If you live in Florissant and Afton and you are a responsible or even semi-responsible adult and concerned citizen chances are you cannot names the mayors of Cheserfield, University City, Ferguson, Berkeley or Kirkwood. Chances are though you can name the mayor of St. Louis. The city is the heart of the region and even if you do not live in the city your family roots probably trace back to the city. If you are in North County or St. Charles County chances are your roots are in North St. Louis and if you are in South County or Jefferson County chances are high your roots are in South St. Louis. People pay attention to the officer of city mayor as whoever sits in room 200 becomes a spokesman for the area. So, as we head to the polls this Tuesday for the Democratic Primary we will not only be electing the leader of the city in this one-party town we will also be electing the leader of this region. Will Mayor Francis Slay be elected to an unprecedented fourth term or will the challenger Lewis Reed upset his plans to make history? This race is also a referendum on the state and condition of St. Louis so it is a good time to asses where we are. So, let us take a look at the major issues in the race:
Mayor Francis Slay: Pros and Cons
I view Mayor Francis Slay as an old-school South St. Louis machine-politician who has come to office at a unique transformational time in the history of the city of St. Louis and literally went through a transformation on the job. I celebrated the night in 1993 Freeman Bosley, Jr. became the first African-American mayor of the city of St. Louis and I mourned his loss in 1997 and voted for Bosley again in 2001. To me Bosley was the man who could have brought St. Louis out of our poor state of race relations. Having lived around the country I can definitely say I have never been anywhere with worse race-relations than St. Louis. Everything in this city is black and white and the seat of racism, the Selma of St. Louis, has traditionally been deep South St. Louis. It just so happened that the deep South Side is the political-base of Mayor Slay so I did not vote for him when he first ran and did not trust him for years.
Over the years I have watched Mayor Slay and have had to admire his leadership and the cities growth under his watch. At first I said to myself “this is some kind of a trick” and this Lebanese South Side Hoosier Catholic schoolboy must have something up his sleeve. I did not believe a South Side Machine politician could actually want a diverse and inclusive city and I remembered the white rage at the election of Mayor Bosely and the uproar the white-establishment had at just giving up a little bit of power. Yet year after year I have watched Mayor Slay consistently reach out and embrace the diversity of this city.
The pros are obvious. As a teenager when I would catch the 74 West Florissant bus to Washington and Tucker to shop at Gus’s I got out to a seen of boarded up buildings and complete desolation. I vividly remember turning around 14th and Washington when I was in the 8th grade and a man pissing on my shoes in broad daylight. For me to see that strip become famous as “Warsh Ave” and a destination to out-of-towners is surreal. The St. Louis of my youth was on par with Detroit, Gary and Camden (only with worse race-relations and maybe a few more jobs) and without change this city was on its way to looking like Detroit looks today. My mother lived in the Shaw Neighborhood in the 90’s and at the time there were several open-air drug-markets in the neighborhood and it was definitely not the place to be. The corner of Shenandoah and Thurman was one of the most dangerous and hottest drug-corners in the city. Today, it is home to the Thurman Café a place where rich yuppies drink craft beer and talk about the English Premier League. A far cry from the Palestinian-owned store that used to sit on the corner with a Dirty Harry .45 revolver permanently affixed behind the counter. Or the corner where “Mae Man” was gunned down by police who had a hard-on for him anyway for being the leader of the “Do Mob”.
McCree Town, just blocks over from Shaw, looked like a ghost town or something out of a dystopian futuristic novel. The only people you ever saw were dope-dealers and dopefiends. Working people fled in droves and those left behind became victims getting robbed of social security checks and anything else of value. Today my old friend Ben Poremba has one of the fanciest restaurants in St. Louis on the corner of Tower Grove and McRee. The old Dixiecrat South Side Hoosiers were fleeing the city and neighborhoods like Dutchtown and Bevo became vacant only to be saved by a wave of immigration. Bosnians, Somalis, Mexicans, Afghans, Vietnamese and other immigrant groups are now buying homes, opening up stores, and laying down roots with houses of worship. North St. Louis looked like Germantown Philly or West Baltimore with late-night traffic-jams from ghetto-drama and working-taxpayers locked up behind bars in their own homes at night never to leave their homes in the daytime unless it was necessary. The West Side was even worse and as in other cities the experiment of hi-rise public-housing from the Cochrane to the Peabody to the Blumeyer was not doing well.
Young people were not moving to the city, city employees were using their parents addresses and moving to the county, and anyone who got a good job got the hell out of the city ASAP leaving a trail of vacant housing for dopefiends to lay their heads in.
