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Messenger: Pulitzer’s words stay behind to — hopefully — inspire a new generation in St. Louis
Tony’s Take

Messenger: Pulitzer’s words stay behind to — hopefully — inspire a new generation in St. Louis

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The lobby of the former Post-Dispatch building, seen here on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, includes Joseph Pulitzer’s retirement statement, in zinc letters. Issued in 1907 and published daily by the newspaper, the statement is known as the “Pulitzer Platform.” The statement will remain part of the lobby of the building at 900 North Tucker Boulevard. (Post-Dispatch)

Walking out of 900 North Tucker Boulevard for the last time, I left the words behind.

They were literally over my shoulder, on the marble wall in the lobby of the building the Post-Dispatch left for new digs a block away.

“I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles, that it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or by predatory poverty.”

They are the words of Joseph Pulitzer on April 10, 1907, that for more than a century have stood as the newspaper’s “Platform” guiding its editorial page and infecting several generations of journalists with a sense of purpose.

The building’s new owner, Square co-founder Jim McKelvey, wanted the historic words to stay with the structure to which he is giving new life. At first, the thought gave me a sense of loss. Those are the words that have greeted me every time I have walked into the office for more than a decade. They guided me as editorial page editor and guide me still. They are the heart and soul of the newspaper.

Then I thought about the last time I had a conversation with McKelvey. We were at the Third Degree Glass Factory, a building on Delmar Boulevard that he bought and rehabbed and turned into a hub of activity and creative thought along the traditional north-south, black-white divide in one of the most segregated cities in America. We were at an event for the nonprofit he started called LaunchCode, which may well provide some of the engineers who will populate the Square offices that will take over the building the Post-Dispatch left behind.

What might St. Louis look like in another couple of decades, I wondered, if the future leaders of this city, if the next McKelvey, is somebody who comes to work each day absorbing the words of the Pulitzer Platform.

Never lack sympathy for the poor.

The building sits between St. Patrick’s Center to the south and the Biddle House homeless shelter to the north. There is no avoiding the city’s failure to address the needs of its most vulnerable residents just by walking from the parking lot to the office.

There is value in that.

Two months ago, local civic leaders were reveling in a new project called the St. Louis Blight Authority, in which St. Louis native Jack Dorsey — the CEO of both Twitter and Square — and Detroit investor Bill Pulte said they were spending more than $500,000 to tear down some dilapidated buildings in north St. Louis, to begin the process of rebuilding neighborhoods that have been ignored for too long.

It’s a good thing. But it’s also something else. It’s a reminder that the north side got in its current condition in part because the last generation or two of billionaires and millionaires sought tax abatement for their central corridor development projects instead of investing in the north side.

This is the story of St. Louis told in author Colin Gordon’s book “Mapping Decline.” I wondered, as I left 900 North Tucker Boulevard, would that history be repeated?

Will today’s billionaires repeat the sins of St. Louis’ past, or will they seek a new path to a more equitable future, one that avoids predatory poverty and invests in the people who live in this city?

On Wednesday, McKelvey’s representatives will be before a city board seeking about $11.8 million in tax increment financing for work on the former Post-Dispatch building. The developers also are seeking millions more in state and federal tax credits and other subsidies.

History, it seems, is repeating itself.

Still, I’m hopeful that leaving Joseph Pulitzer’s words behind for a new generation, one that doesn’t necessarily see them in the dead-tree edition of the Post-Dispatch every day, helps them learn from their wisdom, and inspires a fight for the progress St. Louis has yet to achieve.

Get Tony's e-newsletter: From City Hall to the Capitol, Pulitzer Prize-winning metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.

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