season is a great time to visit Tower Grove Park, but if you haven't yet enjoyed an autumn day there this year, I would highly recommend getting there before the remaining color is gone. 

Although sometimes called one of the City's "best kept secrets", the park has a huge number of devotees and was recently hailed by the Riverfront Times as the "Best Public Park" for 2010.  It may be overshadowed by the better-known and more-visited Forest Park, but, in my opinion, its relative peacefulness is a big part of its charm.  On my most recent visit, the word that kept coming to mind was: serenity.  

Tower Grove Park was donated by Henry Shaw to the citizens of St. Louis in 1868.  In addition to its beautiful natural scenery and wildlife (particularly birds), the urban forest boasts some of St. Louis' finest landscape architecture, statuary, and numerous Victorian-era pavilions that can be reserved for weddings, picnics, and other events.

The park includes four full-length sculptures (William Shakespeare, Alexander von Humboldt, Christopher Columbus, and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben), and a music pavilion surrounded by marble busts of composers Mozart, Rossini, Beethoven, Wagner, Gounod, and Verdi. Other ornamental works are scattered throughout the park.

Main Drive in Tower Grove Park, early morning.
Christopher Columbus by Ferdinand von Miller, dedicated October 12,
1886. This first statue of Columbus in the U.S. is believed to be "the
only statue in the US of a bearded Columbus, a feature added at the
insistence of the donor [Henry Shaw]. A rumor has it that objecting,
the sculptor carved on the statue:  'I knew he didn't have a beard.'"
The Music Pavilion is surrounded by this marble bust of Mozart as
well as ones of composers Rossini, Beethoven, Wagner, Gounod, and Verdi.

Echoing the words of one of the park's commissioners in 1883, the park's official website states that "the public pleasure grounds of a great city . . . are disassociated from all political, religious or social antagonisms; people generally visit them in their happiest, most reflective moods, and on days when the cares and anxieties of business and labor are laid aside."  Those words ring true to me in general, and particularly in relation to Tower Grove Park.

Autumn may be on the wane, but the park is a great place to visit in any season.  The park is the site of many of the City's gatherings throughout the year, including the popular Festival of Nations, which saw its largest crowd to date140,000 visitorsin summer 2010.  And on Saturday mornings from May through early November, the Tower Grove Farmers' Market and Bazaar (located just west of the Pool Pavilion) is bustling with shoppers and other visitors. Particularly in the summer, this is a great time to bring the entire family to the park, as throngs of kids splash in the wading pool and enjoy the nearby playgrounds.  

Enjoying the music at the Festival of Nations,
 Summer 2010.

Families splash in the fountain at the Wading Pool Pavilion,
adjacent to the Tower Grove Farmers' Market.
 For much more information on Tower Grove Park's history, attractions, and events, be sure to visit the park's official website or the City's site dedicated to the park.  If you really want to dig into its history, check out this digitized version of the 1883 Tower Grove Park of the City of St. Louis. Review of its Origin and History, Plan of Improvement, Ornamental Features, Etc. With Illustrations.

Of course, if you want to get a true flavor of the parkget out and enjoy it!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Scenes from Our Beautiful City

Lately, I have not had nearly as much time to post on this site as I would like.  I hope to be able to write more in the upcoming months, but in the meantime, I thought I would share some photographs from around the City of St. Louis.  I bought a DSLR camera last month and have been spending a lot of time taking pictures around town (part of the reason I haven't written as much lately).

While I intend for this site to continue to be more of a written blog than a photoblog, the main point of the site is to spread a positive image of the City of St. Louis--and what better way to do that than to share some scenes from our beautiful city.  You know what they say pictures are worth . . . so, until I can get back to actual writing, here are 12,000 words.

(Apologies to my Twitter and/or Flickr followers, who likely have seen some or all of these before).
“The Runner” by William Zorach.
Kiener Plaza, downtown St. Louis.
Eros Bendato (the "sideways head") by Igor Mitoraj.
Citygarden, downtown St. Louis.
The Southwestern Bell Building is in the background.

Nathan Frank Bandstand in Pagoda Lake, Forest Park
(Thanks to "Anonymous" for the info on this structure)

Christ Church Cathedral, 1210 Locust Street.

Vine on Brick, Cherokee Street.

Arch through the trees.

Civil Courts Building reflected at Citygarden.

Art Museum under construction.

"Guardians of the Brick."  Hammerstone's in Soulard. 
This brick building on their back patio is believed to have been a whiskey still during Prohibition.

"Waiting on a Train"

"Bunnyzilla" at Citygarden.

Arch at sunrise, from the Eads Bridge.