Saturday, April 29, 2017

Earliest Memories of St. Louis

Growing up less than ten miles east of St. Louis, my family rarely brought us kids to the city even though my dad worked downtown. The occasional visit was to the Zoo, a Cards game, Union Station, St. Louis Centre or  the VP Fair/air show.

My earliest memories of St. Louis are my dad taking me to his work (Market Street) and taking me out to lunch. There were people everywhere, I loved it. Women would change out of their heels into athletic socks and Reeboks and briskly walk to lunch in professional attire except from the ankles down. It felt like NYC to this suburban cul-de-sac kid.

I also remember my uncle taking me to a Blues game at the Checkerdome, an unforgettable experience with beer-sticky floors, hoosiers without shirts carrying 12 packs of Busch on the walk to the arena and an epic fan fight in the stands. Hooked! We parked in what I thought was Dogtown (but now know as the Cheltenham Neighborhood) and walked to the arena. There were smoky neighborhood bars with doors wide open and lots of pre-game drinking. The K-SHE 95 1970's culture was still very much alive and kicking in Dogtown.

My uncle would also take me to work where he was selling cabinets to the flurry of rehabbers in the heart of Soulard in the mid 1980's. The brick was mind blowing, and it seemed to go on for miles. This was the first rebirth of Soulard after the cyclone rebuild and it made quite an early impression.

Belleville, Illinois is where I grew up, went to school and eventually left when I wanted to move to a bigger city with plenty of mysteries I craved and ideals I held at the time. But Southern Illinois, more specifically, Belleville (and to a lesser extent Freeburg and Millstadt) will always feel like home.

The bowling alleys, pizza/video game arcades, diners, St. Clair Square mall, the long Main Street, delivering windshields, bussing tables, mowing grass, buying records at Music Biz, corn, wheat and soybean fields, apple orchards, fried fish taverns, cutting off fresh "hunkies" (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on willow trees, Mr. Donut and Zipps fries, binge drinking Red White and Blue at house parties and on farm roads...and the half-assed girl chasing, driving around, smoking and obsessing over music with a very small group of friends are the things that defined me more than St. Louis...the formative years.

I never crossed the river outside of my parent's car until I started delivering windshields for a company in Belleville. The job took me to auto dealerships from Litchfield, Illinois on Route 66 to suburbs in South and West County, Missouri. 

This was also the first time I drove on city streets and realized there was a grid and a pattern to getting around. Sounds naive now, but I had to learn this somehow and the delivery job got me all over the place in a 1970's Chevy van or 1980's Ford Ranger pickup.

Most of the auto dealerships and homes were in decidedly suburban locations and were in pretty boring and non-descript buildings. However, one dealership stood out. It was an Oldsmobile dealership in what I only knew back then to be "downtown" St. Louis.

After a little digging it turns out the dealership that left an impression on me was John E. Hanna Oldsmobile and it was in the Midtown Neighborhood at 3401 Washington Avenue.

Hanna was acquired by Ernie Patti in 1997 amid a major shift by General Motors to downsize the number of dealerships in its network. It closed soon thereafter marking the end of automobile row in St. Louis.

Here's a nice KETC Channel 9 "Living St. Louis" piece on Automobile Row:

The dealership was razed and is now one of the many surface parking lots that rob this part of town of character and the city feel.
But, my early fascination with St. Louis really began here while making deliveries to Hanna Oldsmobile, and to a lesser extent the old McMahon Ford and Vincel Pontiac locations; they were old school and the places had this grit and toughness that you didn't get at suburban places like Dave Sinclair in South County or Wagner Buick in Belleville.

These were the places I wanted to be around...the old city. I still remember the smell of ~80 years of oil, grease and gas in Hanna Oldsmobile. For whatever reason, I love that smell. Very American. Very "There Will Be Blood".
The mechanics looked like they'd worked there forever, you could smoke on the job, there were 1980's hairspray-hot Snap-On and Mac Tool calendars on the walls, it was a scene I loved at the time...made me wanna crank the Thin Lizzy and talk in a Humphrey Bogart voice.  Just tough and

I miss that place.

Another key early memory of St. Louis that eventually drew me across the Mississippi was when my sister, four years my elder, moved to an apartment flat in St. Louis' Southwest Garden Neighborhood in the early 1990's.

When I first went to visit her, I was immediately blown away. Sidewalks were everywhere. You could seemingly walk for miles in any direction. This was the memory that has stuck with me the most.  This is really why I think I'm here today, the sidewalks and brick buildings.

Furthermore, the signs, the restaurants, the brick buildings, the people, it was a goddamn mystery that was nothing like Belleville...or, maybe like parts of old Belleville, but ten times bigger. 

