Dear St. Louis,
You say such mean things about yourself. It almost sounds like you hate yourself.
Let’s talk about that, shall we?
You don’t suck. You know that, I think. I mean the Cardinals and Blues aren’t the only good things about you. And let’s not mention that backstabbing football team. You are so much more than your sports teams.
Yet you can’t seem to stop feeling inferior to Chicago, complaining about your crime, reminiscing about the glory days—the 1904 World’s Fair and the 1950’s when the City’s population hit its peak—and wallowing in the city’s descent since then. And now it’s likely you can’t stop eyeing Nashville’s, Indianapolis’s, even KC’s ascent without a jab of jealousy. And you feel the shame of being passed by.
As a result, you can’t stop beating yourself up verbally. You want to stop, but it feels impossible.
Lambert Airport hosted a diversity forum that I came back for. There was a speaker who outlined St. Louis’s issues, all the familiar suspects. They also said that St. Louisans shouldn’t be so negative about their city since it’s a great place.
It is a great place. And I, too, used to say that St. Louis just needed to be more positive. But I realized that being more positive just isn’t enough.
My creative agency published pro-St. Louis content through an online magazine that told entrepreneurial stories of St. Louis, and we produced the Here is St. Louis videos. They were birthed out of our (tiny) minds and funded from our (tinier) pockets. We spent six figures trying to boost St. Louis, thinking that we could change the conversation by telling inspiring stories. Our content was applauded, but we found that clapping hands didn’t foster lasting change. We discovered that St. Louis’s problems couldn’t be solved with mere cheerleading.
St. Louis is haunted. Seriously.
Something more fundamental is causing the negativity. The issue is decades old and deeply rooted. It’s in the bones. And an online magazine and some viral videos aren’t powerful enough to overcome that. No, cheerleading isn’t enough. St. Louis needs to change. To do that, you need to see the cause, the roots, the bones. People’s language or attitudes are only a symptom of a deeper issue. The deeper issue is this. You are haunted by the ghosts of your past.
St. Louis, the deplorable things you say about yourself are true, but what makes that most troubling is that there is no other story to tell. It’s like watching a really sad movie, then the credits start rolling. And you think, “No! It can’t end like that!” Your past is sad, you’re stuck in it, and you’ve got nothing else but the credits. The past is a vortex that can suck anyone in, even whole cities. It makes us fixate on mistakes committed and relive them over and over. And the only way to get free is to pull your gaze forward and focus on today and tomorrow.
You need to see that the movie you are in is one of your own making. You’re the director, writer, and producer. You can give yourself a better ending.
But you need a vision for the future to do that.
The dictionary definition of vision is the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom. That’s exactly what you need–a plan for what St. Louis will become.
You can become a greater hub of commerce. You can fix old issues and cooperate. You can become wealthier and healthier. You can grow. You don’t have to verbally abuse yourself.
Great universities, corporations, initiatives, infrastructure–you’ve got those. New restaurants and startups–you’ve got those, too. In fact, they are popping up and growing like wildflowers in spring. Imagine what a plan that wove those strengths together could do.
But you need more than just a shinier new vision, you need visionary leaders.
You need people who have power and are willing to bear the load, take risks, and make efforts to address fundamental issues with fundamental solutions. They need to point to a greater goal, a bigger dream. They must break free from the sad status quo. You need leaders who will sacrifice some of their present power to gain a better tomorrow for all. Fighting to sustain current fiefdoms will not build a vision. No. Only leaders who are willing to lose their smaller power to gain a greater city can create change.
Change is a family affair. It must be had together.
Ultimately it’s up to you, citizens of St. Louis. You can petition the existing leaders, telling them that you are fed up with being haunted by the past and talking trash about yourself. Tell them you can do better. Tell them you don’t want a tragic ending, instead you want one that makes you laugh-cry at the same time like some of the best romantic comedies that just make you feel great. Or maybe your ending can be like one of those great Marvel movies, where the hero saves the world just in time and everyone goes home feeling amazing. I digress. Tell your leaders you want to turn your sights to the future, today. You can elect leaders who will cast a vision of a greater St. Louis.
The choice is yours. You have the ability to change. Do you have the resolve, courage, and will to?
I believe so. I hope so.
If you do, you will find that you won’t feel some inferiority complex when you’re talking about yourself. You won’t brag either, because good Midwesterners don’t do that. But you will have a swagger. You will say, “We’re doing ok.” That’s Midwestern for “We are crushing it!” Words about past mistakes will fade from your lips, and you will stop basking in the glory of 1904.
For you know a greater glory is before you.