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Commentary: How can St. Louis support its creative class?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2009 - Last Wednesday night, I joined the standing-room-only crowd -- casually sophisticated, thick plastic glasses out in force -- at Left Banks Books downtown. We were gathered for Livable St. Louis: What It Takes to Retain and Attract Creative Individuals, a "salon-style discussion" hosted by Philadelphia-based Next American City magazine, part of its roving series on the "future of urban life."

I'm sorry to say that it wasn't a particularly enlightening discussion -- five panelists made presentations too brief to get beyond sound bites, and the Q&A was more an airing of grievances -- but the evening was inspiring nonetheless. As STL Rising blogger Rich Bonasch wrote : "Had this event occurred ten or fifteen years ago, there would have been likely fewer than a dozen persons on hand."

A "creative individual" myself, I moved back to St. Louis this past winter after a dozen years in cities on the coasts -- New Haven, New York City, Boston, Irvine and Huntington Beach, Calif. -- and one thing I've discovered since my homecoming is that St. Louis is already a noticeably more "livable" city than it was when I left: lively, clean, affordable, convenient, friendly, full of history, even diverse if you know where to look (or where not to).

Not all, by any means, but many of our once-blighted neighborhoods are thriving and/or recovering: Lafayette Square, Tower Grove, Benton Park, Grandel Square, Cherokee Street the east end of the Loop. Throughout the city there's an abundance of cultural activity -- street fairs, museums, culinary events, readings, lectures, concerts, plays -- and generally, things are looking better than they did 12 years ago.

Yet most of the discussion at Left Bank was centered on issues of local development: improving zoning laws, solidifying bike and pedestrian routes, encouraging or mandating that new building projects incorporate the arts. Important goals, certainly, and there's plenty of room left to work toward each of them, but I left Wednesday's panel wondering: Can we really attract new talent by opening another coffee shop?

Or gallery space? Or music venue? Or street fair? Or bike trail? Or artists' collaborative? It would be lovely to have all of them, but as a young, creative professional, what I struggle with day in and day out isn't where to get a fair-trade latte. It's not where to land free Wi-Fi, not even where to get ideas.

Plain and simple: I wake up in the morning wondering how I'm going to get paid.

St. Louis is already home to an engaged creative class. We need new opportunities to sustain ourselves and expand our ranks -- not artistic opportunities, commercial ones. To find them, we're going to have to look beyond St. Louis City and St. Louis County both. We're going to have to market our city's creative resources, as we do our beer and our baseball, to the world.

That's not to say local initiatives aren't crucial to the effort, but just as we've asked our leaders to provide the conditions for innovation on our streets, we must ask them to provide the conditions for innovation in our marketplace, luring creative work from other cities, other states, other countries.

In science and medicine, in technology, even in education working relationships have become increasingly virtual. The creative trades are no different. My husband, a web developer, codes from a keyboard at his boss' home-office in St. Charles, but their clients are in New York, Oklahoma and Florida; his project manager is in California.

Joining the larger creative marketplace will mean opening St. Louis to the world in new ways, actively advertising our talent just as Chicago and New York and Los Angeles do theirs, enhancing the character and reputation of each city in the process.

It will mean setting aside the reflexive inferiority I've encountered often since my homecoming: "So, you could have gone anywhere, and you came here?" It will mean favoring collaboration to competition, and maybe most importantly, creating institutional structures and financial incentives to support and drive the work of our creative class.

To tell you the truth, though, I don't know what, exactly, it will mean. I'm just a cog in the wheel, stuck on that narrow-minded point I mentioned earlier: how I'm going to get paid. But I'm encouraged, after last week's "salon," to know that there are those -- urban planners, policy experts, academics, philanthropists, business people, politicians -- better equipped, ready and willing to act on my behalf.

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez is a freelance writer.