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Culturing Familiarity: Regional Perception and the City of St. Louis

January 24, 2013 Downtown, Featured, Guest 24 Comments

Guest post by Kuan Butts

Murder, drugs, theft, car chases. In the three or so months since I left St. Louis to attend graduate school, much of what I have heard in reference to or from the Gateway City has circulated around danger and crime, particularly associated the urban core. Such news topics were not isolated to correspondence with those living in St. Louis currently. No, this reputation permeated everyday experiences. For example, during an introduction to GIS graduate course, the professor demonstrated an example of a “successful” final report for the semester; a project which happened to have mapped crime in relation to discovered meth labs and freeway onramps in, you guessed it, St. Louis, Missouri. While this did not pertain to the city center, per se, the thematic trends it presented were synonymous.

This information, of course, should come as no surprise to any who have lived in St. Louis. The City’s self-esteem issues have long been a source of both frustration and humor. An excellent example of this is any of the number or articles The Onion has produced. In one such article, published last year, they announced millions of new jobs had been created, but they were all located in St. Louis (implying that St. Louis was such an unappealing locale as to render these new jobs unattractive, even in such an economy). Many, including myself, wrote an angry comment or two, chastising the author for his cold attack on my city. Nonetheless, the popularity of the piece was clear, demonstrating a notion that was firmly entrenched in some national psyche regarding this “shrinking city,” and many others like it.

What concerns me most is the effect that some of these perceptions on the relationship of greater metropolitan regions with their urban core; particularly when the two are divided by political isolation. For example, the relationship occurring through the Zoo-Museum Tax District in St. Louis is an intriguing case study of this. The taxing entity covers a broad region, including much of St. Louis County in addition to the City of St. Louis. Created in 1971, the tax district demonstrates plainly the regional significance of such amenities – specifically that the Zoo is a zoo not just for those in St. Louis City and not just for those in Clayton. Rather, the Zoo is a cultural center whose benefits exist on a regional scale.

Simply, the Zoo and museums are broad ranging benefits, whose costs are born by those outside of the traditional taxation district in an attempt to recapture some of its positive externalities, seeking equity in the bearing of its costs. Applying this same logic to the civic core of St. Louis, it is striking to see how such a clearly regional asset (from its architecture to its history, entertainment capacities, judicial and governing functions, business environment, and convention infrastructure) can be provided and the costs born by such a small group of individuals. What creates the culture of entitlement, ownership, and thus stewardship in the case of the Zoo, that fails to occur in the downtown core of St. Louis? Conversely, does fiscal investment such as taxation, in itself, create this sense of possession?

I posit that one element of difference between these two locations is a “sense of persistence.” By the word “persistence,” I mean an attitude that, if one is not presently in the location, one’s social circle or someone with whom one identifies closely (be it through cultural similarities or racial composition) could very well be there at this moment. Just as many suburban neighborhoods operate through a Homeowner’s Association that unifies homogenous groups to care for a collective good, denizens of the St. Louis region feel a stewardship towards the Zoo, along with much of Forest Park, because there is a belief that those similar to you could very well be standing to gain should you not be using the services yourself at that particular moment. Thus, it would behoove you, the tax-payer, to contribute to the care of this amenity, preserving it for the greater good of yourself and those like you.

In the case of downtown, this same metric of cognition falls short due to its perceived brevity of occupation by those living in, for example, the suburbs. In many ways, St. Louis City is still stuck in a strange notion of the Instant City, as developed by Archigram, a London-based avante-garde architectural group from the 1960s. In this model, a city could be brought anywhere, even to the smallest town or village, carried by a blimp and set up almost instantaneously. The wonders of the city were provided and, once consumed, lifted up into the air, out of sight and mind. In St. Louis, the arrangement of peripheral cities exists in such a way as to have the benefits of a major city, taking in the qualities only substantive urbanity can provide, but ignoring it once such benefits have been acquired.

Such attitudes have fostered a quality of impermanence within the downtown core. Those same individuals who obtain a sense of stewardship of Forest Park or the Zoo often see downtown as a limited,programmed environment. Downtown is, to many, a place in which specific events occur and then end. It is almost as though the scheduling of such activities has the capacity to turn “on” and then “off” the existence of such a place and its setting.