What is the situation today? When young people get out of college they are not thinking about suburban apartment complexes as they did in years past. They are headed to the city and renting apartments where they can have easy access to the Loft District, The Grove, South Grand, The Loop, the Central West End and other hotspots for dining and nightlife. The slightly older crowd are following the national trend and instead of buying suburban dream homes are buying homes to rehab in south side neighborhoods like Benton Park and Tower Grove East often on sketchy blocks. In my neighborhood of Old North St. Louis, where the old-times will tell you they couldn’t even get family to visit them in the 80’s and 90’s it was so bad, there are now lines around the corner at Crown Candy Kitchen and an organic food co-op.
Today St. Louis is a city full of night-life, new ethnic-neighborhoods and a renewed vibrancy. This may not be the booming St. Louis of the 40’s and 50’s with street cars and a packed Union Station my grandparents describe: but it is a far cry from the 80’s and 90’s. Can anyone who was around then imagine food trucks downtown at night? Tower Grove Park full of yuppies who grew up in West County playing kickball? The diversity of South Grand? A strip like The Grove? All of these things signal a break from the traditional backwards thinking St. Louis and all came under the watch of Mayor Slay who deserves credit.
The South Side base of Mayor Slay would have cheered if he would have bashed immigrants and joined the “English is the official language” crowd. Instead Mayor Slay is learning to speak Spanish. The boys down in Holly Hills and Bevo, who are not too keen on their new Muslim neighbors, would have cheered Mayor Slay on if he would have embraced Islamphobia. Instead Mayor Slay has reached out to the Muslim community at every turn and when local Muslims were targeted after 9-11 the mayor immediately came out in condemnation. I will not forget that and I know many other local Muslims feel the same way.
The Mayor is a South Side politician to be sure, and those are his roots, and he takes care of those who knows him best like everyone else does, but at the end of the day, Mayor Slay has worked to bring modernity to St. Louis and embrace diversity and economic-growth.
The cons on Slay? There are not many in my opinion. However, I disagree with the Mayor on the effectiveness of charter schools (I support school-choice), any attempts to privatize our great tasting city water, and I am skeptical (to say the least) of the Paul McKee “development”.
Alderman Lewis Reed: Pros and Cons
A Chicago-native and South Sider Lewis Reed is of the new mold of black urban Democratic politicians similar to the former Mayor of Washington, DC Adrien Fenty, Mayor Corey Booker of Newark and others. In other words “post-racial” black politicians who made their careers catering to the whims of a new breed of white liberal urbansits. In the case of Reed supporting dedicated lanes for cyclists, development in the upscale Lafayette Square neighborhood and such. This has made Reed a darling to the tiny population of urbanists who sit around drinking latte discussing development issues.
However, I am not so keen on Reed. Let us first look at the model of Washington, DC and Fenty. A model Reed seems to be following. Under the administration of Fenty the black population substantially plummeted and he cut through the city payrolls with a machete and almost everyone Fenty fired was black and in almost all cases replaced by whites. Fenty turned Chocolate City into a swirl with all the chocolate at the bottom and falling out of the cone into Maryland. The new DC is not a black working-class city: but rather a home for the white super-wealthy half-empty in the summer as they vacation in the Napa Valley or south of France leaving the District to tourists, the young, and people who didn’t come there for government jobs.
I fear that a Reed Administration would look a lot like a Fenty Administration. This is why I am dumbfounded that in the closing weeks of the campaign Reed is making a naked racial appeal to African-American voters. This is a man who in his entire political career has shown very little concern for black voters, has not reached out his neck on issues affecting the black community, and failed to hire blacks on his own staff and he is now reinventing himself as a modern-day Marcus Garvey? Hell, if you listen to his ads on radio you would think he is Nat Turner and not a guy who has dedicated his entire political career to issues that move the New Yorker crowd and not the crowd on Natural Bridge and Kingshighway. The Reed supporters will be sadly mistaken if he is elected as I am venturing a guess his staff will look a lot like the crowd at a Lafayette Square cocktail party and be concerned with the same issues.
In recent months I have heard a lot about crime and there is no doubt crime is a serious issue in this city and I speak on this issue with firsthand knowledge. I see it every day on my job and I hear about it everyday. Many friends of mine have been shot and killed in this city and many more have ended up in prison or struggling with addiction.
While crime is bad it is nowhere as bad as it was in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. If you want to go back to the 70’s when Fat Woods with his feared musclemen Earl Jr. and Rodney Woods and their young lieutenant Jerry Lewis ran the Pruitt-Igoe Projects ( something that somehow failed to make the Pruiit-Igoe Myth documentary when that is the first thing people talk about when they mention that era). There is no block ran in St. Louis today like Big Woods ran the Pruiit-Igoe. There are no players left like Sam Petty and his brothers who did it big in the 70’s in St. Louis. Does anyone remember ’85 and ’86 when crack first hit? Then Bloods and Crips colors and set-trippin hit at the same time as crack and all while AIDS was blowing up? In the mid to late eighties even into the 90’s red and blue were shooting each other on site with no previous beef. That is no longer happening. Nobody with even a shred of information can tell you the gang-situation is worse today than it was in that era and the homicide statistics do not lie.