I remember she walked us to the Missouri Botanical Gardens and I was thinking, wow if I can walk here, I can walk anywhere.

You have to understand how hard it is to walk in modern subdivisions and small towns. You have to walk in the streets. So, sidewalks were a revelation.

Simple, I know...but, it was a lasting impression.

I was hooked.

The upstairs apartment of the multi-family had amazing arts and crafts charm and was in great condition. Stained glass, hardwood floors, crazy 50's kitchen, tiled, it was like being dropped into another time. 

It was an escape. I knew if the rest of the city was as cool as this, I had to move here and fast. Adventures around every corner...

The car we had at the time broke down when I was staying there one night and I had to get back to Belleville so I rode the Bi-State bus with my now brother-in-law to get back home. Brick was everywhere, it just seemed to go on and on. Ghost signs, metal and neon signs, small businesses were still prevalent in numbers not imaginable twenty years later. The scenes outside the window were the ones I craved.

The old, densely populated city was still hanging on.

Those were the few memories that oriented me in a westward direction in my twenties. My sister opened the door and paved a path west, and eventually I had to head for the Poplar Street Bridge to cross the river and set up shop in the old city.

I graduated college, came back home to Belleville, got a job in Chesterfield and moved to the Dutchtown Neighborhood a couple months later.

That was that. I'm still fascinated with this city twenty plus years from these fading memories of the 1980's and 1990's.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Residency Requirements and Preference for Citizen Hiring - A Change Of Mind

I'm writing this blog to share some thoughts on the future of hiring civil servants and searching for candidates to fill important city offices and positions.

This issue became top of mind when a recent ballot initiative in April, 2017 came up called Proposition C; it's goal was to provide hiring preference for citizens of St. Louis for public jobs. 

The topic sprang up again just this week when our new Mayor took office. On her first day she accepted the retirement/resignation of the acting Chief of Police, Sam Dotson.

That is a big, important position to fill.

I've struggled with internal mental wrangling on the matter of residency requirements and preference for much so that I failed to get this published before the April election when it was fresh on my mind. Then the plot thickened with the Chief role opening up.  More thought...more time passed.  Then later this week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story on the opportunity to look far and wide for a new Chief for the first time in ~150 years.

So I'm FINALLY publishing this blog to come to terms with a full blown switch in personal philosophy on hiring in St. Louis, and what is the best for the city. 

Now, I don't mind admitting a change of mind publicly after learning more about a subject.

When it comes to St. Louis, there are several things that seem to be evidently true after living here for 23 years. My hypotheses, theories and laws are forming. I feel like I'm honing in on our top three to five strengths and weaknesses and they are almost cemented as personal law in my mind.

The hypothesis part is the most fun though. Forming an opinion or fleshing out an ideal/stance and having life, time and experience change your initial thoughts...making you more seasoned and well, I guess, smarter or at least more critical. It's one of the main reasons I do this flesh out thoughts/hypotheses on St. Louis issues.
A hypothesis is a reasonable guess based on what you know or observe. Hypotheses are proven and disproven all of the time. Hypotheses play a strong role in the scientific method where you formulate a question, create a hypothesis, make a testable prediction, test, and then analyze the data. Even then, a hypothesis needs to be tested and retested many times before it is generally accepted in the scientific community as being true. (source)
Through constant experimentation and living life, my thoughts evolve and I change my mind on what I think is good for St. Louis.

Here's a personal example of a change of mind on a St. Louis issue.

Hypothesis: I used to think residency requirements were absolutely necessary for city employees, especially police, prosecutors/criminal justice employees and firemen. You want to work here? You should live here and understand our issues firsthand and help us rebuild this dwindling city. We need to take care of each other, starting with St. Louis citizens first. Local preference!

And when I say leave, I mean bolted and cursed the city as they left. Trust me, I heard some of this firsthand and it was disappointing.

Taking that a step further, I thought all city employees should live in St. Louis...what better way to represent your office or department than by serving your fellow neighbors/citizens.

But this train of thought was especially true for authority figures...those who deal with life/death, freedom/imprisonment.

At the time it seemed like the people policing the community should be able to relate to the community. They should have a stake in crime going down from the perspective that it would affect their family or their property personally. My logic was  that people behave different and look different in St. Charles than they do in St. Louis. Think about it, can a Kirkwood resident really understand St. Louis and it's people and struggles when their demographics of personal wealth, class and race are so radically different? Sure, but it's harder...and the skin in the game is lower.

Also, my cynical or paranoid streak suspected that County philosophies/policies like to concentrate crime, poverty, etc. in St. Louis to better cordon off their communities from these issues.

Look no further than the steady stream of suburban municipality's police forces and hospitals paying for taxi rides dropping off homeless/mentally ill people found in their cities in Downtown St. Louis. It is County tradition to concentrate the region's problems in St. Louis. It's the easiest fix. And I was highly suspect of these same folks intentions working here for real change that benefits people who live here.

