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Beacon blog: An opportunity to think 'St. Louis Hooray'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 28, 2009 - Kyle Beachy’s recent novel “The Slide” is set in good old St. Louis. The fictional father of the protagonist-narrator is head of a chamber-and-growth sort of association, called St. Louis Hooray! Although the name of the group shouts Babbitt! as much as it proclaims the need for sustained, serious development, the fictional father and chief executive of the organization, Richard Potter Mays, is a sympathetic character, eager to contribute to revitalization and the rebuilding of a civic consciousness and, all in all, a flawed but reasonably good man.

Mays’ job, or mission as we are inclined to say today, is not only to lead a concentrated, corporate effort to advance the interests of the region around the world but also to remind everyone living here that St. Louis -- no matter what anyone might tell you, and forgetting for a moment that we do, indeed, have serious problems that need fixing -– is a resource-rich urban oasis smack in the middle of America, a good place to live and an attractive destination for tourists and transplants.

In the conclusion of Beachy’s novel, a celebration is staged over the Mississippi River in honor of the crucial role Mays has played in the transformation of a derelict old bridge into yet another regional resource. The reference is clear: The restored bridge is the old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which was, in real world terms, a magnificent restoration, a save worthy of rejoicing.

Kyle Beachy wrote, “The polite applause grew, and stacked, and evolved into something loud and powerful and hearty enough that we all seemed impressed by the applause, everyone in the small crowd clapping, hands chest-level or higher, including my mother, until every single person on the bridge was standing and clapping for my father.”

Part of the thrill of reading a good novel set in a place a reader knows well, and perhaps loves, is permission to shave away fictional shells that disguise the identities of men and women on whom characters are based. Novelist Beachy’s father is Roger Beachy, the celebrated scientist and president of the dynamo that is the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Beachy and the center are two of the region’s most estimable resources, scientific or otherwise. While not a ringer for Richard Potter Mays, there are recognizable characteristics between the fictional man and the actual one. Beachy is a right good dad, for one thing, and as director of the center has become, like Mays, not only a player but also a pillar.

The novel, and Beachy’s paternal relationship to it, is mentioned in this commentary because on Thursday at the center, Roger Beachy appeared as a member of a panel of three convened to discuss the very mission Richard Potter Mays was obliged to accomplish, that is, the “branding” of St. Louis and the promotion of it to itself and to the world.

Beachy was on the platform with two other heads of high-profile regional institutions, Fred Bronstein, president of the St. Louis Symphony Society, and William DeWitt III, president of the St. Louis Cardinals. And after they spoke and answered questions, William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University, responded to their presentations.

The gathering was one of a series of conversations now in its third year, organized by the Plant Science Center. Its purpose is noble -– to ratchet up the level of discourse about the region and to provide a way for engaged citizens to examine strengths and problems that characterize the bi-state metropolis. The redoubtable James W. Davis, emeritus professor of political science at Washington University, was moderator-provocateur. To get the show on the road, Davis asked the three participants how each saw his institution contributing to St. Louis.

Although the details of their answers were different, the answers were pretty much the same, and all had to do with producing hits of one sort or another. All three have deep historic roots in St. Louis. While, as Beachy explained, the Plant Science Center is a relative institutional newcomer, St. Louis has long been a center of biological research and development. Baseball is endemic to the regional mythology and ethos, DeWitt declared, and a staple of our heritage and our memory. The European musical traditions of the community, represented most prominently by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, go all the way back to the delight taken by the original French settlers in the 18th century. All three institutions have international reputations. All have to promote themselves to stay in business, and all see part of their success as being tied to the region's economic and social health.

All three are also part of the larger and extraordinarily complex braid that is St. Louis and share both its riches and its problems. Taken individually, as presented by the three executives, or pieced together, as vibrant elements of the regional collage -– a picture of compelling strength emerges, though one that is not without challenges.

Branding’s problem, which Bronstein nailed most emphatically, is we do a mediocre job of explaining just what it is that makes us so valuable to the world that lies beyond our parochial borders. Plus, as Beachy said, we fail regularly to understanding and appreciate those strengths at here at home.

“We do a terrible job of telling the story,” Bronstein, a relative newcomer to the region, said. On arriving, he was struck by the high quality of institutions here, and their strengths, and the healthy quality of life.

“But I don’t think we as a region have done as good a job as we could do.” Outside our boundaries, he said, we are a blank slate.

It’s no secret to anyone who has taken a moment to think about the region (or counted the number of municipalities one passes through, say, on his way from Clayton to Lambert Field) that one huge reason St. Louis is so vulnerable and so fragile is because of municipal fragmentation and the concomitant duplication of services and depletion of resources.

A comparable situation exists, Beachy said,  in the way the picture of St. Louis is presented to others.

Beachy said specialists tell the story in pieces. “If I go to Delhi, people know the Danforth Center but not the Cardinals. In the sciences, people recognize St. Louis as a major player.” However, he said, around the way from his house in Clayton, he has encountered people who’ve never heard of the Danforth Center.

The Cardinals organization -– which figures prominently in Kyle Beachy’s novel, by the way -- doesn’t have the recognition problem that the Plant Science Center has, and even, to a certain degree, one shared by the Symphony.

Still, DeWitt said, he and his colleagues at Busch Stadium are waking up to the uses of new media such as Facebook and Twitter to get the ball club’s messages out. He continued, that as a collective institution, the region needs to be better aware of new, effective ways to make advertisements for us at home and away.

“We need to understand the changes,” he said.

Bronstein noted the vast sums of money generated by various artistic and cultural endeavors, as much as a half a billion dollars, he said. But less measurable are the ineffable effects on the quality of civilized life. Bronstein said that without a strong cultural base, without the silvery ring of intellectual and aesthetic accomplishments, building a genuinely strong workforce is impossible.

DeWitt agreed. “Culture definitely should be part of the message.”

Beachy maintained the proof is in the living.

In recruiting scientists for the center, he advocates bringing the candidate and his family here for a week and giving them the chance to approximate the condition of living here. Young families who might have been reluctant to move into what a visiting German journalist called “Flyoverland” find St. Louis attractive, amenable -– and livable.

The conversation ended with Danforth’s declaration of faith in the value of strong institutions and his belief that they provide a rock-solid foundation for the region.

He asked the assembly to leave with a sense of what is going right with the region. “Great institutions help to carry us forward,” he said. Although no brand was forged, and no big promotional campaign was initiated, talking has a way, eventually, of generating action. While we may not have shouted “St. Louis Hooray,” there was common cause at the very least, anointed with a sense of civic possibility.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.