St. Louis was so flush with crack money from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s and gang warfare that many neighborhoods looked like war zones. The College Hill of today is nothing like the Cabanne Courts, Horseshoe, 19th Street, Cochrane, Walnut Park or any projects of that era. The College Hill of 1993 was even way more dangerous than the College Hill of 2013. People always say “these kids nowadays are worser” or “It has never been worse” and most times they don’t know what the hell they are talking about. Many of the people complaining today, and I am not talking about residents of high-crime neighborhoods, were living in Ladue or Kansas at that time and don’t know these things. They move to the city, and while crime is down, they are terrified that the streets are not as safe as whatever upscale suburb they grew up in. Advice? Before you move to the city learn how to fight and if you can’t fight get a concealed-carry and try to be street smart and if you don’t do none of that expect to be a Knockout King or robbery victim.
Driving through the city in the 80’s and 90’s you would see corner after corner of people posted up on corners, leaning on whiles, drinking beer leanin on cars, selling dope in the middle of the street, dopefiends driving up to dopesets like a fast food drive-thru, dice games on the corner and the like. Drive through St. Louis north and south these days and there are only a handful of corners where you will see this such as the 4400 block of Farlin and the 2800 block of Stoddard. A friend of mine from the hard streets of Southeast DC remarked “how can St. Louis be dangerous I never see anyone in the streets”? Which of course is a mixed blessing. The city is safer but heavy-handed police tactics have also made people scared to socialize in their own neighborhoods or sit on their own porches.
The new elephant in the room is police cameras. We are being told the city will be safer if we are only willing to give up our civil-liberties and allow ourselves to be in one big reality TV show. Of course these people fail to mention that places like the south side of Chicago and west Baltimore have had cameras for years and they have not been successful. There are also no city guidelines for their usage and the cameras existing in the 21st Ward have been used to monitor the political activities of the opponents of the alderman. When I asked a city official if this was appropriate he responded “Alderman Antonio French paid for them he can shoot pornos with them if he wants.” Feeling safer yet? Somehow we get through the 80’s and 90’s without giving up our civil-liberties. Why now?
Regarding crime I don’t think it matters all that much who is mayor. People are led to lives of crime because of family, social and cultural issues. In some areas a culture of crime takes root. It is a spiritual crisis and the government can only do so much other provide a better educational and job opportunities giving people a stake in society.
On this issue I do not side with Slay or Reed. Our public schools suck. Period, end of discussion. I do not want to hear about Metro or some other school a fraction of parents can get their kids into at the end of the day the schools suck. Living in the city with kids often means: moving to the county when they are of school age, private schools, or home-schooling. I do not blame the teachers as they cannot work miracles. If there is not a culture of emphasizing education at home there is only so much a teacher can do. Our teachers are fine: but you cannot expect them to work miracles with kids coming from chaotic home lives. We do not need rich white kids blowing off a little white guilt through Teach For America to save black kids in some kind of neo-colonial mission. We need better families and that is why I support school choice which will give inner-city kids the same opportunities that every middle-class kids have to attend private schools where their souls can be nurtured. This is a choice most Democrats can’t politically support: but at the same time they send their kids to private schools. It also does not help the case of the teachers union when a rep wanna-be thug (and we know this cat soft for real) like Mr. Abdul-Raheem assaults Slay supporters.
St. Louis has been losing population for decades. Reed says he can stop this. Doubtful, this is an issue bigger than any mayor that Slay has handled very well. Let’s start with some facts. In the 1950 census when St. Louis had well more than 800,000 residents St. Louis County was mostly farmland and the city was ruled by Jim Crow. The GI Bill, a suburban housing boom, and desegregation led to a mass exodus of white residents from the city . What followed was the emergence of a White Democratic Machine on the South Side a Black Machine on the North Side and a hipper, more affluent liberal set in the central-corridor fewer in numbers with a decimated downtown.
Each of these machines catered to their base and much, even most, of that appeal as based on race. The city became very provincial and about “where did you go to (high) school” (a question I actually love), tribal neighborhood associations, clannish ward committees, Catholic parishes that worked to enforce racial norms, exclusive labor unions, police and firefighters clustered in Southwest City, and powerful and corrupt black preachers in North St. Louis pimping a dwindling flock and in bed with alderman and funeral-home directors.
