It’s time to start taking Better Together seriously.
I owe this realization to University City Mayor Terry Crow. He has addressed, soberly and warily, the movement to put St. Louis city and county back together, undoing the Great Divorce of 1876.
The idea of a Great Remarriage has been around for a long time. Like a lot of people, I thought that, while it might streamline regional decision-making and reduce duplication of services, it wouldn’t reverse our decline, which was the result of broad trends affecting most Rust Belt cities.
But I didn’t give it a lot of thought, because it seemed so unlikely to happen. The city had most of the problems (especially financial ones) and the county had most of the votes.
Now, though, we have the St. Louis County Executive joining forces with the Mayor of St. Louis to back the Remarriage. Civic Progress is on board, and so is Rex Sinquefield.
Sinquefield, or rather the $25 million he’s contributing to the cause, was the major factor in the possible scenario Crow sketched. The plan is to put the issue on the statewide November 2020 ballot for all Missouri voters to decide. The danger, Crow said, is that outstate voters may not feel deeply invested in the future of St. Louis. They could easily be swayed by a slick advertising campaign, which Sinquefield’s money would pay for.
Crow didn’t say, but I will, that outstate Missourians voted for Trump. We don’t want them to decide our future.
Only the voters of St. Louis city and county should decide. But that leaves the question of what they should decide. Do we want the Great Remarriage?
The old joke is that remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience – especially if you remarry your ex. So let’s give experience its due by looking at 1876 to see what it can teach us. The Great Divorce is now universally considered a terrible mistake. What were they thinking when they made it?
Reading letters to the editor about the Divorce on blurred and blotchy microfilm, my first thought was that 1876 was long ago. The newspaper was called the St. Louis Dispatch; it hadn’t merged with the Post yet. The big news was Custer’s Last Stand. One correspondent addressed “all right-thinking men;” women’s suffrage was 45 years away. The most relevant difference between then and now is in St. Louis’s status. One correspondent mentioned that it was the same size as Chicago.
In contrast to today’s practice, almost all the letters were anonymous. The exception is the letter placing the “scheme and charter” (as the Divorce was officially called) before the public. It bears the signatures of many community leaders. They had no inkling that they were teetering on the brink of a fateful folly. They thought they were making a smart move.
Charter supporters proudly announced that it “fixes permanently the city limits … which will never be changed, and it includes enough territory to bring the parks and cemeteries into the city” as well as a new water filtration plant.
The charter pushed the city’s borders out to include the new Forest Park, and its backers thought the city was now big enough. They proclaimed that the charter “fixes taxation in newly acquired territory, acknowledging that farming property should not pay city taxes.” Apparently they didn’t think these farms would give way to houses and offices.
A Dispatch editorial writer sounded a warning note, that the backers seemed to think “the days of growth and expansion are over.” But nobody picked up on that. The debate in the letters column descends into minutiae: voting qualifications, election procedures, term lengths, salaries.
Keeping taxes low is the big concern. One correspondent enthusiastically stated that the charter “will save the city $500,000.” Another said it would abolish many offices, “dismissing a small army of persons employed by the county and paid by the people.” Then, as now, some tax-payers thought any proposal that involved firing lots of civil servants had to be good.
The blurry type was giving me a headache, but I read on, and finally I found the Cassandra of 1876 St. Louis.
He prophesied that villages would spring up just beyond the city’s border, and quickly grow as people fled city taxes. “The day will come when it will be found cheaper to jump the Missouri River,” he wrote, accurately forecasting the St. Charles County boom. Transport would make all the difference. “Steam will, by regular trains … accelerate the ingress to the city to such an extent that the parties would prefer a settlement in the neighboring county.”
Apparently the word “commuting” hadn’t been invented yet, but our Cassandra got the main point, that advances in transportation were going to transform people’s perception of distance. Prescient as he was, he did not foresee the automobile and interstate highway system.
I read on, feeling as I were standing on the deck of the Titanic, and one person was saying, “Look, an iceberg!” but everyone else kept rearranging deck chairs.
The lesson for 2019? Let’s spend less time fretting about trivia, and more time trying to imagine the big changes coming in the world, and whether we will truly be better facing them together.