My former idealist ways wanted my police force to look like the people of St. Louis and understand what it's like to deal with crime on a first hand basis. I felt the only way you truly appreciate this is by living here.

Reading about it and looking at crime stats just isn't enough. Arm chair analyses from a drive to Busch stadium and back to the burbs just isn't enough.

I felt it was good to see authority figures in neighborhoods of St. Louis. It reinforced the democratic system to me...of the people, by the people, for the people.

But, renewed thoughts on local hiring/residency requirements were sparked after reading a story a few months back in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the pending retirement of Jennifer Joyce, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Prosecutor. Joyce was the city's longest-serving elected prosecutor with four terms under her belt.

From the PD story:
“I really love St. Louis,” Joyce said in a wide-ranging interview last week. “I’ve lived here all my life but I’m ready to have a little bit of a change of scenery. I would like to not think about crime 24 hours a day.” (source)
You have to love St. Louis to do that job. And it gave me solace knowing that she really did live in St. Louis as opposed to Clayton, St. Charles, Millstadt or some other city that is nothing like St. Louis when it comes to poverty and crime.

What a tough job. I can't imagine dealing with the level of hate, lack of dignity and violence on a daily basis that a prosecutor must face in a city that has the highest homicide stats in the nation.

As a juror, I've only made it so far as the voir dire; but, my wife has been a juror. Just those two experiences alone were enough to make you lose faith in humanity. The level of misogyny, hate, self-loathing and illegal gun lust in this community can really weigh on you. It is hard to take and sometimes harder to shake.

I respect the resolve that police, investigators and prosecutors have and the desire to somehow help victims find some kind of justice in a world where so many are infatuated with violence/murder as the only means to solve relationship problems, money problems and petty disputes.

I remember when I lived in the neighborhood where Joyce once lived and I'd be walking the dog crossing paths with her on occasion. I remember what kind of car she drove, etc. She would come to neighborhood meetings to talk about her office.

I never introduced myself or met her (why would I?), but I knew who she was from watching the news and reading the paper.  It was good to see her as a normal person just getting off work and living amongst the same people she is prosecuting and trying to protect.

She was definitely a part of that neighborhood and that made a lasting impression on me and is likely a big part of what formed my erstwhile opinions on local hiring, recruitment and residency preference.

But that's all been challenged and I'm here to announce a flip flop.

I was preparing to vote in the April, 2017 election and there was a measure on the ballot that required me to do some thinking.

The proposed change to the city charter, was called Proposition C and the St. Louis electorate was asked to weigh in. It states:
Shall Section 4 of Article XVIII of the Charter of the City of St. Louis be amended to add paragraph (f), which provides for the enactment of an ordinance establishing a residents' preference to residents of the City of St. Louis upon successfully passing a civil service examination for civil service positions with the City? Section 4. Ordinances to be enacted - The mayor and aldermen shall provide, by ordinance: (f) City Residents' Preference. For a preference to be granted to residents of the City of St. Louis who successfully pass an examination for a civil service position. (source)
So when I initially read this, thoughts of authority figures like police and prosecutors came to mind. I should vote yes on this one...give the people who live here and root down in our city a job.

But after further, this does not benefit the citizens of St. Louis. Why? Well, if you've ever had to utilize city services, you know it is, um, well...a mixed bag of professionalism and basic competence. Sometimes it's just fine, or even great. Yet, sadly, in my experience, at other times it is straight up terrible. Laughably so.

Which got me to thinking:

St. Louis is shedding population annually at a staggering rate. That means the hiring pool (if you had to recruit only within St. Louis' boundaries) is shrinking as well.

Any hiring manager, human resources or talent scout would likely tell you that casting your net wide is a good practice.  Expanding your search is just logical if you want the best person for the job.

I mean city jobs are service based jobs with real deliverables and accountabilities. The City of St. Louis is not a jobs program or guaranteed lifetime of employment.

Oh, and here's another thing: you know that if you live in St. Louis you pay a 1% earning tax on your personal income. And, if you don't live in St. Louis (say Belleville or Wellston), but you work in St. Louis, you pay the same 1% of your personal income earned within the St. Louis city limits.

So, doesn't it make sense to draw someone in from outside the city to expand your hiring pool and get a little extra money for the city coffers? If you live here, we already have you on the tax books. If you are hired from the nearby suburbs and small towns, we'd get a little extra $ to pay for services that citizens benefit from.

This practice as proposed in Prop C would actual promote nepotism at worst or limit the talent pool at best. This is bad, we need outsiders to help us get more professional/competent staff at all levels of city government and services.