What approaches to regional development have created an environment where it was appropriate for this to be placed in the middle of downtown? Image via Flickr user hirschwrites, used with permission

In many ways, the recent “Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Human and Horse” event space in downtown St. Louis is a physical manifestation of this attitude. What attitudes toward downtown development created the present environment, enabling such a large temporary structure to be erected? The singularity of structures, their lack of contextual design within the greater surroundings, is often targeted as the primary reason for retention failure post major events. While deficiencies in formal planning and urban design rightfully hold the fault for these failures, these accusations are often tired and played out. Physical alterations and plans for future build-out are costly and often long-range in scope. Furthermore, physical remediation of presently deficient urban environments can only achieve as much as the attractions which it services. If the amenities do not appeal to the targeted social groups, then the area may remain under-utilized.

While physical environments can significantly improve an experience, often the primary inhibitor of occupation in an environment is a damaging perception of what is there. Often, because of limited experience and interaction, distorted notions of places and those within it create apprehension or even repugnance towards the idea of such areas. In a simple example, consider the willingness of a stereotypical suburbanite to enter an aging strip mall and yet express hesitancy toward approaching an older urban structure. In presenting the urban environment as desirable to a population that has become unfamiliar with it, creating a sense of familiarity is key. Just as with Forest Park, the notion that “I” or someone like myself, can be in an environment at any time of the day, can have a very powerful effect on the behavior and investment patterns of a region. Unlike the programmed nature of major sporting events at Busch Stadium, for example, the notion of permanence in occupation, day in and day out, enables spontaneity. No longer is a scheduled activity (be it work or an event) necessary for one to feel “allowed” or for it to be “okay” to be in downtown. While the flexible nature of a park environment makes such an accomplishment much more easily accomplished in the case of a park, the same can still be achieved in an urban environment.

An additional advantage of culturing such an attitude is the ability to develop interest and occupation by a “desired” market sector without the displacement of those currently living in an environment. Because of the absence of major physical redevelopments, an environment can grow and infill organically, to meet both new demands as well as retain and continue to service old ones.

What methods can achieve this perception change? Clearly, the issue has now been framed perfectly for a marketing solution. Presently, a number of major marketing initiatives are already in place, ranging from an amenities-driven approach (Explore St. Louis by the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission) to a business development initiative (St. Louis is All Within Reach by the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association). The success or failure of these initiatives is not within the parameters of this essay, though. Rather, concepts for alternative methods of culturing familiarity need to be sought.

One such alternative attempt is currently being pursued by local St. Louis startup CityPulse. (Full disclosure: I was part of the Brain Drain collaborative team that developed this idea in early 2012 for the Good Ideas for Cities event hosted by the Contemporary Art Museum and GOOD Magazine.) In this case, a series of beacons placed strategically throughout the city sense pedestrian presence, which in turn activates a light feature, thus highlighting activity, Furthermore, every beacon is connected digitally and all are represented through a web portal. This web portal would, in addition, sync social media activity, linking geo-spatially tagged locations which allow observers to begin to connect pedestrian activity with individuals and interests. Ideally, such a mechanism could enable individuals to identify with areas they previously shouldered.

Imagine such signage being presented along the freeway, demonstrating to commuters caught in post-game traffic from Busch Stadium all the amenities they could instead be enjoying downtown, as many other fans who had attended the game have opted to take pleasure in. Rendering by Kuan Butts.
Imagine such signage being presented along the freeway, demonstrating to commuters caught in post-game traffic from Busch Stadium all the amenities they could instead be enjoying downtown, as many other fans who had attended the game have opted to take pleasure in. Rendering by Kuan Butts.

This solution is by no means the final answer, a perfect resolution for the observed problem. Rather, it begins to identify qualities that presently hinder current initiatives, such as those aforementioned. Specifically, creating data that is absolute and out of the control of any incentivized individual or organization’s control overcomes concerns of deception or biased curation by such groups. Ultimately, fostering that sense of permanence necessitates a neutral means of delivering data, presenting unpruned information that is easily consumable, but effectively highlighting the liveliness that already exists, “under the radar,” within numerous urban cores across the country.

