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Beacon blog: An end to big-shoulders envy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2010 - In journeys past, when I've made the very short trip from St. Louis to Chicago, I've experienced a "Why Not Us" discontent fueled by what I long have regarded as civic timidity and a rather smug complacency in the St. Louis region that chokes effective change and progress.

When I went up on the train this weekend I discovered myself feeling differently -- appreciative but no longer envious. There are givens here. Chicago is bigger than St. Louis in many ways: richer, more aggressive, windier certainly, more rambunctious and in terms of quantity more architecturally stimulating. A friend of mine who sings all over the world told me recently some of her European pals who visit the U.S. actually prefer Chicago to New York City -- it seems more manageable and more hospitable.

But the Gotham vs. Hog Butcher for the World debate is beside the point here. My intention is to explore with you a feeling, that, in spite of obvious and very difficult problems faced (or ignored) by all of us in this region, we have moved into the 21st century with gloves off, ready at least to begin to address problems both cultural and physical that have festered in part because of a regional complacency.

Risking being accused of hubris (again) I think the public media organizations - the nineNetwork, St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon - work resolutely to effect deliberate growth, change and civic improvement. For example, every other week, the Beacon invites you, our readers, to come together at the Six Row Brewery to toss around the hot potato that is racism and its the interminable list of physical and psychological exacerbations. In our Barroom Conversations, we have at least begun to address some of the symptoms of it. Rather than continue to cover up racism's malignancies with platitudes and dissembling, we have begun to look at symptoms, in the hope of finding some lasting cures.

Every month now, our new dynamo of a program, Beacon and Eggs, takes the Beacon into regional neighborhoods, the better to meet our current readers and potential readers on their own turf and to hear their concerns and their aspirations. We've been moving gradually away from our own center of gravity in Grand Center to a hopping center of activity organized around Old North St. Louis, which, with Crown Candy Kitchen, is holding the fort at the corner of 14th Street and St. Louis Avenue. Next stop: Maplewood.

On a larger scale, and in a more highly visible and symbolically charged part of town, powerful, dedicated individuals and organizations have stepped forward to effect lasting change. The most obvious civic progress is to be found where the city of St. Louis was born, at the Mississippi's edge. The competition for a firm to contemplate the Arch ground's segregation from the city surrounding it and the subsequent carefully considered selection of a firm to design a way to effect such a change has happened, and is moving forward. By the 50th anniversary of the topping off of the Arch we should be able to see connections made, and to be able to celebrate the success of the massive effort to bring such a mighty effort to conclusion.

Some change is subtle and entirely subjective. For example, every time I see someone walking a dog down the street in downtown St. Louis I realize that something almost unbelievable has happened: Prosperous-looking men and women are choosing to be the human ingredients of the urban sandwich formed east of Jefferson Avenue by Market Street and Delmar Boulevard. The dog is the tipoff that the person isn't just passing through.

Some work is long overdue, such as the renovation of one of the region's most monumental assets, the Kiel Opera House, now to be called Peabody Opera House in recognition of the energy company that participated so abundantly in the rescue of this grand municipal resource. But some of that overdue work is getting done.

One example is the Gateway Mall. The Mall is the celebratory front yard of such institutions as the opera house, City Hall, Union Station, the main U.S. Post Office and the Central Library (now undergoing a massive renovation). It is the cultural spine of downtown St. Louis. This year, a strong, committed and independent conservancy was incorporated to plan, to design, to bankroll and to bring positive improvement to this mostly green sward, which rolls from 21st Street east to the Old Courthouse.

But enough already. Let's go back to the city of the big shoulders, and my feelings about it in particular, and about it in regard to St. Louis.

As any smart parent will tell a questioning child, when he or she asks which sibling the parent loves better: "I love you both equally, but in very different ways."

And so it is with my love for these two distinctly American places. I love them both, but for very different reasons. What is important, however, is the dissipation of the invidious comparisons I used to make. The "Why Not Us" of the past has morphed into a long list of things no longer left undone but becoming done, all around us.

It was good to go to Chicago and take delight in what it has to offer.

It was also good, very good indeed, to come home again.

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