In a Class by Itself

Mired in decrepitude and money trouble, will St. Louis prove too tough for its next mayor?

An expert is an out-of-towner with a fancy title. By that measurement, Fred Siegelis an urban expert, but he still can't figure out what the hell is wrong with the city of St. Louis. Join the club, Fred.

Siegel, who lives in New York City, was trolling the Internet when he discovered Short Cuts. Being the discerning, erudite author, academic and think-tanker that he is, he became a regular reader. The day after the mayoral primary, he called for an explanation of what happened to incumbent Mayor Clarence Harmon, who got 57 percent of the vote in 1997 but only 5 percent in the March 6 Democratic primary, despite a favorable rating of 51 percent. Siegel says he was "stunned" by the totals; he'd never seen an incumbent mayor lose so completely.

The short, simplistic, shallow answer -- and let's face it, that's what most provincial pundits in this town go for -- is that white folks freaked at the idea of a return engagement by Freeman Bosley Jr. in Room 200 of City Hall. So they jumped from the Harmon bandwagon like rats off a sinking barge and voted for the South Side homie, Francis Slay. The better, more insightful answer is that Bosley almost got as many votes as he did when he won in 1993 (40 percent compared with 44 percent), but, unlike that primary, there was no other candidate like lifelong pol Tony Ribaudo to get 12,000 votes, or 12 percent of the vote, no matter what. No one had a habit of voting for Harmonious -- one vote in '97 for the ex-police chief was apparently all voters wanted to cast. And finally, for the first time in more than 30 years, southwest city voters had one from their 'hood running for mayor. So Slay wins.

And pardon the early projection of Republican candidate Michael Chance's defeat in the general election on April 3, but it's apparent that St. Francis will be the city's next mayor. The 46-year-old lawyer and aldermanic president is talking as if he's up for it, but good intent and old-fashioned sleeve-rolling-up work habits may not be enough. Siegel thinks St. Louis is in a class by itself when it comes to urban decrepitude.

"St. Louis is one of the very few major cities which has never mounted a major effort to revive itself. It's accepted its decline with resignation," says Siegel. "What distinguishes St. Louis is, it's one of the very few cities that missed both the economic boom in the 1980s and in the 1990s. Detroit missed the '80s boom, but with Dennis Archer as mayor, it caught the '90s boom. St. Louis seems to have missed both."

Siegel is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.; a history professor at Cooper Union in New York City; and the author of The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America's Big Cities. The New Yorker's Joe Klein called that book "cogent and incisive."

Siegel was advised by one local to check out Slay's Web site. "It was like they thought it was something that a St. Louis mayoral candidate had a Web site," Siegel says. He found the solutions offered by the Slay camp to be the usual campaign boilerplate. "It seemed uninspired, banal," says Siegel. "The country is awash in experiments of urban revitalization, and yet the news doesn't seem to have arrived yet in St. Louis. The Web site wasn't awful, it just seemed limited.

"My interest is what makes cities work," Siegel says. "From a distance, from what I can see, St. Louis does not have a lot going for it right now." Winning teams and new sports arenas give St. Louis "the manifestations of a successful city without it being a successful city," Siegel says. "You won a Super Bowl championship; you had Mark McGwire; the pope came. There was a lot of gemutlichkeit in the air. But not enough." (For the nonacademic and non-German among us, gemutlichkeit is a fancy out-of-town word for, well, a good public buzz.)

During the campaign, Slay often criticized Harmon about how the city missed the upswing of the economic boom of the '90s, but making an observation is not the same as solving a problem. Now that he's about to be take over, Slay's first obstacle is getting a budget approved. The employee-retirement system is seeking $8 million from city revenues for the upcoming fiscal year and $17 million a year thereafter, both drastic increases. Slay won't confirm it, but some are saying there may be an across-the-board 2 percent budget cut for all city departments.

"Our revenues generally are not going up as high as our expenses are coming in," says Slay. "There's going to have to be some difficult decisions made, where we cut and to what extent." Additional expenses in the next few years include payments on the new city jail and maintenance and operation costs for the takeover of the old federal courthouse. "There are going to be a lot bigger expenses than in the past in certain areas," says Slay, "and that could have a huge effect, unless there is some large offsetting revenue that I'm not aware of. There's going to be some real budgetary issues."

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