Born and raised in San Diego, CA; Kuan Butts is currently a graduate student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where he is focusing in City Design and Development. Prior to MIT, he worked at H3 Studio in St. Louis, MO after receiving a BS Architecture from Washington University in St. Louis, MO.


Currently there are "24 comments" on this Article:

  1. B says:

    Wow. That’s quite a read and well thought out might I add. However, it funnels down to a point of absolution (yes, in the religious sense of the term). There is no “Since we can dissect the frog we can bring it back to life” about St. Louis or any other rust belt city. It has been tossed aside for lack of any vision broader than the patch of cardinal red that blankets the span between Springfield Mo and Springfield IL.

    In 1961 the Beach Boys formed and by 1963 Hollywood was already trying to capitalize on that “phenomenon” by flooding the market with cheesy beach movies staring people like Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. After the Beatles came Hollywood then released a ton of crap copies of them the cream of which was the Monkeys. It was all fake and people realized it. It was from the very beginning destined for recollection only by history buffs and those who had to suffer through it as a bad and tacky memory. St. Louis can not simply “copy” other cities as if there is a magical blue print for success. Of course that runs afoul of the Universities and vulture capitalists whose business it is to preach that the educated and their educated guesses can solve a city’s problems just like they can cure Cancer (sarcasm pretty thick there). In reality they’re only doing the exact same thing that Hollywood did in trying to sell us all on their plastic Frankie Avalon’s and Annette Funicello’s because that is how they get paid. They have to have a product that they hold the rights to, a door that only they hold the keys to. they are full of s***.

    We have close to nothing compared to similar cities which are coming back. Ohioans are not about to move to New York City when Dayton or Cleveland are safer, closer and have less competitive job markets. But, Missourians are just as likely to move to Chicago as they are St. Louis. Why not? Chicago has 2 baseball teams, 1 football team, 1 hockey team and 1 basketball team, St. Louis has 3/5 of that. Should we mention Universities and technical institutes? How about national and international musical/theatrical acts that stop in CHI but never in STL? Yes, we got Paul McCartney this last time but odds of that ever happening again are what?

    We have Disparity. Disparity is ugly. Disparity is the mud that splashes up on you as you drive by it even if you have your window rolled up. It’s the thing that makes a white person feel racist for even looking north from downtown because they know that at some point they’ll have to look away… without having found a solution or even a comfortable way to forget they even looked. It’s the creepy feeling you get every time someone from west of 170 complains about *anything*. It’s what makes living in St. Louis irritating and burdensome beyond the games of a$$grabbing that the college kids from U-City play every Friday and Saturday night in clubs around Laclede’s.

    Regional perception is simply perception at this point. People who visit St. Louis aren’t all dumb and blind. Those who have family here but live 500-1,500 miles away are not oblivious to the realities on the ground. The entire world has access to the internet. The days of saying “You didn’t go to my high school so you don’t know what you’re talking about” … are over. Being a well-wishing, blinder wearing, pompom squad douchebag isn’t going to cut it now. The average 8th grader in Tacoma WA can bring up more spread sheets with more facts and figures about St. Louis right now online than even existed 20 years ago. We can no longer hide the scent by spraying it with some RallySTL Renuzit or sitting in the front pew every Sunday before yet another hipster University backed community development Guru that preaches “Sell Sell Sell”.

    The time has come for some reckoning. Have you ever attempted to explain Walmart’s business practices to a small town rural person who shops at one daily? There’s a look in their eye like “I don’t want to hear this!”. That’s the look people get when you point out the obvious around St. Louis. For whatever Fk’d up reason there is this notion that if we just ignore the bad and focus on the good that the bad will get scared and run away. I know that water puts out a fire… if it’s actually put ON the fire. Good can drive out / replace the bad… but the good has to be delivered directly into the bad (not just kind of stand there beside of it intimidatingly glaring at it with a furrowed brow).

