Once a swashbuckling shot of civic espresso, Metropolis appears to be undergoing a midlife crisis

Oct 1, 2003 at 4:00 am
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 Post editorial 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 "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."

Of course, Metropolis might not have actually had 1,000 members at the time. The important thing was that everyone thought they did. It was sort of like the kid with the fake ID who finally turns 21: "There was this tradition of inflating membership," Marston reveals. "So when we finally got to 1,000 members, we didn't tell people."

While Marston and Crone say there were plenty of internal squabbles in the early days, the negative energy tended to be offset by a flurry of projects that saw Metropolites rolling up their sleeves in neglected parts of the city, sponsoring neighborhood cleanups (The Wash), patronizing establishments in underutilized areas and visiting schools in pockets of blight.

"In the beginning, everybody was falling all over themselves to partner," Marston recalls.

One such partner was the St. Louis Rams. The team dispatched a staffer, Cheryl Bini, to raise funds to build a playground at Bryan Hill Elementary on the city's north side. A West County native who had spent the prior ten years in New York City, Bini forged more than a professional alliance with Metropolis.

"My boss was like, 'You really fit their demographic, so why don't you work on that project,'" says Bini, who's now 30 and working for Verizon Wireless. "I kind of lived in a bubble in West County growing up. I was nervous about moving back home because I wasn't familiar with anything to do in St. Louis. I didn't want to run around with high school friends I hadn't talked to for seven years. Metropolis was a great outlet for me at that time."

At Bryan Hill the group raised $60,000 -- the bulk of which came from a company run by Marston's father -- to build a new playground. But the alliance wasn't a one-off; Bini, Crone and a rotating roster of Metropolites made regular visits to the school to tutor and mentor kids. Today, though, the Bryan Hill partnership is on hiatus.

Bryan Hill principal Carole Johnson figures the program fell by the wayside because people have "just gotten too busy."

Adds Reid: "With any of our projects, they're sustainable as long as those who conceived and worked on them stay involved. There's been talk of reinvigorating the partnership."

Former Metropolis secretary Jason McClelland, who was intimately involved with the Bryan Hill program, sees it differently. The group was at the table for Mayor Francis Slay's push for public-school reform and backed the mayor's slate of school-board candidates this past spring. "They seem to be more focused on schools in general -- kind of a macro view -- as opposed to working on one school and creating it as a model for citizen involvement, which was kind of our idea," McClelland sums up.

Crone believes the death of the Bryan Hill partnership could hamper Metropolis' credibility when it comes to big-picture matters such as the school-district overhaul now being undertaken by the consulting firm of Alvarez & Marsal.

"If the organization wishes to be taken seriously in the St. Louis Public Schools debate, then the Bryan Hill partnership needs to be revived, quickly," Crone asserts. "Not just as PR cover, but because it's a worthwhile project that was yielding some tangible benefits in the school."

When the topic turns to Metropolis' dwindling ranks, Reid is quick to point to the online readership of her weekly update. But if the communiqué is attracting attention, it's not all coming in the form of kudos. On August 25, Reid used her "President's Message" to criticize Metropolis member Brent Feeney, who had, in a Riverfront Times story two weeks earlier, expressed the belief that racism is a two-way street. "I am troubled because I do not believe this person's highly publicized views relative to our city, race relations and the appropriate treatment of women accurately reflect that of the membership of our organization," Reid wrote. "I am troubled because he inadvertently became our spokesperson, on random topics where he held and promulgated any viewpoint he so wished."

Reid was familiar with the role of unwitting spokesperson. At a July 15 school board meeting that featured heated public debate about the school-district overhaul, Reid had voiced her support for the board's consultant-helmed blueprint for restructure. Many Metropolites were upset and posted e-mail messages complaining that their president had misstated the organization's viewpoint and failed to achieve a consensus before speaking. Reid countered that she had simply expressed her own views and pointed out that she had said nothing about her affiliation with Metropolis in her remarks.

Meanwhile, Feeney's comments had led a St. Louis American columnist to refer to Metropolites as "silver spoon gagging" white people, a topic Reid felt the need to address in her September 9 dispatch. "Would I sacrifice the next new, fabulous sushi bar so that a handful of children could enjoy safer streets, live in stronger neighborhoods and achieve in solid schools? Absolutely," Reid wrote. "Does it work that way? Can we trade one for another? No, not really. Can Metropolis work to further both ends? Certainly. And, I invite you, no, I implore you to do so. As I sip my next $4 latte or $8 martini, I hope it crosses my mind how far that money could go in school supplies. And, I hope I take some action. As I waste away a stretch of hours watching Bravo or the Food Network while sitting on my Bauhaus sofa on a Sunday afternoon, I hope I recognize that this is time that could be spent mentoring a child. Again, I hope this spurs some action. I hope I don't forget. And I hope you don't either."

Marston and others felt the screed was a misguided attempt at self-parody. "Her last weekly update, I was like, 'Oh God, Christina," says Marston. "It was like, 'Ohmigod, there's poor people in the city?' It was weird."

Says Reid in hindsight: "Admittedly, there are a number of our members who read the President's Message that are privileged in many respects. I guess you could say it was a self-parody, but also a call to action. Like when you're drinking the $8 martini, think about how else that could go to use. Many of us are guilty of being city boosters and maybe city residents but are far removed from a lot of reality that the city faces. The city of St. Louis extends beyond downtown, or the Central West End; a lot of other neighborhoods are part of the picture."

On July 30 at the Schlafly Tap Room on Locust, Reid was elected to a second six-month term as president. Only 40 Metropolis members turned up to cast votes for the group's officers and steering-committee positions.

Apathy is only part of the problem, contends Marston, who thinks it's disingenuous that a group claiming to be all about young people is dominated by folks in their thirties and beyond.

"It's a matter of legitimacy," he argues. "What if the National Organization for Women were led by a bunch of men? How does it advance the cause of getting decision-makers to take young people seriously if the people most often called on to talk to the media and elected officials on behalf of Metropolis are not so young? People of all ages can help Metropolis achieve its mission. And yes, Metropolis' mission benefits people of all ages. But young people should be leading the charge. The definition of young has been stretched thin, and with it, the organization's focus."

Reid seems unconcerned, equating the organization's efforts to replenish its youthful stock to niche projects like cleaning up a cluttered stretch of pavement in McRee Town. "We're membership-driven," she says. "Unless someone is willing to take [new-member recruiting] on, it's not going to get done."

Ajay Zutshi, who recently resigned his dual posts of fundraising and Walk chairman, points to a sharp decline in Walk participation -- long considered the group's most effective recruiting tool -- as a symptom of Metropolis' struggles and a sign that the group needs to reconsider its relevance and mission.

"Back in the early days of the Walk, more than 100 people would come out, easy," says Zutshi, a 32-year-old Harvard graduate who moved here ten years ago to teach at St. Louis Country Day School. "Nowadays we usually average 30 or 40 people. I don't think that's a slam on Metropolis, but five years ago hanging out downtown was novel. Nowadays you don't have to go on the Walk, because Washington Avenue and South Grand have higher profiles.

"Metropolis is less exciting now -- it's no longer the new kid on the block," Zutshi adds. "But it's pretty fucking hard to stay hip and exciting."