Imagine a bunch of curious Japanese tourists stepping gingerly through the ruins of a once-grand avenue of urban America, gawking at deserted and burned-out hulks of historic buildings, wondering how a great city could have sunk so low.
Eleven years ago, Washington Avenue in St. Louis was declining rapidly, the downtown prospects grim. And the rest of the St. Louis region didn't seem to care.
So in a 1997 series for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, my Citistates Group co-author Curt Johnson and I arbitrarily picked 2010 as the year foreigners might come poking through the ruins of Washington Avenue. They'd be witnessing, we suggested, the tragic endpoint of the heedless flight of Americans from their once-proud cities.
Cities make comeback
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The good news is how wrong we were. Reel forward (or back!) to this June 6. The yearly competition for one of the National Civic League's coveted All-America City awards is taking place in Tampa, Fla.
There's huge suspense – which cities (out of 100 original entries) will a jury select to receive the awards?
St. Louis makes the cut, receiving its first All-America City award since 1956. And what's the top talking point St. Louis used to win? It's the downtown, focus of our dire warning of 1997.
That year, the “doers” of the comeback – public officials, entrepreneurs, investors, community groups – were just assembling in a group called Downtown Now! They focused heavily on restoring the city's grand architectural legacy, tapping a landmark state historical preservation tax credit.
And the “going back to the future” strategy paid off handsomely. As Richard C.D. Fleming, president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association and a leader in getting the Missouri Legislature to pass the credit explains: “The total new investment in downtown is almost $5 billion. And close to 90 percent of it is historic preservation – great old structures rehabilitated for offices, condos and more – not just a bunch of new megastructures.”
The downtown residential population, close to zero in 1997, is up to 10,000, and growing.
But St. Louis, for decades bedeviled by deep population losses and widely scattered suburban sprawl, also won its award by pointing to a stunning regional advance. It's the new River Ring project.
The project eventually will be a 600-mile web of 45 biking trails and greenways designed to encircle and connect the entire region – a big “green” advance. It is also a way to help metro St. Louis compete with other areas in environmentally friendly outdoor life.
Just completed: a renovation of the historic McKinley Bridge across the Mississippi River, with a 6,600-foot bike and pedestrian way offering spectacular views of downtown St. Louis and its landmark Gateway Arch, to be connected in the next 12 months to a converted railway trestle going five more miles into the heart of the city.
Yet the greenway advance wouldn't have happened unless both the Missouri and Illinois Legislatures, along with the voters of St. Louis, two adjacent Missouri counties and four in Illinois, hadn't agreed in 2000 to fund a bistate regional park district to set up the interconnecting parks, trails and greenways.
But there was a third side to the St. Louis All-America City award – an ingenious arts and youth breakthrough. A community-based collaborative, St. Louis ArtWorks, helps aspiring artists place their work in public spaces of corporations – where it's offered for sale. In the last two years, the ArtWorks reached out to help inner-city high school artists form a nonprofit subsidiary – the Boomerang Press – producing commissioned art.
Four of the student artists traveled with Mayor Francis Slay, CEOs and civic leaders to make St. Louis' presentation in Tampa. One can only imagine what an amazing experience it was – only one student had ever been on an airplane before. Yet sources tell me their presence was critical to St. Louis' victory.
Not end of story
And that wasn't the end of the story. Through St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, the students were granted a client interview with leaders of Busch Gardens near Tampa. Result: They came home with a contract to design and provide holiday cards for Busch Gardens this year.
Several other exemplary towns won All-America City awards, among them New Haven, Conn., Akron, Ohio, and Aurora, Colo.
But St. Louis was the only winning region. And its victory says something significant about America today: Recovered and triumphant downtowns – provided there's visionary local leadership – are on a roll.
Without the special “green” value incorporated in new parks, greenways and natural settings, no metropolitan area can draw the best talent and become truly competitive. Arts and livability are in – all the more exciting if they can be inclusive too.
Finally, it takes a whole region – cities and suburbs working as a team – to produce the most glowing results.