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Love and the city

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 12, 2011 - With all the pens, sharpies, post-its and large sheets of paper scattered across a dozen tables where small groups busily work creating, one might think Peter Kageyama is running an art seminar as he paces the front of the room.

Of course, in a very real sense that's what he's doing. But Kageyama's canvas is a more abstract landscape than most -- a very urban and very personal one that rests somewhere at the nexus of marketing, art, civics and ... well ... love.

"Lovable cities begin with people who are in love with their cities," he tells his audience. "People do extraordinary things above and beyond the call of duty out of a sense of community, out of a sense of adventure, out of a sense of social engagement."

Social engagement is Kageyama's own true love. The author of "For the Love of Cities," a book that came out earlier this year detailing the emotional connections people have to their urban centers and neighborhoods, he was in town Thursday for an event co-sponsored by the Regional Arts Commission and STL-Style where he spoke to a luncheon audience at the Moto Museum on Olive.

The gathering culminated with a three-hour workshop session during which participants sketched out T-shirt design ideas, brainstormed what different socio-economic groups liked and disliked about the city and competed to come up with the most innovative idea to boost civic engagement. The winning entry won $500 from the RAC to implement the submitted project.

Kageyama spent much of the talk giving examples of the ways innovative artists, civic boosters and activists are breathing life into metropolitan areas around the nation from an effort to build a RoboCop statue in Detroit to a zombie-themed festival in Pittsburgh to a lakefront torch lighting in Providence, R.I.

He said Gallup recently conducted a survey showing that less than a quarter of citizens across the nation were "engaged" in their town through activities and culture.

"You can see it and you can feel it," he said. "There are certain neighborhoods where you go where there is no 'there' there. You walk into other neighborhoods and you go, there is something here."

Kageyama said that the things people hate about the cities they live in tend to revolve around "big," often intractable, issues such as traffic, parking or difficulties with the school system.

By contrast, the things they love most are often personalized details of culture, identity and personality. This can cause civic leadership to focus on the wrong agenda items.

"I guarantee that you could fix every pothole in St. Louis and someone would say 'Well, the streets don't suck quite so bad,'" he said. "You gain no love fixing potholes. Yet potholes are what cities have become obsessed with."

Cities, he said, need to be more than simply functional and safe. They should also be convivial, interesting and fun.

"The thing is that if places are really all about paved roads, police and fire service, there is nothing to keep us in one place versus another," he said. "We've got to elevate our conversation about our cities."

Kageyama said nurturing civic engagement and building identity is really a matter of looking at those small items like the promotion of local traditions, the number of creative people and whether a city is bike-friendly or dog-friendly.

Even walkability makes a big difference.

"Walking does two very important things that are critical to our relationship with cities," he said. "It allows for improvisation and discovery. If you see a new store while driving down the road at 45 miles per hour and say, 'That seems interesting,' do you stop? No."

The Local Picture

Jill McGuire, executive director of RAC, said the event brought out a good cross-section of the community receptive to Kageyama's message.

"Civic engagement and community engagement are buzzwords that we use all the time, but we are still struggling with how does that happen exactly?" she said. "What do they mean?"

She said the development of Old North St. Louis and the recent activity on Cherokee Street seem to be evidence of local culture on the rise. She also noted increasing interest in the arts among local municipalities.

"Just because we all don't know about it doesn't mean that St. Louis isn't vital," she said. "I know that there are young artists moving here from New York because the opportunity is so great to make an immediate impact."

Audience member Scott Saunders is one of those who understands the potential of municipalities to promote the arts. The Creve Coeur City Council member said his city created a public arts task force in just the last two years. The central corridor suburb is now on the verge of turning that into a full-fledged arts commission.

"People are very forward thinking," he said. "Just the mere creation of the public art task force has resulted in a huge amount of dialogue within the city in creative ways that really haven't been seen in years."

Saunders said Kageyama had really stimulated his thought process.

