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Reflection on STL250: Epiphanies and parties

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2013 - The Carnegie Hall epiphany is one of a number of moments of extraordinary illumination. I have been struck often by contrasting realities of St. Louis, the chafing reality of social problems – housing, nutrition, access to health care, public education, economic disparity – that seem intractable, contrasted with the affluence we enjoy, not financial altogether, but natural, cultural, educational, scientific, charitable and recreational resources that are plentiful and often – as the St. Louis Art Museum’s declaration on its entablature: Free To All.

The Carnegie Hall moment was Nov. 22, when the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes,” and the reaction of the audience was tumultuous. It’s no surprise anymore that the orchestra under music director David Robertson is in the front rank of international accomplishment. But this “Peter Grimes” ranked as cosmic rather than simply international.

It was an accomplishment all of us who live in St. Louis, even those who’ve never darkened the door of Powell Symphony Hall, can claim as their own.

Monday morning, an audience gathered at the Missouri Historic Society to mark the official kick-off of STL250, a yearlong celebration of St. Louis’ 250th anniversary of the capital “F” Founding of the Eurocentric settlement in 1764 by Pierre Laclède Liguest and Pierre Chouteau. There had been activity in and around this location by Europeans since the late 17th century, and the place was home to the Native American mound-building people for about 600 years, from circa 800 to circa 1400. Evidence of the mound building culture was mostly obliterated as the city grew.

And grow it did, in all areas of urban complexity. Having lived here for about 20 percent of the life of the Laclède-Chouteau city, I have been witness to its meandering fortunes, and the 250th celebrations come when the region is in a moment of reinvention, where various institutions have dedicated themselves to social change and economic revitalization.

As STL250 executive director Erin Budde said Monday morning, the announcement of the commencement of activities and celebrations was conducted in a most appropriate place, the Jefferson Memorial, home to the Missouri History Museum, “keeper of our history.”

Tom Voss, head of Ameren, and his wife, Carol, are serving as STL250 co-chairs. Tom Voss noted that Ameren – formerly Union Electric Co. – has a deep history in the region. Founded in 1902, one of its first major projects was the illumination of the Palace of Electricity for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay noted that there is plenty to celebrate in regard to the history of St. Louis. He emphasized going forward, however, and quoted the late President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The president was introduced to the crowd at a festive dinner by the late August A. Busch Jr. – himself something of a historic monument in the region. President Johnson said, “Tonight in this historic city of St. Louis, we are close to the very heart of our land. It is a fitting place and a fitting time to speak of what is closest to the hearts of all Americans. We cherish our past and we celebrate it proudly. But America is the land of tomorrow and not the land of yesterday.”

The mayor echoed those remarks. While we reflect on the past, he said, we also should concentrate “on the bright future before us.”

Activities begin with Grand Center’s traditional First Night celebrations. The events range from the popular (the Burnin’ Love Festival on Art Hill in Forest Park on the 250th anniversary of the Founding, which just happens to be St. Valentine’s Day) to the scholarly (St. Louis Metromorphosis: The Significance of a City Across the Centuries; April 24-25 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis).

Erin Budde said the events planned for STL250 reflect a “shameless pride” in the region, and that STL250’s job is to lead an appreciation of it.

Epiphanies come in the midst of celebrations. They too are free.

Beacon associate editor Robert W. Duffy is member of the STL250 advisory committee.

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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