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Following STL250 Celebration, What’s Ahead In Year 251 And Beyond?

St. Louis’ 250th anniversary celebration is wrapping up, and the city starts its 251st year this weekend.

While the 250th anniversary may have lacked the over-the-top pomp and circumstance of previous anniversaries, Cakeway to the West was a hit. Two hundred fifty-six cake sculptures, each 4 feet tall, were decorated by artists and scattered throughout the St. Louis region.

“It was just really neat to see not only people’s pictures and experiences, but to hear them talking about new places that they hadn’t been before and new appreciations that they had for both the assets and the diversity of our region,” STL250 executive director Erin Budde told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday.

The Missouri History Museum also created an exhibit to honor St. Louis’ anniversary. More than 300,000 people have attended the “250 in 250” exhibit, said Jody Sowell, the museum’s director of exhibitions and research. It’s the most-visited exhibit since the museum’s first Charles Lindbergh exhibit in 1927.  

“People were clearly hungry to talk about St. Louis’ past, but also to talk about the future,” he said. “We were having a lot of those in-depth conversations about race, about growth, about transportation policy there at the history museum, and people were eager to have those.”

The “250 in 250” exhibit closes Sunday. The exhibit doesn’t just focus on the city’s successes, Sowell said.

“I think sometimes we don’t realize what a fascinating place we live in,” he said. “That’s one thing we’ve heard as people leave the exhibit, saying ‘I never knew St. Louis was so fascinating.’ But part of that fascinating history is also the more troubling aspects, the darker aspects. There are other stories, stories of race, stories of slavery, stories of Pruitt-Igoe that are equally fascinating and equally important, equally studied around the world for St. Louis’ role.”

In the years to come, the death of Michael Brown and subsequent events in Ferguson and St. Louis will be part of that story. One of STL250’s goals was to draw attention to St. Louis. Ferguson did that.

“As the year started, I think we really did see a nice outpouring of attention from around the country about the 250th milestone, about some of the forward-moving things that were underway in St. Louis, about some of the achievements that we have had in the recent past,” Budde said. “And then I think the conversation continued, obviously, from Ferguson and other topics. People were certainly talking about St. Louis, but more importantly St. Louis was having a conversation about itself.”

“I tend to think that we missed an opportunity to have a bigger discussion,” said nextSTL.com editor Alex Ihnen. “We do have discussions that were sort of thrust upon us with events in Ferguson and some of the other things that happened in the region. It was a very contentious year.”

How, and if, Ferguson will be remembered remains to be seen.

“We oftentimes think that events like Ferguson will always be remembered. What I’ve been telling people lately is they will be surprised by how fast they are forgotten,” Sowell said. “If you want proof of that, you should go ask someone who’s 40 years or younger about the mid-1960s riots throughout the country. That has been erased from our collective memory. It could happen in Ferguson too, unless we keep talking about it and keep having these discussions.”

The history museum is collecting and preserving artifacts from Ferguson for research and future exhibits.

In addition to looking back, the museum also is planning ahead for the city’s next big anniversary: Number 300 in 2064. A part of its “250 in 250” exhibit, visitors can write postcards to the future. About 20,000 postcards have been submitted so far, Sowell said.

“It has really become an archive of what St. Louisans are thinking about the city today,” he said. “We saw big changes after Ferguson, for example: Many more people writing about race and divisions of class and divisions of segregation. We could see what the city was thinking about throughout the year through these postcards that will stay in our archives for 50 years.”

Looking ahead, Ihnen said the millennial generation will shape St. Louis’ future.

“St. Louis is a very easy, very gracious place to live,” he said. “You can live here and not pay attention to your surroundings and just soak up a good life. We have beautiful suburbs; we have great schools, beautiful parks. In some ways, St. Louis doesn’t require that you be engaged. And people have left the city and chosen not to be engaged in city politics or city issues. We’ve separated by race, and you can choose to live around people who only look like yourself, and it’s very easy and very inexpensive to do so here.

“But I think we have a younger generation that wants to be engaged and they care about those things and they’re looking for a different environment.”

Related Event

"250 in 250: A Closing Celebration"

  • When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 14-15, 2015
  • Where: Missouri History Museum
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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