"From what he's talked about so far, he's developed a thousand ideas in my mind in terms of ways, in very difficult economic times with very low budgets, of how we can work with the enthusiasm of the public, which we have a great deal of in Creve Coeur, to motivate a lot of positive change," he said.

'A Poster Child'

Randy Vines, co-creator of STL-Style, a locally themed clothing and graphic design company and co-sponsor of the event, said he thought Kageyama was the perfect man to deliver the gospel of engagement to St. Louis.

"I almost think it's a poster child for the kind of city Peter's book targets," he said. "The kind of people who live here are just the kind who this message will resonate with."

Vines said that while St. Louis finds it hard to attract transplants and faces many of the same post-industrial economic challenges of many cities that have declined over the past half century, he thinks its unique flavor and sense of identity give it an advantage other metros may not have.

"It was a city built to be great," he said. "It's a place that matters and we have all these distinctive institutions, neighborhoods and architecture that set St. Louis apart from Anytown, U.S.A."

His brother and company co-creator Jeff Vines agrees. Like McGuire, he feels that creative people are moving to town because they sense a ground-floor opportunity they may not have elsewhere.

"St. Louis is in a very pivotal time right now," he said. "We're starting to see a whole new generation of young city residents who actually appreciate being part of a work in progress, being able to work and create the kind of city they want to live in."

Randy said that a low cost of living and an abundance of creative space have made the city attractive to artists.

"Part of what makes St. Louis really ripe for this type of energy is that it is relatively off the radar," he said. "Not only are we in what is generally thought of as flyover country but people usually gravitate toward the coastal cities or whatever happening city is springing up in the Sunbelt because of jobs or whatnot. However, cities like St. Louis are really well-positioned to attract that uber-creative type who is not afraid to dig a little deeper and really unravel the layers of what makes a city special."

Interviewed after the program, Kageyama, a former marketing consultant who began moving into his unusual niche field in 2004 after being inspired by Richard Florida's book "The Rise of the Creative Class," said the city did seem to have an identity all its own to build on. From its trademark red brick architecture to the Delmar Loop, there are effective qualities to leverage in the city's personality even among small things, he said.

"Food is incredibly important. It's one of those things that binds us to places," he said. "We identify certain places with certain foods or restaurants. It may sound kind of silly, but toasted ravioli is something St. Louis could build a branding around."

Indeed, during the T-shirt design contest, catchphrases revolving around the breaded St. Louis delicacy figured prominently. So did the infamous River City educational question.

"Don't ask. I got my GED," read one team's sardonic T-shirt.

Kageyama said that it's not unusual for cities to lose people during college when young adults are expanding their horizons. But when it comes time to set down roots the pull of family and friends can bring them back.

"The trick is that cities and communities need to embrace the idea of maintaining a relationship with those people even though they've gone to the four winds and are part of the diaspora that is St. Louis," he said. "Using the tools that are out there now, social media are a great way to stay in contact with folks."

The Great Remarriage?

Given 15 minutes to work on their final project of the afternoon, the teams produced ideas ranging from chalk stencils in front of landmarks to picnics in abandoned northside lots. Finally, the participants voted to select the day's victor. The winner of the $500 prize was an effort to stage a "wedding" between the city and the county with the ceremony performed right at the city limits.

"We call it a civil union," chuckled Monica McFee, a member of the winning team.

She said the wedding idea evolved organically from the brainstorming session.

"Our team agreed that cities with a population of 2.6 or 2.8 million are more powerful than municipalities of 350,000," she said regarding the impetus for the event, the date of which is still to be determined. "And while we 'get' big town feel with small-town values, we are also a mighty region."

Dawne Massey, another member of the team, said the final selection was indicative of the ethos of the day's activities.

"You get a lot of people in a room that really care about St. Louis and they are going to come up with a lot of great ideas," she said. "That was one of the things that really came out today and the city-county marriage was just a natural progression from the topic of the day, how to love St. Louis."

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.

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