Last week I decided to forgo running for a third term as alderman of the 24th Ward in St. Louis. I’ve enjoyed many aspects of this job and look at the last eight years mostly with satisfaction. But St. Louis is a difficult city, and some aspects of the job have become more troubling to me over time.
Here’s the metaphor I use: My wife is a hairstylist, and I asked her to imagine what it would be like to go to work without scissors. To have customers come into the salon and sit in her chair, and explain that yes, this is a hair salon, but no, unfortunately she does not have any scissors. She understands they want a haircut, but there are simply no scissors here. They can wait. Perhaps some scissors will arrive, but she isn’t sure when. She left a voicemail for the scissors store. Hopefully they will call her back.
I talk to other aldermen and city employees who experience the same frustration. This is what it is like to live and try to govern in a city with an inadequate tax base, wrecked by suburban sprawl and depopulation, devastating crime and the legacy of structural racism. I’ve come to expect things to go wrong.
On the other hand, many priorities I wanted to see achieved are complete or almost so. Dogtown is getting a grocery store; Clifton Park has a master plan. You can safely push a baby stroller into Forest Park at the Clayton and Skinker intersection. The vacant school I looked at every day for 10 years has been renovated and is fully occupied.
We’ve successfully reined in development incentives inside the ward, and a complex citywide effort on the same front is trudging forward. I fought a quiet and quixotic quest to repave the Penrose Park Velodrome, and that too is under construction. A bill I passed enacted limits on local campaign contributions. We passed a historic charter amendment to reduce the size of the Board of Aldermen. After eight years at City Hall, this only begins the reform that is needed.
I also want to point to what needs to be changed about government in the St. Louis region: Everything.
Everything. Government in the region needs to be completely remade from the ground up. It does not work in St. Louis city; it does not work in the poorer areas of St. Louis County. We accept that rich people get excellent services because they wall themselves into suburban enclaves and avoid engaging with the rest of the region, and we accept that poor people will have poor services because they are poor. We accept that the middle class will endure a series of choices driven by anxiety and fear rather than love and optimism.
Almost 20 years ago I was riding my bike on a weekend as I often do in Forest Park. A driver began a confrontation with me that ended in an assault near Skinker and Forsyth. Afterward, angry and annoyed but not particularly hurt, I called the police. The response I got was not, “Are you OK?” but “What side of Skinker were you on?” This is our regional government in a nutshell. It first asks not what someone needs, but where they live. What you get is determined by your address.
Perhaps we got here by accident. But with decades of perspective on this dynamic, we all know it’s the central problem in the St. Louis region. It’s time to do something about it.
My parting shot in my role as alderman is this: We need to erase all the artificial boundaries of city, county and municipalities. The only way this region will ever work is if we are governed as one region. Everyone pays into the same pot, everyone has a seat at the same table to determine the regional direction, and resources are distributed equitably. Tinkering around the edges is metaphorically the same as rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. People are literally dying because of the way this region’s government is structured.
After eight years in government, my wish is we stop tinkering around the edges of an obviously unsalvageable and routinely harmful regional dynamic. We should become the St. Louis of 1.3 million people we want to be.
Scott Ogilvie is 24th Ward alderman in St. Louis.