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Government, Politics & Issues

Editor’s weekly: Lessons in the art of politics In Beacon Blog

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Dear Beaconites –

Watching developments this week, it seemed that Paul McKee's NorthSide Regeneration project passed over some invisible continental divide in support and is now on the downhill slope toward actually happening.

On Tuesday, as the Beacon's Jason Rosenbaum reported, Mayor Slay and Congressman Clay spoke forcefully for the project during an unusual appearance before an aldermanic committee. On Wednesday, the committee approved bills that included tax increment financing.

Equally crucial was a change of heart by Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr., whose ward includes much of the property. In August, Bosley was skeptical. “I see the poor people who live in this area getting a kick in the butt,” he said.

But according to Bosley, a recent car tour through the area with McKee convinced him otherwise. People “weren't ever going to get displaced, run out of their homes or anything like that,” Bosley said. “When I took the ride and saw what was there and what was open ground that he's going to develop, I saw positive things for the city of St. Louis.”

I claim no inside knowledge about what prompted the momentum shift, though the Beacon will continue to explore it. Nor can I predict whether the project will live up to expectations. But I do see in this week's developments some important lessons about what it takes to reinvent St. Louis and some positive signs that St. Louisans can make it happen.

Lesson 1: No person or process is perfect. As Jason and Dale Singer have previously reported, McKee's project began in secrecy. As he quietly amassed property, he neglected some of it. That angered neighbors, whose smaller scale efforts at renovation were thwarted by his larger ambitions. Then when McKee revealed his plans and sought support, some saw an opportunity to advance their own interests. Amidst the maneuvering, the project stalled.

Lesson 2: Money begets money. If the project succeeds, McKee will presumably reap huge rewards. Northside homeowners could benefit, though not so dramatically, from higher property values and more vibrant neighborhoods. But the prospects for poor residents remain dicey despite McKee's pledge not to displace them. History suggests that urban renewal often uproots the vulnerable, shifting rather than solving their problems.

Lesson 3: Blocking a project is easier than building one. It's taken McKee years to surmount legal challenges, political antagonisms, business complications and public suspicions. And there are no doubt more to come. Negotiating these obstacles takes a rare combination of skill, commitment and resources. That brings us to the most important lesson.

Lesson 4: We must look beyond Lessons 1, 2 and 3. If our region is to meet challenges as daunting as the abandoned lots and lost hopes in parts of the city's north side, then we must learn to move forward together despite human frailty, societal unfairness and institutional inefficiency.

This requires trust. It must be earned by leaders committed to both principles and practicalities. And it must be given by citizens committed to finding common good amid our many special interests.

Building a functional level of trust is what politics – in the best sense of the word – is for. Practiced well, politics enables the public welfare to prevail over self interest and systemic inertia.

We haven't seen much of that kind of politics in Washington lately. But this week in St. Louis, we may have caught a glimpse.



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