17 Things St. Louis Got Right in 2017

We took down the Confederate monument, elected a female mayor and resisted some bad ideas. Was 2017 really so bad in St. Louis?
We took down the Confederate monument, elected a female mayor and resisted some bad ideas. Was 2017 really so bad in St. Louis? THEO WELLING

Yeah, yeah, Trump took office. Lots of celebrities died. Thanks to the potent combination of crackpots on both sides of the Pacific with access to some mighty powerful weapons, we inched ever-closer to nuclear annihilation.

But setting aside the prospect of apocalypse, in St. Louis, 2017 was far from all bad. And it's not just that it was a damn good year within the city's dining scene, with several new restaurants generating national buzz. (Read more about that in Cheryl Baehr's list of the area's top ten openings in our dining section.) For a city with a history of terrible judgment and provincial thinking, we also made some surprisingly good decisions and achieved progress in a few key unlikely areas.

Yes, we've still got some big problems to tackle (among others, we'd list the murder rate, the region's troubling inequality and the continued employment of one Jeffrey Roorda). But let's celebrate what we got right for once. We'll save the other 51 issues of the year for our usual bellyaching.

St. Louis (finally) elected its first female mayor. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
St. Louis (finally) elected its first female mayor.

1. We elected a woman mayor

St. Louis can be a tough place for women. A comprehensive 2015 study by PayScale examined the salaries of 1.4 million workers across the U.S. and found that St. Louis men and women had the greatest pay disparity of any metro area nationwide. The anecdotal evidence when it comes to key executive positions is just as appalling. As of December 2016, St. Louis County had never had a female executive and St. Louis had never had a female mayor. Statewide, women were shut out of the governor's office and also the office of Missouri Attorney General. And of the seventeen Fortune 500 companies based in the Gateway City, as of December 2016, just two had female CEOs.

Enter 2017, and that picture suddenly looks a little rosier. It's not just that St. Louis voters finally elected a woman as mayor — it's that the men barely even registered as contenders. Lyda Krewson and Tishaura Jones collectively smoked the male challengers who made up the rest of the mayoral race's crowded field; that Krewson ultimately bested Jones by 888 votes, with everyone else in the dust, suggests that neither the centrist voters who made up Krewson's coalition nor Jones' more progressive base had any doubts about putting a woman on top. And neither the media nor the political chattering class even attempted a whisper campaign suggesting gender might hold back either candidate, thank God. Perhaps that's because neither Krewson nor Jones made their sex an issue; they ran as the best person for the job, period, and voters responded accordingly.

Krewson's election wasn't the only good news for women. Even with the retirement of longtime circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce, women held onto the role of the city's top prosecutor, as former state representative Kim Gardner beat three other candidates to win the seat. And the coterie of female CEOs has grown by leaps and bounds: St. Louis now boasts a six percent increase in Fortune 500 companies run by women. Yes, that figure is entirely due to one woman's ascent, with Anna Manning becoming CEO of Reinsurance Group of America effective January 1, but you know what? We'll take it. —Sarah Fenske

2. We said no to the MLS racket

A bunch of rich assholes from Boston and Kansas City asked a poor and broken city to give them $60 million for a soccer stadium. So of course we had to give it to them, right? "This is good for St. Louis," tweeted Jim Kavanaugh, the CEO of World Wide Technology. Kicking in money for the stadium is a "moral and economic imperative," said then-Mayor Francis Slay. Supposedly, it was even the "proactive and progressive and pro-St. Louis" thing to do, as a breathtakingly tone-deaf column claimed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Yet St. Louis voters said no. Even with a $1.18 million campaign expressly designed to manipulate us into believing that subsidizing soccer was the only way to stop our slide to third-rate status, the city said no. No to billionaires begging for things they themselves could easily pay for. No to go-it-alone anti-regionalism that sticks city taxpayers with the entire bill even as county sports fans reap the benefits. No to being hectored and lectured about how corporate welfare will save us from becoming a backwater.

Of course we didn't get everything right; you could argue we were so distracted by the fight against the MLS stadium that we missed the far bigger threat, a deal fast-tracked by Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed in February to spend as much as $105 million to upgrade the home of the St. Louis Blues, without any regional cooperation or so much as a public vote.

