Wednesday, January 30, 2019

There will be no "Better Together" without Respect


By Sylvester Brown, Jr.


I love St. Louis!

As a much younger journalist born and raised in “Da Lou,” I never imagined myself saying those words. For decades, I’ve complained about our region’s stubborn, segregationist mindset; the uber-wealthy oligarchs who run roughshod over citizens with tax-dependent developments in already stable neighborhoods. I’ve taken these rich, disconnected ruffians to task for dismantling and displacing entire black communities while callously disregarding loyal long-time residents.  I’ve criticized black and white leaders for their lack of vision and inaction regarding reciprocity and equality. The disproportionate economic, social and racial inequities drive me batty.
All this and more comes to my mind as local media outlets are all abuzz about a plan to merge St. Louis City with St. Louis County. A group called “Better Together” recently announced a detailed reunification process. It's a bold plan designed to wed the city with the county in order to make us a bigger, better and more unified metropolis.
Maybe I'm just a paranoid skeptic, but this proposed matrimony gives me the heebie-jeebies. It makes wonder about the complexities and ramifications of  so-called "change."  
Again, I've come to truly love this city. It's an extraordinary place where I, an impoverished youth and high school dropout, still managed to carve out a role as a respected magazine publisher, a columnist for the city’s major newspaper and a verbal activist for "at-risk" children and revitalized long-ignored neighborhoods. I’m not alone in this category of uniqueness. St. Louis is small enough and unexplored enough that almost any wild-eyed dreamer can make his or her mark. It's a place where that old, oft-cited creed: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” is a proud staple of our tenacity and grit.  
The city of St. Louis, with all its dysfunctional pieces, has that distinct trailblazer spirit. Our protests have set the template for civil disobedience demonstrations around the world. We are the unofficial home of the St. Paul Sandwich and a burgeoning, racially-diverse, progressive political base. It’s yummy, unconventional venues like Mokabe's, Red Guitar Bread, Uncle Bill’s, Goody-Goody and Sunday breakfast at CW Lounge. This is the place where an avantgarde individual like spoken word artist Bruce Franks can employ his swag at the State Capitol. That spirit of urban "toughness" is exemplified by Tishaura Jones, the grassroots gentrifiers of Old North and the eclectic treasures found in the Grove and the Chippewa strip. It’s John Goodman and Goodfellow, Cedric and St. Louis Ave., Dick Gregory and Grand Blvd, Tennessee Williams and Walnut Park. It’s Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Redd Fox, Tina Turner, Chingy, SZA, Akon and so many others who were born here and went out to showcase their brilliance against incredible odds.

The city of St. Louis, with all its dysfunctional pieces, has that distinct trailblazer spirit. 

No doubt, there are many benefits to this merging thing. St. Louis' population has been on a steady decline since the 1950s. Back in the early 1900s, we were the fourth largest population in the country. We’re now in 62nd place. Merging the city and county would give us a combined population of 1.3 million residents, ranking the region as the 10th largest city in the country.
Fine, great. But “bigger” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.” If both the city and county are stigmatized by racial polarization, segregation and social and economic disparities, most likely, we’re gonna get more fat-cat control and more privatization without community input. There’s a chance we’ll have more police malfeasance, bigger tax perks and hand-outs to rich developers. "Bigger" might mean larger numbers of underfunded public schools, quietly codified housing discrimination, more minority political under-representation and over all bigger regional disdain for voters, poor people and people of color.
My spider senses immediately started tingling when I learned that Better Together has been bankrolled by billionaire philanthropist and political donor Rex Sinquefield. Love him or loathe him, he isn’t exactly the poster child for public input or grassroots involvement in many of the issues he's paid for or promoted.
Glenn Burleigh, spokesman for STL Not for Sale, the anti-airport privatization group, posted something on Facebook that underscores Sinquefield’s influence on the people responsible for Better Together’s merger plan:
“A rich person chose five people to make decisions in an unaccountable vacuum and we all have to live through the process of pushing the outcome of a sterling example of the idiotic ‘design thinking’ that plagues America's elites, these days.”
 Granted, there are a bunch of folks much smarter than me who back this fusion sensation. At a recent political forum, all three candidates for the president of the board of aldermen's seat said they support a city/county marriage in some form or another.
    But here’s what gets me, the city I love is being portrayed as the unwanted, balloon-headed stepchild in conversations outside the city. Instead of being viewed as the cultural hub of the state, the crown jewel of boot-strap innovation, we’re largely stereotyped by county and rural outsiders as a crime-filled land of the walking dead, overflowing with lazy welfare recipients and violent drugged-out, dark-skinned predators.
  
