Saint Louis is strong because of its rich culture and shared history. Saint Louis is the home of the blues (and not just the hockey team either!), the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, and home to any number of national and international figures. We have Imo’s, Ted Drewes, Saint Louis Bread Company, and gooey butter cake. We have two world-class professional sports teams. We have one of the best start-up scenes in the nation. The region is home to some of the best institutions of higher learning in the world, bar none. There is so much that people in the Saint Louis region have in common with one another and that makes us strong – and yet, as a region we are geographically isolated from one another. We live in silos, separate from one another. We come together to share our rich history and culture, to enjoy the things that make us great, but when we drive home we go back into our isolation.
Saint Louis is not as strong as it could be if we were united as a region. We are divided by geography; we cling to our municipalities despite being more than pleased to put “Saint Louis” on our mail so that outsiders know where we are actually talking about. We are divided by income, with municipal court participants being overall more satisfied in affluent communities, and the business center of the region being obvious. And yes, we are divided by race and skin color. We are in the top 10 most black-white segregated metropolitan areas in America. In Saint Louis County, even when only considering municipalities with more than 5000 residents, the average percentage of the majority race in any given municipality is 80% of the whole population of the municipality. Including towns with less than 5000 people shows even higher numbers (but really, who counts Champ anyway?)
I grew up in Southern Illinois, and I learned to admire Saint Louis from afar as a glittering jewel in the night sky. My family came and watched the fireworks every year. We came and watched the Cardinals play. A grade school class of no more than 25 kids drove over 25 miles from the little village of Freeburg, Illinois so that we could go to the Science Center. When I was accepted as a graduate assistant to Saint Louis University I was so excited to move to the city, and so disappointed to see the problems that it faced because of regional fracturing. Because I knew from all those years of coming over: we are a region.
Saint Louis has a rich history. But history alone cannot give us an identity. Who we are will be determined by what we do now and in the future, not by what we used to be. Holding to the past for unity is no panacea.
Saint Louis has a rich culture. We all love going to the Broadway Oyster Bar for a drink and some jazz and on game day people come in from out of state on the Metrolink to root for the Cardinals. We enjoy our culture together. Rich and poor; black and white; and north, east, south, and west. We all come together to enjoy what makes Saint Louis strong.
We are a region. It’s time for us to start acting like it, and it’s time for our government to look like it.
Mark Benton is a graduate student at St. Louis University working on his Master's in Public Administration with a research interest in the dynamics and history racial segregation.