How do you solve a problem like St. Louis?
GOOD and CEOs for Cities, in effect, posed the question this past December when announcing the inclusion of St. Louis in their GOOD Ideas for Cities program. I’d been meeting weekly with a group of friends since December at Urban Chestnut Brewing Company near TOKY’s offices in Midtown Alley. We’d been itching to work on something together, and Ideas for Cities seemed like a good opportunity to collaborate. We christened ourselves Brain Drain collective (an ironic nod to the exodus of human capital that plagues so many Rust Belt cities), threw together a website, typed up a mission statement, and crossed our fingers. Nearly 40 teams from the region applied to be a part of the event — and we were fortunate enough to be among the final seven selections.
The crowd at GOOD Ideas for Cities: St. Louis | photo by Joel Conner of Conner Photography
The entry application listed several broad potential challenge categories: Food, Transportation, Education, Economics, Social Justice, Public Spaces, Crime, etc, which is why the question given to us by Hank Webber, executive vice chancellor of Washington University, and Patrick R. Brown, assistant to Mayor Francis Slay, felt like a bit of a curveball:
How do we deepen the pool of diverse people who love St. Louis and are personally invested in its progress? How can St. Louis harness the intelligence, drive and ambition of recent graduates of the great universities in St. Louis — talented and committed people who have deep attachments to this diverse community — to improve the quality of life in the region? How do we elevate and celebrate our energy, ingenuity and accomplishments and thus render it more broadly infectious? How do we break free of the deadening inertia of naysayers and complacent non-participants in civic life? How do we build upon the preexisting store of justifiable pride in the place we call home?
It was as if they took our group description, added a question mark to the end, and sent it back to us. On the surface, the answer seemed simple: solve the problems of the listed categories, make the city a better place for everyone to live, and more people will choose to stick around after graduation. Yet in order to solve said problems, we as a city need more people willing to tackle them. We need people to attract people — a catch-22 if there ever was one.
St. Louis needs to retain graduates, attract new transplants, and re-engage existing residents. Much of it, we decided, boils down to the problems of perception and awareness, both locally and nationally. Many local perceptions are either outdated or take on a grass-is-greener stance that ignores many of the wonderful and unique resources we have here — beautiful building stock, tight street grids, an almost insanely low cost of living, and an abundance of culinary and cultural attractions, to name but a few. Even city advocates too often buy into using the same negative rhetoric, e.g. choosing “STL Doesn’t Suck” as a moniker vs. “STL is Pretty Swell.” Make no mistake, our region is one fraught with many deep-seated problems, but for the demographic, our prompt asked us to engage, what opportunity! To have influence, catalyze change, and forge connections, while at the same time living a rich, rewarding, and affordable life straight out of school is the stuff of dreams, yet something accessible and even part of everyday life for the recent graduates, activists, and entrepreneurs who call St. Louis home.
Our solution, presented in the video below, engages both the hyper-involved and those less involved, serves as a tool for citizens, businesses, government, and outsiders, and functions as proof that our city is one of incredible vibrancy and activity:
On March 8th, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis was packed to the gills for the presentations. A total of 846 people came through the doors that night — 845, plus Mayor Slay himself. (Imagine the brightness had there been a beacon in Grand Center that night.) Even more exciting (for us) was the revelation from Patrick Brown that the Mayor would be standing with Brain Drain for our Q&A session and wearing one of our stickers. Brain Drain members Matt Ström and Tara Pham presented our idea, while the rest of us stood behind them in support. Hank and Mayor Slay were very supportive in the Q&A, and the response after the presentations ended was overwhelming and incredibly uplifting. So many people offered to help us make our idea a reality, complimented our presentation, or credited us with inspiring them to execute their own ideas. If nothing else but that last bit comes of GOOD Ideas for Cities, we’ll have accomplished something. Anything after that is just icing.