    I like the idea’s about improving the Arch grounds. But, doing those will only make the situation worse. By stalling further more developments and improvements north of downtown and instead directing those efforts to the Arch grounds 2 things will happen… 1) St. Louis will get more visitors! and more importantly 2) There will be even more violent crimes for every newly attracted visitor to witness or participate in. In short focusing on Arch development, at this point in time, will only make for increasing the magnetic properties of St. Louis as a crime hub and fuel it’s reputation as being a highly disparaged and segregated sh!t hole.

    • Ben says:

      Pretty terrible logic here. Arch money is not being drained from North St. Louis development. Thats federal money which is noway nohow getting spent on North St. Louis. Also the idea that there will be more violent crimes with more visitors seems a bit ludicrous. Where’s the evidence? Pure speculation? I didn’t realize that St. Louis crime is focused on tourists/visitors. The biggest crime story of last year was a local SLU student, far from the Arch, and someone she knew. THIS^^^ stupidity and pessimism is holding Saint Louis behind Chicago more than any number of sports teams or universities or concerts ever could.

  2. JZ71 says:

    Perception is reality, and putting lipstick on the pig only goes so far in solving any problem. The fundamental issue facing the city is that we’re becoming more isolated in the region – people with the means to leave have left, and continue to leave, choosing regional options (Clayton, Chesterfield, Fairview Heights, St. Charles County, Jefferson County, Madison County, etc) over the city when moving “here”, both in where they live and where they work/operate a business. Parochialism trumps regionalism, leaving the core begging the suburbs for support since our city’s tax base continues to erode while the demands on it continue to increase. It’s easier to make a regional argument for “warm and fuzzy”, both literally and figuratively, when it comes to the zoo; it’s much harder to make the same argument for services for the homeless, public schools or government pensions. It informs every discussion about merging the city and county and every discussion about dissolving or merging many of the small cities in the county. Combine that with the ability to localize both property and sales taxes, our insane need to TIF every commercial project and only the city imposing an earnings tax and taxes become the elephant in the room.

    Positive, yet conflicting, marketing initiatives (by too many groups “representing” the city) are consistently offset by the daily crime report / casualty count (reality) brought to us by our local media. Finding solutions for our crime, poverty, racism, poor schools and high tax issues may not be as intellectually stimulating as “culturing familiarity”, “sense of persistence” or “metric of cognition”, but they remain at the core of the problem and remain real drivers in many people’s decision making processes. Yes, perception is reality, and yes, we need to change perceptions, but the reason many suburban people have a more negative response to many of our old buildings than they do to “an aging strip mall” isn’t the age, it’s the plywood over the windows, the bullet-proof glass separating the employees and the customers and the simple fact that many city businesses just don’t meet or address the needs of many suburbanites, there’s no real “connection”! Most people place way more value in their own perceptions of the world around them and their own life experiences than they do for any form of “marketing”. Where we may see “potential” and “character”, they see only decline, danger and despair.

    The other part of the equation that complicates the issue is family status, as in young and single versus being responsible for others, especially kids. It’s easier to take and accept risks when it’s just you; the need for (perceived?) safety and security increases exponentially when you’re responsible for others. The Zoo remains a “safe” place for people with kids, just like the suburbs remain (perceived?) as more “safe” than the city. Until much of the rest the city comes to be perceived to be more safe, and/or the suburbs come to be perceived to be much less safe, “marketing” will only go so far . . . perception is reality!

    • Ecept that in downtown and near downtown (Old North) where much effort went Ito making more urban options saw population increases from 2000 to 2010. The reality is people don’t want suburbia in an old city. If they want suburbia they’ll move to it. Those who want urbanity will also move to it — but that has meant leaving the St. Louis region for others.

      • Eric says:

        No matter how much we invest, St Louis will never have urbanity comparable to Chicago.

        • It doesn’t matter if we’re never as urban as Chicago or NYC. The 2010 census showed there’s a demand among younger educated people for an urban core. The entire city should provide that urbanity and let the other 15 counties in the region provide the non-urban lifestyle for everyone else.

    • Eric says:

      Living in a suburb means you have good schools and your city taxes aren’t high to pay for maintaining the North City slums. Living in downtown, you share a school district with the slums, and you have to pay for them too. If the downtown and slum districts were separated, downtown would become much more desirable. And if the city and county were combined, the load would be shared and downtown would become as desirable as the suburbs – but why would the suburbs ever agree to that?

