Art Works Blog

Postcard from St. Louis

Mayor Buttigeig (standing) of South Bend, Indiana, presents his case study at the recent MICD conference in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of the Mayors' Institute on City Design

At the end of April, I had the opportunity to go to my hometown, St. Louis, for the latest session of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD). It’s great to go home, especially on NEA business---and not only because I get to eat as many meals as possible at Steak n Shake.

The visit began with a tour of downtown St. Louis led by John Hoal, an urban design professor at Washington University. We spent a lot of time at Citygarden, which is a great example of creative placemaking. It’s a beautiful, three-acre urban park that opened in 2009, and is designed to reflect the natural topography of St. Louis. Just standing there and seeing kids playing in the fountains, people touring the sculpture gardens---it’s become a real downtown destination. It’s free, and people can walk in and out as they please. Historically, you go to downtown St. Louis to do business during the day or to go to the ballgame at night, then leave and go back to the suburbs. But this adds an entirely new element to the area. People really engage with it, they walk around in it. It’s a good design oasis in the middle of the city. And it’s great that this was able to happen in St. Louis, which has not been on the vanguard of new ideas in urban design and creative placemaking.

Later in the tour, we visited neighborhoods on the North Side of St. Louis, where I had never spent much time. I knew it was where the old stadium was, and I used to go down there to the old ballpark. But there are some great old bones there, some great brick buildings. A lot of them have fallen into disrepair, and a lot of them are boarded up. But now little by little, block by block, they’re starting to come back. And there is real recapture and re-use of those buildings for homes, for galleries, etc. It was great to tour the North Side.

We also talked about the CityArchRiver plan that’s set to further revamp downtown. Between the Gateway Arch, which everyone knows, and the rest of the city, there’s basically this freeway. And they’re trying to figure out a way to extend the Arch and its park past the famous Old Courthouse. There should be one long esplanade where people can wander and tour and end up at the Arch, which would give them a sense that St. Louis is a real river city. That’s in the works, and the city is raising money for that.

Then we went on to the opening dinner, which was at a restaurant called Niche. It was excellent. Niche was in the South Side, and the same sort of renewal is happening there in the Soulard District and other nearby neighborhoods. St. Louis is a city that fortunately over all the years has preserved its great buildings, and its great houses. So there’s plenty of potential for the city to become an arts Mecca, and I think that is happening.

The next day I went to the morning MICD sessions. These are hosted by the NEA, the American Architectural Foundation, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Ron Bogle was there representing the architects, as was Tom Cochran, my good friend, who represents the mayors. The mayors are our natural allies in creative placemaking. They get this, and they’ve been doing this for quite a while before I came to the NEA. The meetings were held at the Cannon Design Building, which is a great old building in St. Louis. It was a perfect setting for a conference focused on design, and it was really a beautiful space.

What’s great about MICD is that the mayors present their problems, and then the other mayors and design experts give them advice. There’s no press there, so it can be a very freewheeling, uninhibited back and forth. Mayors present their case studies, and there’s back and forth about advice.

To give you an example of how a session works, we heard from Peter Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He’s the youngest mayor in the nation of any city with a population over 100,000, and is going to be a real star. He’s very, very impressive. Mayor Buttigieg is trying to better engage South Bend residents with the St. Joseph River, and is creating a master plan to revitalize the downtown riverfront. He talked about how no one walks anywhere in South Bend. Something might be a ten-minute walk away, but people will drive. And he does that himself when he goes to the Notre Dame campus or goes downtown from where he lives. We had a transportation design expert there, and she said to him, “People drive everywhere because of how the streets are designed. The whole purpose of these streets is to get people to the freeways and expressways, and out of town as fast as possible. That’s why they’re one-way, and that’s why they’re so wide. Naturally they’re not conducive to walking around---cars are going too fast. You’ve got to make the streets two ways, and you’ve got to have street parking. You need a sense of, ‘Hey, slow down.’ If cars go slower, and people feel more comfortable walking, you’ll have much more vibrancy and downtown vitality on the streets.” So that’s the kind of back and forth that you hear with the mayors and their presentations.

We also heard from Jean Quan, the mayor of Oakland. There’s a big arts center on Lake Merritt, which is right in the middle of Oakland, that the mayor wants to transform into this big library and gallery space. She’s trying to raise money for that.

The MICD meetings really are the highlight of my year. They’re always fascinating to me, and I always come back stimulated and fired up. I always learn things I didn’t know before. I think it’s one of the most important things we do. And to have it in my hometown, that was the best. I just wish I could have stayed on and on.

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