But this is St. Louis; we need to find our victories where we can. We could have ended 2017 looking at $105 million for hockey and $60 million for soccer; one of the two is bad, but it could have been so much worse.

And if nothing else, we sent an important message to professional sports rackets like the MLS. The league had been explicit in saying that cities wanting a team had to build a new facility, but once St. Louis refused, MLS was left with a finalist group that included Detroit — a city that planned to house its team in the very stadium used by its NFL team. (The horror!) The more cities like St. Louis are willing to call the billionaires' bluff, the more we might see municipalities opt for this kind of frugality. After all, these billionaires can only go around picking the taxpayers' pockets if we're stupid enough to let them. And in this year, in this one limited scenario, we were not. Call it proactive; call it progressive. We like to call it pro-St. Louis. —Sarah Fenske

click to enlarge St. Louis' art institutions are paying attention to issues of representation. Mickalene Thomas' work is currently on display at CAM. - Mickalene Thomas, Blues, 2016. Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Mickalene Thomas, Blues, 2016. Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
St. Louis' art institutions are paying attention to issues of representation. Mickalene Thomas' work is currently on display at CAM.

3. We made major strides in showing work by black artists at our major institutions

This was a bellwether year for St. Louis arts institutions. Black artists had formally complained about the lack of representation — and in the case of Kelley Walker's 2016 exhibition at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, misrepresentation — and to their credit, curators listened and responded. This past year saw several major exhibitions of work by living black artists. Glenn Ligon displayed Blue Black, his response to Ellsworth Kelly's sculpture of the same name, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. Ligon's exhibition overlapped with Chicago-based artists Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez's installation, A Way, Away (Listen While I Say), which transformed a vacant lot in Grand Center into a temporary venue. CAM stepped up with Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses and Celebrities, in which Thomas reimagined conceptions of beauty, gender and race, particularly for black women. (The show closes December 31, so hurry if you want to see it again.)

But change is not confined to a single year; in early 2018, Ghanaian-American artist Addoley Dzegede will explore the ideas of home, migration and hybrid identities through an exhibition of her handmade batiks as part of the Great Rivers Biennial at CAM. And the Saint Louis Art Museum just recently announced the gift of 81 artworks by contemporary black artists from the Thelma and Bert Ollie Memorial Art Collection, which will go on display in 2019. Donor Ronald Ollie grew up in St. Louis and was inspired to collect art — particularly abstract art — through frequent visits to the museum. He and his wife made their gift in hopes that their collection would inspire future generations to appreciate art.

And that, folks, is why representation matters. —Paul Friswold

click to enlarge Confluence Kombucha is one of the restaurants that has St. Louis putting vegetables first. - MABEL SUEN
Confluence Kombucha is one of the restaurants that has St. Louis putting vegetables first.

4. We finally decided to eat our veggies

Twenty, ten, even five years ago, if you would have said that the hottest opening of the year in St. Louis would be a restaurant that bills itself as "vegetable forward," you would have been laughed all the way to the nearest feed lot. It's not that we meat-and-potatoes Midwesterners are vegetable averse; it's just that we've tended to relegate them to the side of the plate ... oftentimes after they're buttered or creamed.

Then came Vicia, our city's break into the culinary big leagues, helmed by an acclaimed chef who — gasp — wanted to feed us turnip tops. And we ate them up. We ate the beets too, and the carrots and the mushroom-filled kohlrabi tacos, so focused on chef Michael Gallina's technical prowess and mastery with flavor that we didn't realize he was inching even the most committed of carnivores toward plant-based dinners. Sure, he may have glazed some of them in beef fat or thrown in some Berkshire pork, but those proved to be accompaniments rather than the main show — in other words, the exact opposite of how we'd been accustomed to eating.

Vicia's vegetable-focused menu may have dominated the culinary year in St. Louis, but its success piggybacks on a critical mass of plant-focused, vegetarian and even vegan restaurants that are serving food so good it defies labels — among them the gastroLAB at Confluence Kombucha, Seedz Cafe, Pizza Head, Lulu's Local Eatery and Tree House. Even Nixta, the new Latin spot that vied with Vicia for national acclaim, offers as its most dazzling dish the meatless "Mexican Pizza," or tlayuda.

