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|Sylvester Brown, Jr.|
Recently, The St. Louis American published a commentary by Marc Morial, president of the national Urban League, where he praised the “pro-active” plan aimed at defeating unemployment and revitalizing a distressed urban area in Kansas City.
Last year, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D–MO) announced that funding had been targeted for a collaborative effort at home rehabilitation, green job creation and training, and energy conservation in an area designated the “Green Impact Zone.” According to Morial, the zone is located in a portion of the city where the unemployment rate hovers between 20-50 percent.
Initially established with stimulus seed money, the effort has been embraced by influential entities in the region, including the Mid-America Regional Council, Kansas City Power & Light, University of Missouri Kansas City Center for Economic Information, the Urban League and various neighborhood associations within the Zone.
Reminiscent of the infamous Frank Capra film, Kansas City players are exhibiting Oz-like characteristics – brains, heart and courage – to pave a way (as Morial put it) “for the rebirth of a neglected neighborhood.”
Does Kansas City have something we lack in the St. Louis region? The answers are “no” and “yes.”
First, let’s look at the commonalities.
Cleaver, state and local politicians, and Kansas City’s influential players stepped up to the plate. The Department of Energy and Missouri Department of Natural Resources allocated $4.5 million in federal stimulus money toward weatherizing homes in the Green Impact Zone and surrounding areas. City council members in the city directed $500,000 of its $1.8 million Neighborhood Stabilization funds to the endeavor. Wells Fargo Bank agreed to transfer ownership of 23 foreclosed homes to the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. In addition, it contributed a cash donation of $7,500 per home — a total of $172,500 — to help rehab and remodel homes. Reportedly, Kansas City Power and Light has expressed a willingness to invest and deploy an efficient Smart energy grid within the Zone.
Let’s see, St. Louis has congressmen – Wm. Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan come to mind – Democrats with close ties with the Obama Administration. They have influence with state, regional and local legislators and civic leaders. Wells Fargo has a headquarters here, and we’re surrounded by other influential lending institutions. We have Ameren Missouri, a powerful energy company. And, most important, we have distressed areas with the same dire crime, unemployment, housing, transportation and energy needs as Kansas City’s Green Impact Zone.
We are not in want of influential players or resources. Unfortunately, our region is still haunted by its segregated past. While crime and unemployment rates soar in distressed areas and our population dwindles in the city, regional leaders cling to the outdated notion that we can rebound with yet another multi-billion dollar “big idea.” They hang on to this fantasy while stubbornly ignoring urban opportunities and refusing to collectively invest in small but promising neighborhood endeavors.
What’s so utterly unforgivable is the fact that there are committed residents, individuals and agencies already working to stem the violence, reclaim lives and revitalize troubled neighborhoods. These efforts should be the next “big idea.” If just a fraction of the passion and resources dedicated to downtown development, the one massive Northside development project or the notion of revamping the Arch grounds were re-routed to small neighborhood endeavors, the St. Louis region could, like Kansas City, be the recipient of positive headlines and national praise.
If we exhibit the courage, the heart and the necessary collective brainpower, St. Louis could reverse the negatives that define our region and be far traveled on the brick road to our very own urban OZ.
Sylvester Brown Jr. is a freelance writer and founder of When We Dream Together, a local nonprofit dedicated to urban revitalization.