Actually, what we need are more good, honest, hard working people from all walks of life...diversity. And we need to maybe show preference to outsiders or newbies.

Bummer is, the Proposition passed (source):
When it's all said and done, this is not a big deal. It isn't a step in the right direction, but it is what it is. So it goes.

But, I now think there is more value in hiring the best, not the most local. And first hand experience living in St. Louis is important, but shouldn't be the primary qualifier to identify the selection pool...probably not even the deciding variable in the equation.

In fact, when it comes to the Chief of Police, I think we need someone from another city in the country, a new set of experiences without local baggage and entrenched relationships that immediately add to the conflict.

And per a couple comments from Mayor Krewson, it sounds hopeful:

The path to replace Police Chief Sam Dotson will go through uncharted territory as city leaders look outside the department for the first time in its more than 150-year history.

In an interview Thursday, Mayor Lyda Krewson shied away from using the term “national search” to describe how she wants to select the next chief.

“We want to get the right person for the job, and that person might be inside or on the outside of the department, and that goes for any position. It’s just common sense personnel practices,” she said. 
“We’re not certain what the process will be, but our personnel director will put together a plan for how to go about doing this,” Krewson said. “This is all less than 24 hours old, and we’re just now figuring out all that.” 
This will be the first search for a new chief since the city regained control of its police department from the state. 
Under that structure, only those already with the department who held the rank of captain and above were eligible for the top post. It’s unclear whether the recent shift to city control may widen or narrow eligible ranks. (source)
This is a huge opportunity to make real, historic change.

I mean, someone who can walk in on the first week of the job and see that two police unions based on race is too much for one small city of ~300,000. Working together is something this region is not known for. Fighting for local scraps is. We need someone bigger than that. Someone who can stand up and say what is wrong with St. Louis, the County and the region in advocate for consolidation, efficiency, community building and frankly, getting things under control.

We have a problem, and we need outside help, not local hiring preference.

I'm in the minority on Prop C, I don't think we need local people for big jobs, I think we need outsiders...the most qualified for all levels of civil service.

Anyhow, here's to hiring the best new employees we can, casting the net far and wide and getting new ideas and new people in the room.

Mayor Krewson, go find us the best Chief of Police you can find!

Fresh faces, someone we don't already "know".

Friday, April 21, 2017

A New Mayor For St. Louis!

While I'll hold who I voted for in the primary and general elections close to my chest, I will say that I'm really happy to have Lyda Krewson as our next Mayor. 

The first woman Mayor of St. Louis! That's history right there!

Whew, it's time for some fresh faces, no?

Now, I realize a Mayor doesn't really do a whole lot in St. Louis' weak-mayoral system, the Aldermen/women have that larger responsibility; heck sometimes I feel like the Comptroller and the director of the STL Development Corporation play more of a crucial role in our immediate future.

That said, I am really happy to see what she can do, and a Mayor really does set the tone for a city government and is the face to the region and beyond.

And they can be stewards of major policy changes. For instance, I think Slay's most prominent legacy will be charter schools.

Anyhow, I wish Mayor Krewson the best of luck and I'm feeling pretty optimistic so far and confident that she'll be successful and run a clean administration at minimum, or take it to new heights at best.

So what are your hopes for this new administration? 

What is realistic to expect/dream?

I have heard/read people I respect say we need more transparency from the Mayor's office trickling down to the Aldermanic level. I've also heard/read that there is an expectation that we modernize communications using email with lead time vs. posting things last minute to a bulletin board at city hall. Or even worse, being handed a paper right before a session...lame political tactics.

These should almost be demands vs. wishes/desires, right? But...democratic governments are kind of designed to move slow and man, does St. Louis like to move slow.

My hopes/desires for a new administration are quite simple, really.

I hope that in every conversation and every topic and every issue that comes across the Mayor's email/desk, she asks: "how will this effect crime, schools and quality of life for current and future residents?"

If it doesn't fit into that, it's just feel-good fluff.

The meat of gaining residents and small/large businesses to set up shop and root down in St. Louis all boils down to:
  1. reducing the negative perception and real crime issues
  2. reducing the real and perceived reputations/issues of our schools (private, charter and SLPS) and
  3. livability...are we getting quality services for our increasingly high property and sales taxes?
  4. making the process to set up shop and grow here easier; minimizing bureaucratic hoops that bring no value.
Let's open the door (and wide) to all.

Be approachable and connect with our citizens in a real way. Make an effort to talk to people who have kids in the schools here and get to know the strengths and weaknesses of the status quo. Talk to people who can objectively talk about crime's effect on their lives and properties all over the city...I respectfully know the Mayor gets this one firsthand and emotionally.

I can't wait to see where Mayor Krewson takes the city. It's fun to witness the next chapter of St. Louis history.