St. Louis is changing though. The old South Side Hoosiers are fleeing the city for Jefferson County and if they have money West County. Previous white neighborhoods with neighborhood bars where it was not uncommon to find Confederate memorabilia are now home to a mix of immigrants, African-Americans and educated young white professionals. The Catholic Parishes are not as strong as they once were and labor-unions have become weak. All of those factors led to an erosion of both city population and the political base of Mayor Slay.
Seeing the old white St. Louis on its death bed and a newer city emerging instead of cloistering himself in the 23rd Ward Mayor Slay reached out and made new alliances and welcomed the changing city. A city that is increasingly not home to the Catholic socially-conservative neighborhoods of his youth: but to a younger, more secular, less traditional group of people who do not have as many children yet love their dogs ( and I hate dogs but you know you gotta be tolerant). This is not a crowd I identify with as a socially-conservative practicing Sunni Muslim: but they have breathed life into city neighborhoods and Mayor Slay is doing everything he can to welcome them while holding on to his core values. As an example Mayor Slay comes from a strong labor background. If I remember correctly he might have even represented my dad who is a UAW Local #2250 member. Most of this new so-called hipster and urbanist crowd are educated, upwardly mobile, and grew up in neighborhoods with people like them. Case in point the guy who is redeveloping McRee Town has a sign “Friends Don’t Let Friends Live in Chesterfield”. That sign says a lot. Everyone this guy knows, all of his friends at least, can live in Chesterfield if they want: but to most living in Chesterfield is an American dream. If anyone in my family ever had enough money to move to Chesterfield it would be a great success story. This is an opportunity available to so few Americans and what people dream of who move to this country from places like Bosnia and Pakistan. Yet, this guy doesn’t see that and on some levels I agree with him. I would much rather live in the city even if I had money: but like most Americans I can’t afford Chesterfield or one of his fancy eco-friendly houses.
The point is, on issues of class, while many of these new city residents see themselves as progressive and green and support gay marriage they may not be all that different than say Rush Limbaugh on labor issues and other class-issues. If you watch Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher all you get is a steady dose of “Americans are stupid” we are superior, we are elite, we are not religious, we don’t have guns ( but have the cops on speed dial) now let’s have a toast with our craft beer or wine. While embracing this new crowd Mayor Slay has not forsook his labor roots or the traditional religious neighborhoods of the city. He is trying to find a balance realizing this has to be a city for all people.
This is also not the same North St. Louis that elected Freeman Bosley, Jr. in 1993. The black middle-class has fled in droves to North St. Louis County and now even St. Charles County in search of better schools and safer neighborhoods. Black churches in North St. Louis are full on Sunday: but half the congregation, and probably the preacher, are headed out to North County after the sermon. The traditional Black Machine is in decline and fighting over crumbs as their base is picking up and moving to Florissant and Spanish Lake. While at the same time black political power is on the rise in North County with a sleuth of black mayors and elected officials not to mention St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. I used to live on the 5300 block of Geraldine in the 90’s and it was a vibrant block (in a neighborhood they called Murderville). Today half the houses on the block have been torn down. Most people just don’t wanna live in North St. Louis and no mayor is going to change that any time soon and the only candidate from the North Side is Jimmy Matthews.
The only thing that can bring St. Louis population back and curb the losses is immigration. While important to attract there are just not enough kids from West County to attract to the city or people looking to reconnect to their family roots. St. Louis is also unlikely to become a major attraction to move to given the fact that the weather here sucks, we are not close to any beaches, and the nature is nothing to write home about. We need immigrants and we need a major influx. Currently we have one of the lowest Latino populations in America and that is a good place to start. Find out how we can attract more immigrants to this city who can join hands in the future with African-Americans in North St. Louis, reformed South Side Hoosiers, and preservationists like Michael Allen to create a sustainable St. Louis into the future. I see Mayor Slay as someone who can strike the balance between all of these groups and at the same time keep dangerous forces with no class or racial consciousness such as NextSTL at bay ( they have some good stuff but overall the land grabs and grandiose projects they advocate, with zero concern for existing residents, and nonsense like making the North Riverfront into the Upper West Side, reminds me of some kind of perverse reverse Great Society where the resources of the state are dedicated to displacing the poor and empowering the rich).
Of course an old industrial city like St. Louis, where we have lost so many factories and corporations, has to figure out the economic questions and the jobs situation. That is a major priority and I see Mayor Slay working tirelessly on this issue while competing under the pressures of globalization .
I proudly endorse the reelection of Mayor Francis Slay and count myself with State Senator Jamillah Nasheed as a former opponent turned support. I encourage all local Muslims to support this friend of our community. Come Tuesday it will be Slay Day. No Need For Reed.