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Catamaran-cabin cozy with Mayor Francis Slay and a gaggle of St. Louis power brokers at a Regional Chamber and Growth Association summit in San Diego in mid-September, Metropolis president Christina Reid and founding member Melanie Adams could gaze out at the Pacific Ocean sunset and be assured of one thing: Metropolis is a player. Not just a voice in the crowd, but an insider's insider, privy to the backroom ruminations of River City politicians and kingmakers, given a seat at the table to discuss civic issues like Home Rule and the school-district overhaul.
To Reid, a calculating 31-year-old who favors power suits over cargos and capris, such political clout is proof that Metropolis, a six-year-old urban cheerleading organization dedicated to attracting and retaining a bustling population of youngbloods between Skinker and the Arch, continues to find the bull's eye with its ideological bullets of boosterism.
"Now there's almost this check-box that says 'Young People,'" Reid brags of the newfound hobnob status. "Whereas before, they weren't at the table."
Less clear is whether Metropolis, which has seen its membership rolls tumble to 600 from a 2001 peak of more than double that number, can itself lay claim to the "young" box for much longer. A membership survey by public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard shows the organization's median age at 36 -- up a telltale five years from 1998's median of 31. And while the earlier survey showed that roughly half the membership was between 20 and 26 years of age, that figure today is a comparatively paltry 20 percent.
Some prominent current and former members say the group is losing its edge. They point to a project with a north-side elementary school that petered out after an enthusiastic start. A pair of polemical e-mails dispatched by Reid over the summer also raised eyebrows. Perhaps most tellingly, only a few dozen members showed up at the group's most recent elections in July. In sum, the critics argue, as Metropolis' top leadership has found its way into the halls of power, the organization has abandoned its mission.
In the late 1990s, while boomtowns like Seattle and Austin were basking in hipper-than-thou civic pride, St. Louis was stuck watching the urban equivalent of Lawrence Welk reruns in its half-vacant den of decay. Downtown was dead, young folks were leaving in droves, and people like Melanie Adams wanted to know why. In 1997 Adams, along with a youthful cadre helmed by Chad Cooper, the group's first president, conceived Metropolis and a swaggering slogan: "The City Is Back. Back the City."
The fledgling troupe commenced to schedule activities with hip, austere monikers such as The Lot (an annual concert), The Walk (pub crawls in off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods), The Bid (an auction) and The Ride (bicycle tours of the city). But Metropolis was far more than the sum of its events. It was a rare bird indeed -- only one other city, Pittsburgh, could boast of a corps so doggedly focused on trumpeting the virtues of life in the hardscrabble concrete canyon.
From the get-go, the organization was media savvy, and the press came along eagerly for the ride (and, for that matter, the Walk, the Bid and the Lot). Front and center in the crowd of admirers were the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's editorial board and the paper's late columnist Greg Freeman. A Posteditorial from the spring of 2000 entitled "What Are We Afraid Of?" summed up the feel-good vibe: "No one should underestimate the obstacles blocking even a modest turnaround: history, racism, fear of crime and inertia. Metropolis St. Louis, a civic group promoting city living, is taking those challenges head-on." The attention hoisted Metropolis onto a pedestal in the realm of public perception -- a perch some say was out of proportion to the group's actual impact.
"It's still offensive to me, as a longtime city resident, that the organization had such a strong, we-are-going-to-save-things vibe," says Thomas Crone, a former Metropolis president (and erstwhile Riverfront Times staff writer). "That may be nitpicking, but I wasn't alone in feeling that the early PR spin was a disservice to the group. I still think it's doing a disservice to the group. The flip side is that these folks did the heavy lifting early and they saw the need and potential for growth. It would have been nice for that era's leadership to have leavened some of the enthusiasm, but it was that same enthusiasm that made some improbable gains come to pass."
Former president Brian Marston concedes that hyperbolic spin was "sort of a tradition" in the heady early days.
"We started as this upstart guerrilla group," recounts the 30-year-old Marston, who now helps run the Commonspace, a nonprofit meeting place in Grand Center for the hipster set that publishes a monthly newsletter online at www.thecommonspace.org. "It was fabulous to be president of Metropolis. There were a thousand members; I was representing this super-targeted group. I could go to a meeting with the mayor and be, like, the only one who wasn't afraid to piss everybody off and point out the white elephant in the corner of the room. Metropolis was this organization that people didn't want to deal with, but had to."