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To Merge or Not to Merge

St. Louis shortchanged its statistics when it severed the city from the county. But even as calls for a merger grow louder, experts say it’s too late—the dividing line itself has moved west.

In 1920, St. Louis’ leaders tried to undo what they had done 50 years before: They tried to put the city and county back together. “Their main reason was that it would make us look better to the rest of the country,” explains University of Missouri–St. Louis political scientist Terry Jones. “We’d have more than a million population and be back in the top 10.”

The effort failed, and the question remains: Has the city/county split hurt us? Does it handicap St. Louis in competing with other cities for tourism, new residents and new business?

Jerry Matacotta, a transplant from New York City, thinks so. On his first visit to St. Louis, he was pleasantly surprised. It had the urban amenities and cultural attractions of a big city, without the hassles. When he told friends he was thinking of retiring here, though, they were appalled.

But wouldn’t New Yorkers shudder at the thought of one of their own moving to any Midwestern city? No, Matacotta says. Cincinnati and Columbus have pretty good reps. By reputation, he says, “St. Louis is on the same level as Detroit: crime-ridden, racist, a city in decline. There’s nothing to do there, and the weather’s terrible.”

These faults—with the exception of the weather—are exaggerated by the city/county split. A recent Associated Press story told the world about a study that ranked St. Louis number one in crime in the country—taking into consideration only the city. And if you went to the Money magazine website in July 2006, when the magazine released its “Best Places to Live” list, and typed in “St. Louis,” here’s how we compared with the average of the top 10 places: median income less than half; cardiac mortality twice as high; less than half as many days of good air quality; personal crime risk 10 times as high.

In a numbers contest, any large, older city would get beaten by the bijou townlets on Money’s list (Fort Collins, Colo., was the top pick), but St. Louis comes off especially badly because our numbers are for the city only.

St. Louis’ situation, with two entities sharing only a name, is almost unique. Only Baltimore has the same setup. Only Pittsburgh, among comparably sized cities, has more local governments. Out-of-towners just don’t get it. “Outside downtown, Midtown and the Central West End, it’s all a jumble,” says Matacotta. “You drive around wondering, ‘Is this the city or the county?’” Relocation specialist Abby Van Donsel says, “Our clients are confused by the city/county split. We have to talk about it a lot.”

According to Where We Stand: A Strategic Assessment of the St. Louis Region, published by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, in comparable metro areas, the central city holds 33 percent of the total population. St. Louis city holds only 13.4 percent. In the late 20th century, it lost a greater share of its population than did any other city. Jones explains that if St. Louis were a typical city, its border would be Lindbergh Boulevard. Instead, the border is several miles east; when people left the old urban neighborhood, they were more likely to move out of St. Louis entirely.

And so, compared with other major American cities, St. Louis seemed to be in free fall. “St. Louis used to be the third-largest city in the U.S.,” says the City Smart: St. Louis guidebook, exaggerating a bit. (We never ranked higher than fourth.) “What happened?” By 1984, St. Louis was The Twenty-Seventh City—the title of a novel published that year by Webster-born author Jonathan Franzen. Describing the 1879 setting of the city line as the act of folly that doomed the city, Franzen wrote a satirical fantasy in which the empty streets of downtown St. Louis were repeopled with immigrants from India.

In the early ’80s, many thought that only in a fantasy would people return to St. Louis. British travel writer Jonathan Raban visited in 1982 and described the city as effectively dead: “Almost all native St. Louisans who could afford to had left the city long ago,” he wrote. Viewing downtown from the top of the Arch, he calls it “the Waste Land,” filled with “forlorn gestures of renewal.”

St. Louis is getting much better notices from travel writers today—interestingly enough, the city gets all their attention. In March 2006, The New York Times wrote, “St. Louis has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1972.... New loft districts, old civic jewels and revitalized night life are making the old refrain of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ a welcome phrase again.” Yahoo! Travel says, “Try not to leave without sampling the outlying districts,” by which Yahoo! means the Central West End and the Loop. Contrary to our reputation as a square, intolerant city, the Out & About Gay Travel Guides: USA Cities recommends St. Louis highly—and again, all attractions and neighborhoods mentioned are in the city.

So is the effect of the city/county split on perceptions of St. Louis a problem we don’t have to worry about anymore? Jones thinks so. “What makes the split irrelevant today is that what ‘metropolitan statistical region’ means is far better known around the country than previously,” he says. True, but as with the Money website, it’s still easy for nonexperts to be misled. Another example of this is the Sperling’s Best Places website (bestplaces.net). Enter “St. Louis,” and a “quick facts” box opens, telling you that the population is 343,279 and falling. Enter Kansas City, Mo., by contrast, and you’ll find that the population is 444,387 and growing.

Get far enough away, and the city/county split fades from view; St. Louis, romanticized, is whole again. Wikipedia France calls “Saint-Louis” the 18th-largest agglomeration in the United States, with a population of 2.8 million. In Toronto, Julie Bean thinks of “food, glorious food; exotic night life; a gentler pace of life; riverboat cruises; fishing; hot climate, somewhat tropical; Budweiser beer; Tom Sawyer; and cicadas.” Andrew Brown, a translator in Cambridge, England, tells me he pictures St. Louis as “a group of black jazzmen in a smoky bar playing like billy-oh to a crowd of enthusiasts sipping bourbon, with a dapper T.S. Eliot sitting in a corner tapping his feet.”

Ah, but from St. Petersburg, Russia, Anastassia writes, “First thoughts cross my mind are about South, segregation, xenophobia but at the same time hospitality. The only landmark I know is the Gateway Arch. I have also heard that City of  St. Louis is not included in any county and considered to be an Independent City. I do not know how much true it is.”

It is much true—but does it matter? Should we believe the urban experts who say we’re stagnating—that long-term problems go unaddressed and great plans don’t become reality because we’re governed by competing fiefdoms rather than by a strong regional authority?

No, because it’s bunk, says Jones: “The split makes us what we are.” St. Louis has more governments than comparable metro areas do, but it also has a stronger sense of community. Consolidation of governments is a fad whose time is passing, Jones says, but “the Post-Dispatch won’t budge, no matter how often I talk to [editorial-page editor] Christine Bertelson. They continue to say that if only city and county would merge, then it would be, if not paradise, close to it. That’s utter nonsense. A merger would not eliminate poverty, improve schools or medical care, change the environment or affect population density.”

The city/county split is irrelevant today, Jones argues, because the city and county together represent only half of the area’s population. Inner-ring suburbs have recognized that they share many problems with the city. And, Jones adds, “We have consolidated a lot of the things a city does. We have 20 cooperating agencies [like Bi-State and the Metropolitan Sewer District]; there’s not much left to combine.”

Mark Drucker, retired director of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville’s graduate policy-analysis program, suggests that a new split has opened up, well to the west: “There are people who never come east of I-270,” he says. That being the case, he says, it is urgent to close the old split, because problems tend to be in the city, whereas resources are in the county.

But the city also has downtown, and, in Drucker’s view, downtown is crucial to the future of the metro area. “When you’re talking about turning things around, you’re talking about mobilizing massive amounts of money, at some risk, to do things downtown.” If these things can’t be done, “there’s a danger of the city losing the interest of suburbanites. Fair St. Louis, First Night—these are occasions for the region to care about the heart of the city. You need to give people an identity as urban residents, a sense of having something to do with the city.”

More than outsiders’ opinions, it’s our own perceptions of the city/county split that matter—and today it may not be boundary lines or governments that matter so much as spirit and a sense of connection.

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