The most impressive thing about Thursday night's Good Ideas for Cities event at the Contemporary Art Museum was how many people came to hear some good ideas for how to make St. Louis better.
They filled all the chairs. They lined a mezzanine railing. They sat on the floor. The peered in from the galleries. They hung out in the lobby. In all, organizers said, 846 people showed up (though, given the turnout, it's hard to figure how they came to such a precise number). From hip artists to young professionals to Mayor Francis Slay in a pinstripe suit.
What this throng heard was two hours of ideas of how to wrestle with some of St. Louis' most intractable issues, in a practical, affordable manner. The event was put on by Good, an L.A.-based magazine and website "for people who give a damn." A few years ago, they held an event in L.A. pitting "The city's best designers vs. The city's biggest problems," and they've been barnstorming the country since, holding similar events in smaller cities.
Last night, Good came to St. Louis.
The event enlisted seven teams of young "creatives" -- designers, architects, planners, activists -- and asked various heavy-hitters about town to issue them each a challenge that the city faces. The teams then come up with an idea to address the challenge, something realistic and achievable. A way to get things moving, not a cure-all.
Here's how it went.
The challenge: How do we boost ridership on MetroLink and use it to spur neighborhood development?
The idea: Turn over half a MetroLink car to each of St. Louis City's 79 neighborhoods for a week or two, and turn the cars into rolling advertisements for the neighborhood, with art and history and retail and food that reflects the neighborhood's identity.
The challenge: How do we turn borders that divide disparate neighborhoods into bridges that unite them?
The idea: Kiosks on key streets, like Delmar Blvd., that house neighborhood information, history and art, and serve as gathering places for events where people from different walks of life can easily interact.
The challenge: How do we energize young adults about St. Louis, and get them to stay here and engage in the city?
The idea: By literally energizing them, installing beacons of light that glow brighter when more people are nearby. And link these beacons to a website that would reflect, in real-time, the levels of activity at different spots around the city.
The challenge: How do we increase the supply of locally-grown healthy food in our neighborhoods?
The idea: Use all that vacant land. There are 7,000 empty parcels of land in St. Louis. Turn some into community gardens, pay neighborhood residents (with food) to work the gardens, and sell it in neighborhood corner stores.
The challenge: How do we motivate more high school students to stay in school and graduate?
The idea: Have each high school adopt a nearby vacant building and enlist students in rehabbing it, as vocational training. When the building's done, it can become an experiential community classroom.
The challenge: How do we unite the region's many fragmented local governments?
The idea: A campaign - called "Better Together" - that would enlist community support for regional cooperation and gather pledges from residents and officials to collaborate more effectively. If that fails, declare war on Chicago.
The challenge: How do we preserve our park systems amid sharp budget cuts?
The idea: Regionalize them, rather than having a half-dozen different park systems around the area. Connect them better, installing modest improvements to give a stronger sense of place. And communicate their importance and role in the community.
So those were the ideas. Some were clever. Some a bit off the wall. Some have been tried before, in various ways. Some are completely original. Now the groups will spend six months working on implementation strategies, before another event at St. Louis Design Week in September to discuss next steps and, who knows, maybe even funding.
Obviously, a night throwing ideas against an art museum wall won't solve the deep problems that face St. Louis. And these ideas may not be for (or from) everyone. It's worth noting, in a city that's half African-American, that the crowd and creative teams were overwhelmingly white. Several plans leaned heavily on technology that many city residents still lack. And there was little talk of funding or bureaucracy or legal hurdles that often stand between a good idea and reality.
But the point of Thursday night's event was not to dwell on the negative. It was to get people talking about how to make St. Louis a better place, in the hopes that action will follow. If nothing else, it was clear that a lot of people -- at least 846, apparently -- want to have that conversation.