      • RyleyinSTL says:

        While the City has it’s share of “slums” so to does the County. Today’s suburbs are sure as shit the “slums” of tomorrow (see Kinloch). Pooling resources make us all stronger and gives us all a better chance at a prosperous future…..not a popular American ideal these days, sure, but true none-the-less.

      • Al Fickensher says:

        “. . good schools . . ”
        Uh-huh. The only difference between the filthy-mouthed, sexually active and abusive, smart-assed, arrogant, entitled-feeling, disrespectful of authority, parentally-coddled, little shits in the suburban schools and the ones in the urban schools is the skin color of the majority.

        • Eric says:

          I didn’t say the average suburban kid is a better person. But most suburban schools do have higher test scores, better acceptance to colleges, less violence on average in the schools, etc. All things you can’t blame parents for choosing.

    • Kuan Butts says:

      JZ71- Thanks for your comments. Just to address an item that caught my eye:

      “daily crime report / casualty count (reality) brought to us by our local media”

      You bring up these elements as a reality that can’t be offset by marketing. This thought bears fault in that, if any city (Chicago, New York City, etc.) were to ascribe the same degree of obsession with crime as does St. Louis local media, then they would also be easily viewed as too dangerous. Simply put, by simple numbers, Chicago or NYC has more total crime. True, they are a bigger city, but if the media were to constantly associate crime with a particular area of the city, and focus on blowing each and every instance across the main page, then the CBD’s of those cities would appear to be nothing short of a warzone. Thus, the local behavior of media in St. Louis is in fact a negative marketing element, rather than a so-called reality, that hampers the cultivation of stewardship on a regional scale to the city center.

      • JZ71 says:

        It’s partly the media’s fault, but that’s what they do – bad news sells better than good news. The interesting subset of this, currently, is Chicago’s surge in gun violence and how it’s impacting that city. Greater Chicago is much like greater St. Louis – the true, “violent” core is ringed by many good and great neighborhoods and many, many suburban cities that, depending on the context, are referred to as Northbrook, northern suburbs or Chicago, much like Maryland Heights, the county or St. Louis, is here. Call it spin, call it addressing a specific audience, it still impacts perceptions. But what’s most damaging, long term, is the steady drip, drip, drip of bad news, more than any statistics.

        Newtown, CT, is going to see a huge, one-time spike in their murder statistics, but it’s not going to be perceived, long term, as significantly more dangerous than any other small Connecticut town. Here, every couple of months, we lose just as many people to murder, the only difference being that it’s one or two at a time, not a “mass tragedy”. It’s no longer “news”. It’s reported, sometimes we see pictures of candles, balloons and teddy bears, but there is no real, on-going concern (outside the immediate family) or follow-up in the media. We know that it’s there, and even though it’s unsettling, it becomes background noise, something we feel powerless to change.

        One’s resources, stage in life, direct exposure to crime and dedication to urban living tend to define whether or not something is a “negative marketing element”, “news/fact” or “perception is reality”. It boils down to how you, I and everyone else, individually, processes and reacts to the information. And, in a perverse twist on NIMBY, the connection we feel to the neighborhood, the “scene of the crime”, informs how we each react to each incident – the closer, more frequent and/or more violent the crime, the more our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. Marketing can only go so far if crime in/near your own home is perceived to be / actually increasing, “getting closer”. . . .

        • Kuan Butts says:

          JZ71 –

          I understand your point regarding this feeling of being “surrounded.” I do think it is a fair point and, clearly, when it comes to raising a family in St. Louis, there are still many, serious and systemic issues (particularly with school, etc.) that need to be resolved for the City to even begin to be taken seriously. That said, and going back to the central theme of the essay; many people that are beginning to feel “surrounded,” if you will, are those that, in fact, do not live in the City core.