“A rich person chose five people to make decisions in an unaccountable vacuum and we all have to live through the process of pushing the outcome of a sterling example of the idiotic ‘design thinking’ that plagues America's elites, these days.”

The Better Together crew are calling for a statewide vote to decide whether to consolidate the city and County. Some state legislators, county mayors and the St. Louis County Municipal League, which represents county towns, are against the merger. Many cite the city's disproportionate numbers of murders, impoverished and homelessness people. Those are serious concerns but the negativeness of the city doesn't define our city. And, as newsman Charles Jaco penned in a recent St. Louis American commentary, “racism has more than a little to do with the opposition by many of the county’s towns to a merger.”
We’re now asking the “white flight” people who vacated the city for the perceived benefits of the ‘burbs,’ to now become decision-makers and stewards of the city. 
Before we talk nuptials, let’s talk progress. As backwards as the city is in many respects, it’s far ahead of the county in terms of addressing racial reciprocity and economic equity. Treasurer and 2017 mayoral candidate Tishaura Jones, several “progressive” white aldermen, some newly elected black aldermen and at least two of the president of the board of aldermen candidates have effectively challenged our stale, good-ole-boy, pay-to-play political system. They have bold, inclusive narrative and have established new ways to engage and activate voters, especially young voters. 
The city/county merger threatens to, if not erase, drastically change the city’s promising trajectory. Still, a lot of people welcome that change. I get it. 


"Racism has more than a little to do with the opposition by many of the county’s towns to a merger." - Charles Jaco

This is not to say there’s been no racial progress in county politics. According to Better Together, Wesley Bell’s victory in the county prosecutor’s race “demonstrates that majority white populations can and do elect African-American officials." 
Maybe, but least we forget that once Bell, who campaigned on the issue of police accountability, was elected, county prosecutors voted to join the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA). The very organization Jaco aptly described as a “labor union in the same way the Ku Klux Klan is a “fraternal organization.” 
I've become very protective of this city. I may criticize her but I don't like it when its done by outsiders. With this merger, city and county leaders act like St. Louis is damaged goods, like the county is the prize bridegroom and the city is the deformed, damaged and desperate bride. The county may have the population and potential to improve our status nationally, but don’t get this stuff twisted. We are the prize. Nobody travels hundreds or thousands of miles to visit the St. Louis County Zoo, Muny, Opera or the County Cardinals. They don't come here for county barbecue or county blues.  If the county doesn't respect the city at the beginning of this courtship, we're destined for an abusive relationship after we're wed. 

With this merger, city leaders act like St. Louis is damaged goods, like the county is the prize bridegroom and St. Louis is the deformed, damaged and desperate bride.

I’m not poo-pooing the whole idea of a merger. I just think both the city and county need time to prepare for the marriage.  The city, especially, needs time to refine itself, establish itself as a progressive, diverse, crown jewel before we compromise our progress.  
Consider this a plea from someone who sees the untapped potential of a disrespected populace; someone wary of highfalutin, well-financed but short-sighted schemes to change things; someone who’s grown tired of black folk being irrelevant in this region.
Forgive my skepticism. I can’t help myself. After all, I’m just an ordinary guy who loves his extraordinary city.