The New York Times has an article today profiling the city of St. Louis and the difficulties faced by this midwestern city. Writer Kirk Johnson notes that St. Louis’ population had declined from 850,000 people in 1950 to only 348,000 in 2000. Economic develop in the downtown core has met with limited success. When we moved here one of the first things we noticed was – unlike Portland – how empty the streets were even during rush hour. Will St. Louis ever rebound? Johnson suggests the obstacles may be as cultural and religious as they are economic:
The city is an island of Democratic voters in a sea of increasingly conservative rural and suburban ones. It suffers from a reputation as a dangerous place, which tends to keep many outsiders from venturing in. And the recovery effort has partly been led by members of a group that is not popular in many parts of Missouri: gay men and lesbians who have renovated neighborhoods and opened new businesses in recent years.
In August, voters across the state overwhelming voted yes on an amendment to the State Constitution banning same-sex marriage. St. Louis, in a lonely dissent, voted no.
Missouri is an odd place. The religious right reigns supreme in this part of the country. Newly elected Governor Matt Blunt took the oath of office on not one but three Bibles this January (one for the unborn child his wife was expecting). This same governor – who pretends to be a defender of the “culture of life” – has used his first months in office to advocate huge cuts in health care programs for the poor.
Missourians don’t (for the most part) value public education. Schools here are a terrible mess. Economic development in downtown St. Louis isn’t being used to help lift up the city’s poor residents. "What's happening now is not designed to hit the low-income people. It's designed to hit the mobile, professional, upper-income class," Jesuit priest Bill Hutchison, founder of the Northside Community Center, told the paper.
Outside of St. Louis the biggest issues are opposition to abortion, trying to get creationism taught in public schools, and stopping stem-cell research. Reducing poverty and promoting social advancement are not on the agenda. St. Louis, notes the article, has a problem if it hopes to attract new residents:
Asked whether the city might suffer if Missourians came to see St. Louis as too different in its politics or too accepting of diversity, one senior city official said the risk of opprobrium was really the other way around - that potential newcomers, drawn to a resurgent St. Louis, might not be so keen on the rest of the state.
"I'm not so worried that they won't tolerate us," said Jeff Rainford, the chief of staff to Mayor Francis G. Slay, referring to Missouri residents outside the city. "I am a little afraid that the folks we want to come won't tolerate them."
We’ve enjoyed living in St. Louis over the last 2+ years for many reasons. There are some really wonderful neighborhoods. I’ve come to admire the many religious leaders who speak out here forcibly on social justice issues. You’ll find brave pockets of progressivism in this state (this was after all where Harry Truman was from). There is real beauty and character in the people and communities of Missouri. But it is hard to imagine raising a family in a state led by Matt Blunt’s backwardness and the religious right’s values of division. Missouri has defined itself by what it is against. Wouldn’t you rather live in a state that defines itself by what it is for?
(Thanks to Alice Smith - my mother-in-law - for e-mailing us this article)