What's most striking about all of these restaurants isn't that they figured out how to make vegetarian food "gourmet"; it's that they got even the most impassioned meat-eaters to admit they aren't missing anything by putting plants first. The effect may be healthier bodies, a more sustainable food system and ethical eating, but our favorite result of this veggie-forward phenomenon is how good it tastes. —Cheryl Baehr

click to enlarge The statue came tumbling down. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
The statue came tumbling down.

5. We took down the Confederate monument

It only took St. Louis 103 years to make its Confederate monument disappear. Far from a magic trick, the removal of the 32-foot-tall granite shaft was the culmination of years of people seeking to rid Forest Park of a rosy, sanitized symbol of the Lost Cause. Nestled alongside Confederate Drive, it drew controversy for its entire lifetime — from the moment it was proposed by the Daughters of the Confederacy to the protests that took place there almost daily in the late spring to the week in June when it was finally taken apart, piece by piece, loaded onto flatbed trucks and whisked away.

It was 2015 when then-mayor Francis Slay put out a request for proposals to move the monument, and of the ten responses, nine were variations on "no." The sole yes came from the Missouri Civil War Museum. Two years later, it was the museum that stepped in to wrest control of the monument from the city after Mayor Lyda Krewson made it clear that it was coming down. Facing a potential lawsuit, Krewson relented.

"It didn't belong in the park," says Mark Trout, the museum's founder and CEO. Although Trout lamented the vandalism and property damage inflicted on the statue in its final days, he argues that Confederate monuments are only defensible when they exist in the context of their history. "They're not sitting out there by themselves, misunderstood," he explains. "Once they're in their proper location and contexts, sitting on battlefields and cemeteries and museums, it justifies them."

The city's settlement with the museum decrees that the monument can only be rebuilt "at a Civil War museum, battlefield or cemetery" outside of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Trout and the museum aren't yet ready to discuss plans for possibly relocating the monument — or, for that matter, the contents of the time capsule Trout unearthed from the statue's base.

For now, the monument stays mothballed until the museum can figure out a way to present it, history and all. "We're in no hurry," Trout says. Above all, he wants to makes sure they get it right. "If and when it ever goes up, it will be the last time." —Danny Wicentowski

6. We reconsidered basketball courts

Basketball is finally coming back to St. Louis' premier parks! Maybe!

Tower Grove Park and Forest Park planners both spent part of 2017 doing some serious flirting with the idea of adding courts to their acres of greenery. Tower Grove's administrators even wrote them into a draft of the park's new master plan after being deluged with requests.

It turns out that one of the country's favorite sports is pretty popular here, too. But it's also controversial. "There is a general feeling basketball courts bring out young black men, and with it there is a stereotypical idea that it's going to bring crime," Alderman Terry Kennedy told the RFT earlier this year. "Those two things are not synonymous. It's a stereotype that the city needs to work through." When then-Alderman Antonio French was pushing for basketball courts in Forest Park in 2016, he said the conspicuous absence of hoops in the city's largest park was like an "unwelcome sign" for black people.

Interestingly, the latest attempt to bring hoops to Forest Park was sponsored by Joe Vaccaro, who represents one of the city's whitest wards. He said it was a matter of public decency. And while we still don't have a place to shoot baskets in Forest Park, Vaccaro's support is a sign that we've got to be getting closer. (No, we don't want to learn to play handball instead.)

As for Tower Grove Park, it used to have courts. The park installed them in 1902, back when the balls had those weird laces and everything. In January, when the modern-day administration asked people what today's park was missing, basketball was the top answer. So they put two courts on a map, drawing them in a short walk east of Center Cross Drive.

Just because they're now on the master plan doesn't mean they'll ever actually get built, but it feels like a big step in the right direction. And hey, if it happens, the first person to use the Turkish Pavilion in a game of H-O-R-S-E is going to be a legend. —Doyle Murphy

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