Commentary: What? St. Louis change? | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: What? St. Louis change?

May 2, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 2, 2011 - Recently, drama critic Hilton Als wrote about Chekhov in The New Yorker. Als noted Chekhov's "subtle understanding of how unlikely people are to truly change, even when history dictates that they must."

Chekhov wrote of individuals and families but his understanding can also apply to institutions, elected officials and governments. Bureaucracies are loathe to shift their operating paradigms. The debate in Washington over the budget and the debt limit shows us two political parties, each wed to an ideology. Republicans refuse to consider tax increases; Democrats protect entitlements and social programs.

This same type of rigidity affects various local jurisdictions in the St. Louis area. Changing economic circumstances as well as regional, national and global competition point to, at the very least, greater cooperation if not some type of merger. Although some political voices will consider St. Louis City rejoining St. Louis County, many on each side of the boundary find the idea either unworkable or distasteful.

A coworker once told me, "You didn't want us in 1876; we don't want you now." Yet, job creation in city and county has been arduous and growth, at least in population, has moved to St. Charles, Franklin, Lincoln counties and beyond.

Race is not the line of division it once was. The black population in the county exceeds that in the city. And the blight that occurred in north city now is claiming parts of north county along with systemic business disinvestment.

The tornados that struck our area on April 22 appeared to bring people together. At a press conference that evening, County Executive Charlie Dooley said the county was fully cooperating with the city to address the damage at Lambert Field and in surrounding municipalities. It should not take a major disaster to see that our fates are tied together.

Institutional change might make that cooperation more routine. But to bring the city into the county would change established practices, as well as the careers of some elected officials and many who work for government. The resistance will be strongest from those who feel they have the most to lose.

In the late 1980s, a board of freeholders tried to reduce the number of municipalities in the county by two-thirds. That plan was dead on arrival for the same reasons. The 90-odd municipalities present acres of duplication and compete with one another for a Walmart or a Target. There has been some progress in sales tax revenue sharing among the municipalities carried out under the auspices of St. Louis County; but the array of police forces, firefighters, parks and recreation staffers, etc., is still daunting.

Voters in the city of St. Louis overwhelmingly rejected charter reform in 2004. The poorer the neighborhood, the higher the margin against the institutional change. Eliminating some of the elected offices was decried as antidemocratic and contrary to minority representation. The city limps along with a government designed out of compromise in 1914, one that is fragmented and factional. We fight over small bones rather than trying to maximize our impact.

While national politicians seem to be trying to get real about the rising national debt, whether it will actually be addressed in meaningful fashion is yet to be seen. In the St. Louis area, we may continue to muddle on amid our own myths and realities without taking steps that would make us more competitive.

The first-time loss of population in St. Louis County and the city's continuing erosion should point to a more radical reformation. We were an area based on industry, and a lot of that industry is gone. We need jobs, enhanced education and a less parochial outlook.

St. Louis is a comfortable and basically affable place to live. It has arts and sports and beautiful parks. But officials and citizens often prefer what they know, a status quo developed decades ago.

If you mention anything that's happening in other cities, our own residents will say, "But this is St. Louis." That may reflect a desire not to be like other places but it may more poignantly represent a feeling of inferiority. "We can't do that here."

The area can point with pride to many accomplishments, but greater unity could lead to a more effective and efficient approach. I am not advocating any particular plan but am urging that change be made part of the vocabulary. There's always room for improvement; and adherence to the status quo can mean stagnation.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.