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Beacon blog: Keeping the fire alive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2010 - Deja vu spread over the second floor of Schlafly Tap Room like a fine fog the other night when I went there to see what Pecha Kucha is all about. The sense that I'd seen all this before was because not so terribly long ago a group called Metropolis encamped in the big meeting room upstairs at the brewery, sharing their enthusiasm for city living and hatching plans to try to improve it.

Those of us who who're older, and were then and remain now concerned about the future of the region, particularly the resource-filled yet fragile geo-political landscape that is the city of St. Louis, saw Metropolis as reason for hope. The hope sprang from seeing and maybe even feeling the depth and breadth of commitment the 20- and 30-somethings brought to their community-building effort.

The comet that was Metropolis fizzled (and different factions offer different reasons for its having fizzled). Individuals who were bright stars of the constellation that was Metropolis have settled in and live here and remain proud to call themselves St. Louisans. Some are establishing families and saving houses and neighborhoods from decay. Their names may be names you know: Lynn Josse. David Drebes. Michael Allen. Matt O'Leary. Amanda Doyle. Brian Marston. The latter, I am happy to say, will report to work at the Beacon on Oct. 13.

But back to Pecha Kucha. The organization has spread from its birthplace in Japan all over the place; and the group here, anyway, is populated by extremely energetic young men and women, many of whom proclaim they are crazy about St. Louis. The organization moves from neighborhood to neighborhood, much like the Beacon's own fresh out of the skillet "Beacon and Eggs" programs.

Pecha Kucha has rules and structure, although they are administered with admirable absence of rigidity and a refreshing presence of spontaneity. The idea is to provide a sort of merry urban marketplace for ideas, goods and services. As its website says "Pecha Kucha STL represents our opportunity to refocus public dialogue onto what makes this city great: the personalities, the creative thinkers, the musicians, the urban fabric, the rich cultural heritage, the innovators and entrepreneurs right in our midst." (Go to www.pecha-kucha.org for more information.)

The format is quirky. Presenters are permitted to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each, making the presentations between six and seven minutes long. A eclectic group was presenting the night I showed up.

Some former students of mine - Albert Mitchell and Jessica and Aaron Senne - were there to talk about their firm, Confluence, a design and fabrication business in McRee Town. Mitchell took the microphone to present Confluence's ideas and operation.

There was an outfit that will put your logo or business name on just about anything.

Another fellow told of his fascination with photo booths, and has gone from fascination to commercialism with the once-ubiquitous self-service portrait studios.

All of this - every single presentation - has roots in St. Louis.

Rosa Mayer, whom I came to know this summer, represented Saint Louis Coworking, a business that's made its home in the beautiful old Shell Building at 13th and Locust Streets downtown. Coworking offers office space and services to individuals and small companies at modest prices. It also offers the kind of social contact that makes working in offices pleasant or yeasty.

Rosa came to the Beacon with an awesome provenance. Her grandparents are Helen and Richard Dudman, old and cherished friends of many of us on the Beacon staff. Helen had an extraordinary career in public relations and broadcasting, and it has always seemed to me she knew everyone in Washington worth knowing, transient politicians aside.

Dick Dudman, who was a reporter and chief Washington correspondent for the Post-Dispatch as well as an institution in our nation's capital for many years, receives lots of attention for having been held prisoner in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. But the sum of his career is far, far greater than the 40 days of his detention. He is one of the giants of our craft, and we look to him for inspiration. He is a beacon of inspiration to us, a man who understood Joseph Pulitzer's platform and put it into action.

Rosa Mayer ended up here partly because of her grandparents' enthusiasm for St. Louis, partly because her mother decreed that her daughter would get out of the house immediately following her graduation from college, but also because of an appetite for adventure. St. Louis has enchanted Rosa. Having her here, although she probably doesn't know it, is our good fortune. Could I bottle her ebullience, I would. It is priceless.

The Alberts and the Rosas are cause for celebration, and not just because they work hard. They are the future. Pecha Kucha provided the vessel in which the old Metropolis flame has been rekindled. Our Alberts and Rosas, and all the other smart and dedicated urbanistas in their company provide, in abundance, necessary fuel to keep the fire glowing and very much alive.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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