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Connors: Refugees could be solution to declining population in St. Louis

Connors: Refugees could be solution to declining population in St. Louis

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Bosnian Heritage Festival

Alma Cehajic watches her dad, Senad Cehajic, as he plays chess during the Bosnian Heritage Festival in Carondelet Park in south St. Louis on Sept. 2, 2007.

The St. Louis region is stagnating, and much of the problem starts at the core — the city of St. Louis. The media has jumped all over stories of crime and racism in our city, and rightly or wrongly, people are avoiding downtown while the population drain continues. St. Louis has dropped from a 1904 total of nearly 600,000 to less than half that, as the 2020 census will show a population below 300,000 for the first time in 150 years.

I live in St. Louis County and work in the Metro East, and I hear the same story on both sides — many people are scared to go to the city now, almost like it’s a war zone. This kind of attitude is toxic and has resulted in a continuing death spiral of more problems and more flight. We need to feel pride in our city and metro area again and feel safe to traverse its streets and tourist attractions. Visitors must be able to feel safe if we want them to come back and invest their time and money here.

I’ve been reading Heather McGhee’s powerful new book, “The Sum of Us,” and it tells the story of how racism and the fear of others has made us all worse off. The central symbol of her book is the Fairground Park swimming pool that used to be one of the largest in the nation, built in 1912 in north St. Louis. In 1949, an attempt at integrating the pool resulted in a race riot, and eventually the pool was drained and closed rather than allow Black residents to swim there. McGhee argues convincingly that drain-the-pool thinking has made us all poorer, madder and stuck with fewer alternatives. Zero-sum thinking, at the core of racism, is what got St. Louis (and much of America) into its current mess, and an embrace of diversity and a growth mindset is what will get us out of it.

I don’t pretend to have solutions to the many problems that face new Mayor Tishaura Jones, and I wish her and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page well as they navigate the difficult path forward. I do have one idea of what could help. In 1992 war broke out in Bosnia, and millions of Bosnians became homeless. Some 70,000 Bosnians ended up here, in south St. Louis — opening stores, filling schools and becoming an important part of the community. While some of the Bosnians have moved on two decades later, many are still here — paying taxes, buying products and making St. Louis a better place.

Unfortunately, there always seem to be an unending supply of refugees. Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela and South Sudan are countries where people are eager to escape. Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are deteriorating rapidly, and Hong Kong may be the next to blow up. Our zero-sum mentality sees refugees and immigrants only as potential threats and drains on resources, but a more holistic viewpoint is that they are potential resources themselves, and if handled the right way, could revitalize entire areas just like the Bosnians did. President Joe Biden has finally agreed to raise the shamefully low cap on refugee admissions to the United States, and St. Louis could take advantage of this.

Let’s face it: Very few Americans want to move into St. Louis right now because of its bad reputation. We need to turn that around. Refugees and immigrants are eager to start a new life, and most of them want to work hard and prove themselves worthy. Today’s immigrants are the most heavily vetted group in the world. They’ll need help at first with training and language, but like my great grandparents from Ireland 150 years ago, they’ll be hungry and excited to become model Americans. And their earnestness and resilience could rub off on the rest of us, making the city a beacon of hope again.

It’s time to stop groveling at the feet of corporations like Amazon or the Rams and throw some resources at people and projects that will pay us back for decades in ways no one can predict.

McGhee closes her book with a look at Lewiston, Maine, where city leaders have invited large groups of African refugees into their community. While Maine is one of the oldest, whitest and least diverse states in the nation, Lewiston is vibrant and growing while many other Maine cities are dying. A demographic bomb of an aging, declining population threatens industrialized nations around the world as people live longer, but have fewer and fewer children. The only thing keeping the U.S. from the same future as aging Japan and Russia is its steady influx of immigrants.

St. Louis has shown some real progress in the past decade — Union Station, Ballpark Village, the new soccer stadium and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. But the one thing missing from that equation is happy, energetic and hopeful people who want to stick around. Those remaining in the city are losing faith in their high-crime, dysfunctional town, and they need reinforcements. Let’s fill the pool back up and invite everybody to come and enjoy it as a showcase to the rest of the world.

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