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Can St. Louis Rise from Its Own Ashes?

When most people think of St. Louis, Missouri these days, they probably think of the problematic fundraising strategies that some of the suburbs adopt and how they affect certain residents. This reputation was not improved when six activists linked to police brutality in Ferguson were recently discovered dead. However, because this reputation damages how cities are viewed, St. Louis has been making some efforts not only to change how it is viewed by the outside world, but also how the people who live within it see their homes. The real question is whether St. Louis can stand as a city that can solve problems without creating new ones.

The first step to solving any problem is to admit that one exists. Unfortunately, one of the habits of city government is to hire a private contractor to say that there are no problems, so any angst experienced by the citizens is the fault of those citizens. Not surprisingly, no one ever finds anything wrong with the cities and problems continue to abound. Citizens continue to approach council with issues, and even though the city was in the spotlight for maltreatment, no one was being heard. St. Louis took note of this and actually hired a team that would tell the truth, no matter how difficult it was to hear. Political will is the final hurdle to ensure that the city regains respect in the eyes of its constituents.

Criminalizing Black people in the eyes of the world is the harshest punishment for a demographic that cannot change its complexion. Therefore, governments at all levels should take steps to change the dominant narrative so that its citizens can live in peace. The county is taking note of this and has decided to do two things: 1) stop prosecuting individuals with less than 100 grams of marijuana; and 2) start looking for something other than cash bail. While this is not full on legalization or extensive criminal reform, it is the beginning of understanding that deciding that Black people–who remain the targets for drug searches and cash bails–cannot continue to exist in a constant state of anxiety because “people don’t like the looks of them.”

Of course, what is the reason why a lot of Black people deal narcotics? Because those are the jobs, and considering that a mostly White population has benefited from various states legalizing marijuana, those are not bad jobs to acquire. Thus, if the state is unwilling to legalize a commodity that would help the majority of its population, at least the local government can assist people in acquiring jobs of which the city does approve. Helping younger people get jobs does not solve the problem of diminishing long term careers. However, if a city has an image that it expects of “certain people,” it should work with the people to promote that image.

Even though Austin, Texas is known for its extensive gentrification (read: decision that Black and brown people do not belong within the city limits), St. Louis has been targeted by people looking to take advantage of the “really cheap realty.” One of the ways it attracts those types of investors is with the presence of vacant buildings. Now that declaring entire communities as “slums” or “blight” has been called out for the erasure it is, people have been looking to address vacant lots in a way that benefits the neighborhood residents rather than just the investors. Community trust will take a while to restore, but actually engaging the communities in their futures will be a crucial step towards better government-constituent relations.

Finally, St. Louis will be required to consider the kind of city it wants to be in the future. The art community is controversial because of what many people consider to be “art” and the types of “artists” which compose those communities. On the other hand, artists usually have lower incomes because they rarely have steady work and often lack healthcare, but will often live and work in collectives. Public art is also a significant aspect in giving character to a city, and many cities are dealing with urban homogenization on both an architectural and a racial levels. Attracting artists can be an effective way to diversify the income within a neighborhood as long as the residents are not actually subsidized millionaires “following their bliss.”

St. Louis, like Detroit, has been a jewel in the past and the potential is there for it to recreate–not rebrand–itself in a way that allows it to be on the right side of history. In these troubled times, the challenge will be pushing back against outside investors who fail to see past their profit motives and dream of St. Louis being transformed to Anytown, USA. The direction the city chooses will depend on whether it will actually acknowledge those who will live with the consequences, and only time will bring that fruit to bear.

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