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Economy & Business

Is St. Louis ready for its closeup?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 7, 2009 - St. Louis is a dying city that has lost hundreds of thousands of residents in recent decades and is stuck hopelessly in the past, from its role in the westward expansion to the 1904 World's Fair.

St. Louis is a vibrant, hidden gem, with a reviving downtown, thriving cultural attractions and sports teams and free, world-class draws like the Zoo, Forest Park and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Which view you take of the city may depend in large part on how well you know it. But with the eyes of the baseball world turning their focus on St. Louis as next week's All-Star Game approaches -- and crowds forecast at more than 200,000 people expected at a variety of events -- the people who serve as official cheerleaders are trying their best to field the area's best possible lineup.

Not surprisingly, given the split personality generally associated with the city, their effort has met with mixed success.

Take the opening paragraphs in this story from Sunday's New York Times about Citygarden , the new sculpture park downtown that has opened to rave reviews:

"ONE telling measure of this city's past glories and present challenges is this: The United States Census of 1950 reported roughly 850,000 people living in St. Louis; today the number is around 350,000. Or there's this: In 1988, when Jonathan Franzen published "The Twenty-Seventh City," a novel about real and fictional tribulations afflicting St. Louis, his title referred to the city's plunge in rank to 27th largest in America from 4th in less than a century. If he wrote the book now, just two decades later, he would have to call it "The Fifty-Second City."

"Signs of the depleted population are everywhere, from the boarded-up houses that dot the city's north side to the stubbornly vacant office buildings downtown."

The article goes on to discuss Citygarden's role in efforts to revive downtown, in generally positive terms. But the frequent juxtaposition of struggling city and efforts at rebirth can become frustrating, admits Brian Hall, chief marketing officer for the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Certainly St. Louis is far better than some people give it credit for, particularly locals," Hall said. "I think that as locals, we are very tough on ourselves. But the majority of people coming into St. Louis and looking at it with fresh eyes see it as attractive."

Malcolm Gay, the Times stringer who wrote the article, has lived in St. Louis for more than four years. He echoed Hall's sentiments when it comes to the attitude he said longtime residents of the region have.

"I think St. Louis is very self-conscious," Gay said. "I have never lived in a city that pays as much attention as this one does to its national rankings.

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"My sense is that the rest of the country doesn't have the low opinion of St. Louis that a lot of St. Louisans think it does. I look at it as a city like any other, with its own set of unique struggles. When people become interested in them, they are approached in a novel way."

Still, the this-town-has-had-some-real-tough-times-but-it's-striving-to-come-back attitude can get a little old.

Take this article  from a recent edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, with the headline "St. Louis: Woo-hooey!"

Reciting the familiar litany of the city's problems, it characterizes downtown and north St. Louis like this:

"A downtown condo boomlet designed to take advantage of the city's under-occupied commercial architecture -- some of it classic -- was a spotty thing even before the current financial situation and today is largely in limbo; a multipurpose "Ballpark Village" meant to accompany, enhance, and help pay for the Cardinals' new Busch Stadium next door is still a vacant lot three-plus years after the ballpark's 2006 debut.

"Vast stretches of the city's north side, especially, look like what was left after a successful World War II bombing run on (choose your favorite target city)."

Then -- and you can almost feel it coming -- it makes the seemingly mandatory U-turn, even though the language is hardly gushing:

"And yet -- like the seedling conifers poking through the rubble and ash short years after Mount St. Helens blew her volcanic top -- there are signs of life, downtown and in places where decayed apartments, an obsolete hospital, and fetid public housing towers were mercifully flattened.

"There is new housing, at a variety of price points and created largely without displacing earlier residents. And where folks settle, grass grows and children play."

Another example:

A pre-All-Star Game article in the Chicago Tribune starts with an emphasis on baseball, grudgingly praising Cardinals fans for their sports savvy but roundly panning the stadium food they are served and the surroundings where the big game will be played:

"The food at Busch Stadium, which opened in 2006, is especially bad; ask 10 Cardinal fans about the best grub in the park, and eight will say the nachos, which are basically the same nachos you find at every other park. Fans do the wave when their team is down by eight runs in the eighth inning. And the streets surrounding the park are largely a charmless sprawl of chain hotels, predictable sports bars and parking garages or vacant buildings."

After they get their opening slaps out of the way, both articles have nice things to say about the food, the music and the special touches that those who love the city try to play up. From Scott Joplin to Chuck Berry, Soulard Market to the City Museum, the specialness of St. Louis comes through.

That emphasis didn't occur by accident. The Convention and Visitors Bureau has been working for two years on making sure St. Louis didn't miss a chance to be ready for its close-up when the sports world turns its focus on Busch Stadium next week.

Special baseball-type cards -- complete with a stick of that waxy bubble gum -- were created featuring not Pujols and Carpenter but the Art Museum, the Zoo and other cultural and civic stars. Together with other commemorative items and a baseball-themed visitors guide, they were packaged in a pouch that plays off the official tourism slogan and proclaims:

"St. Lou is Baseball Heaven"

Hall, the marketing officer, said the bureau's website, www.explorestlouis.com , is experiencing record activity as the big game approaches. The economic impact of everything All-Star is expected to top $60 million.

As a relative newcomer in an area that defines you by where you went to high school, Hall thinks the entire effort -- combining baseball and heartland -- will be a big boost for the city, and those who visit will go away impressed.

"Seeing is believing," he said.

But for those who still doubt -- particularly ones from that big Illinois city 320 miles north -- the best answer may be this pointed comment from a visitor to the Fox2 website, spotlighting the Cubs' record of futility when it comes to post-season baseball:

"I'll take a WS Championship over gourmet nachos any day."

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