Commentary
7:45 pm
Thu March 13, 2014

Editor's Weekly: Hearing Regional Discord In Debate Over Music Festivals

Interesting how the debate over mega-music festivals downtown has revealed the St. Louis region’s fault lines.

St. Louisan Big George Brock has performed at past Bluesweek festivals.
St. Louisan Big George Brock has performed at past Bluesweek festivals.
Credit File Photo | Bluesweek

City-suburb suspicions and class resentments with racial overtones were among the tensions on display this week at an aldermanic committee and in social media circles. As St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann reported, the committee voted for the festival deal after amendments designed to allay fears that the new events would drive existing ones out of the city. Still, local event organizer Mike Kociela has already announced that Bluesweek Festival and Taste of St. Louis are moving to Chesterfield. Those shifts sparked much of the emotion behind the debate.

The mega-festival deal surfaced a couple weeks ago with influential support from Mayor Francis Slay and key aldermen. Its origin and details remain murky. Whose idea was this? How did it get on the fast track? Will Summer Rocks LLC, the creation of Los Angeles-based ICM Partners, actually run the events or just book the acts? Who stands to make and lose money? These questions have not been fully answered.

Nor has an important overarching question: Will this be good for the region long term? Supporters say it could put St. Louis on the map with signature events that generate cash and cachet. Critics say the plan repeats chronic mistakes -- that it seeks to import glitz rather than showcase homegrown stars and that it would disrupt downtown’s momentum by displacing existing strengths.

Interesting that this controversy is playing out as Austin hosts South by Southwest. That uber event sprang from roots in the Austin music scene. Now SXSW is considered the cutting edge of, well, lots of things. It’s so ubiquitously trendy that I wonder how long it will take for the coolest of the cool to move on to something more exclusive.

I’m not suggesting that St. Louis can or should try to replicate what Austin did – just that it’s hard to predict what will catch on and transform the way people think about a city. Perhaps a mega-festival will contribute to our region’s renaissance. Perhaps homegrown talent and our unique cultural heritage hold the key. Perhaps both.

But neither approach will work if St. Louisans continue to hobble progress with the same old fears and divisions. As the festival discussion has played out, some ugly misconceptions have surfaced. Let’s be blunt in calling them out:

  • (From the city) The suburbs are a soulless wasteland, filled with boring architecture and boring people (mostly white). Why go there if you can avoid it?
  • (From the suburbs) The city is dangerous and corrupt, filled with narcissistic hipsters and deadbeats (mostly black). Why go there if you can avoid it?
  • (From the city) To strengthen the region, you must focus on its heart, the city. Those who champion other areas don’t really care about the region as a whole.
  • (From the suburbs) To strengthen the region, you must focus equally on all parts. Those who give special importance to the city don’t really care about the region as a whole.

These same misconceptions stalk many other regional debates, including city-county reunification and the student transfer/school quality issue. While the aldermen examine their options, the rest of us might re-examine our attitudes in the hope of rooting out harmful stereotypes.

Instead of looking across boundaries with suspicion, let’s recognize that civic virtue and cultural richness can be found in all parts of our region -- as can irresponsibility and inanity. Let's set aside geographic prejudices and appreciate our mutual strengths, needs and interdependencies.

Yes, the St. Louis area is a welter of municipalities, school districts and other divisions that can breed antagonism and inefficiency. But these self-governing units also engender loyalty and involvement. They can be building blocks, not just stumbling blocks, to a greater good.

Debate over a music festival seems an unlikely place to find the region's antagonisms revealed so clearly. Yet here they are. Let’s make good use of the opportunity to confront them.

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