          Rather, these individuals live in the suburbs and sprawled exurban regions surrounding St. Louis. There perception of being surrounded is fed through this “drip drip” of scary news reports and it leads them to treat the urban core as an event space you drive into, consume, and then flee. I think creating systems by which we can show these people that they are free and safe to explore the amenities already in place around and beyond event venues is the first step necessary in giving these individuals who, for better or worse, hold great sway over the City’s future economic potential, simply the opportunity to understand St. Louis City beyond the news they see on their television screen. Hopefully, such growth will feed on itself, creating a sense of welcomeness such as that maintained within Forest Park to those within the region and beyond.

          • JZ71 says:

            It couldn’t hurt, but I’d rather see more focus on the core problems. Still, if funding can be found in the private sector (not relying on taxes), it would certainly be worth exploring.

          • Kuan Butts says:

            The success of Forest Park Forever, which itself is a private sector initiative, gives me hope that this might be possible.

  3. moe says:

    Long read. Long comments. Sum it up: We are the experts, St. Louis sucks, anyone that leaves is a traitor. My summation: Whatever.

  4. loki03xlh says:

    It really doesn’t matter what kind of lipstick you put on the pig (the “City”). Yeah, there are up-and-coming neighborhoods, cool places to hang out, work, and live. And yes, there are people that move to the city, but guess what happens when most get married and have kids? You guessed it, they move to the county. You have to get these young adults a reason to raise their families inside the city limits. They have to feel safe, they have to feel that their kids are safe. You have to give their kids a good education without them having to find the right charter, magnet, private school. You should be able to enroll your children in the neighborhood school right down the street and not have to worry about them walking to school. They should have a quality education, as good as Parkway, Mehlville, Ladue, Lingbergh, Rockwood, etc….
    Nothing will work until two things are fixed in this city: schools and crime. Period. If you can fix those two issues, young adults will raise their kids in the city. When the kids grow up, they will raise their kids in the city. Urban flight has been going on for too long to make this a quick fix. It’s going to take at least two generations of St. Louisians to fix this problem.

  5. Ziggy says:

    I really enjoyed this post and agree with many points. What is absent from the discussion, though, is some historic perspective.

    In the late 1940s, nearly a million people lived within the city limits of St. Louis. Cities like St. Louis enjoyed a monopoly in jobs, political power, residential living options and overall economic opportunities. The second that suburbs began offering competitive alternative living and working opportunities, large numbers of people of all races with the economic means to do so got the hell out. This happened all over America, and its great cities were sent reeling.

    Today, in St. Louis and other Midwest cities like Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland and Indianapolis, there is a very limited market for middle class individuals who prefer urban lifestyles. This is further complicated by competitors like Chicago and other revitalized cities that can provide numerous options without the costs and risks borne by urban pioneers. They can provide a high quality, ready to wear urban lifestyle (of course at a price).

    Given these marketplace realities, St. Louis has done quite well from what I’ve seen. Critics should not measure the city against historic population precedents and instead focus on a program of continuous and incremental improvements at the neighborhood level that increase market demand for high quality urban living. The city didn’t fall apart overnight and it won’t come springing back the same way. This is a block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood issue. It seems to me that the city has made considerable progress over the past 30 years, and that there are many more opportunities to keep moving forward.

    In short, keep fixing the neighborhoods and prosperity will follow.

    • Kuan Butts says:


      Thanks for your response. Your reference to cities repairing and improving themselves through minute and incremental change echoes the notions of Yale Economics Professor Charles E. Lindblom who wrote, in the late 50’s, a famous piece that is often included in the planning education called “The Science of Muddling Through.” I don’t know if you have read it or not (a PDF is hosted here: http://glennschool.osu.edu/faculty/brown/home/Public%20Management/PM%20Readings/Lindblom%201959.pdf), but there is much to be said for this strategy (or, more accurately, vantage point) on city development.

      Further, I do agree with your statements on perceiving the successes in St. Louis as the product of numerous small advances and I do not (or at least did not intend) to suggest that the city was failing dramatically in any way. Rather, I would hope that my proposition would be a method by which to highlight these small advances and increase their awareness on a regional scale to leverage further “buy in.”

      • Kuan Butts says:

        Ah! Link does not work. If you Google this “The Science of Muddling Through. By CHARLES E. LINDBLOM” it should be listed as a PDF like four down from the top. Happy reading (if so inclined).


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