Right Arm of the City – Mayor Francis Slay
August 18, 2016
(Click here to watch the video.)
It’s a tremendous honor to be here. I stand in the company of some very distinguished Right Arms.
You’ve been presented with a glowing summary of achievements, but from my perspective, I was just doing my job.
St. Louisans elected me to four consecutive terms. I’ve worked hard to prove worthy of their trust.
I didn’t do it alone, though. My tenure as Mayor would have been short-lived without the unwavering support of my family and friends, and it would have been unremarkable without the extraordinary efforts of a great staff.
I want to talk briefly about what’s next for our region.
The milestone on which I want to focus isn’t my retirement. Or the election of a new mayor next year.
It is Ferguson.
The events in Ferguson shone a spotlight on the challenges facing our region: racial disparities, poverty, crime, and education among them.
These challenges are not new to St. Louis. Nor are they unique to St. Louis.
But here they are a product of systems, policies, and institutions that have haunted us for decades and solving them will not be easy. It will be impossible, however, if we are unable to overcome our fractured governmental structure.
Our region emerged from the Civil War divided. Arbitrary lines drawn since then have proven surprisingly durable. They eventually cost our rightful place among the nation’s most vital cities.
We became a region in which almost everything is harder than it has to be.
Take, for example, how the region serves our homeless population. The short answer, of course, is that the region doesn’t.
The only real overnight shelters are in the city, though the last recorded residence of half of those served is outside the city.
Some local police forces quite literally, and this is well documented, drop their homeless population downtown.
This is a stark example, but it is symptomatic of a broader bias towards isolation and denial.
Crime – not my neighborhood.
Failed schools – not my kids.
Disparities in income – not my problem.
Racial injustice – not my fight.
This is a profound regional failure.
It’s also shortsighted.
Isolation and denial may be the path of least resistance, but it is not a viable long-term strategy.
When St. Louis appears on national lists of the most dangerous cities, that drives prospective residents and visitors away, reducing property values and hurting businesses.
When some kids are attending unaccredited schools, and graduating at tragically low rates, it doesn’t just jeopardize their shot at the American Dream - it reduces the pool of human capital from which companies are drawing, reducing their productivity and stifling innovation.
Layered on top of this damning price tag are the annual operational and opportunity costs of running 91 municipal governments.
And there’s a psychological cost. It emerges in an instinctive self-deprecation with which too many of us treat our region. We don’t, for example, give ourselves the credit we deserve when it comes to the arts. We have one of the best music scenes in the world and extraordinary museums. We exert disproportionate cultural influence on our nation. We lament the state of our economy, forgetting that we have one of the most vibrant start-up ecosystems in the nation.
This isn’t a mere frustration. Our attitude too often discourages the kind of big picture, innovative thinking that we need to address our challenges.
Transit, on which I have chosen to focus during the last year of my tenure, is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.
The transforming impact of light rail should not be controversial. It is working in other cities across the country. We know that transit connects marginalized communities; sparks development in struggling neighborhoods, and ends the isolation of stranded work forces. Denver, a smaller metropolitan area than St. Louis, is investing almost $8 billion expanding its light rail system. Meanwhile, St. Louis treats new light rail like we once treated railroad bridges: debating it endlessly and letting other cities take the lead.
Let history be our lesson.
We should not be arguing about which one route to build. We should be discussing how to build all the routes.
We need to make ambitious investments in our future, so that 16 years from now we are considered one of the success stories, one of the regions that evolved and adapted to succeed in a world economy.
Specifically, we need to invest far more than we already do in public safety, infrastructure, and transit. It would be great if the region joined us and I expect they will, but the City will not wait.
I will be bringing legislation raising funds on each front to the Board of Aldermen when they come back into session. The proposals will include new bonds, new fees, and new taxes on things like parking.
While I believe that most residents of the City will support well explained investment, I am cognizant of the danger of over-taxation, and I welcome a dialogue on the best ways to make these critical investments.
I am not, however, going to be sympathetic to those who will criticize my plan without offering a feasible alternative. It’s easy to find a reason to oppose an initiative - no plan is perfect - but the costs of inaction are simply too high to stand idly by.
We cannot keep not doing things.
That is wasting opportunity. That is costing lives.
And, more often than not, those lives are disproportionately African American.
Black lives matter.
The events of Ferguson must remind us to consider our systems and the outcomes they produce through the lens of racial equity.
This lens reminds us that the income gap between white and black has grown 40% since 1967, and that the wealth gap remains larger than it was in South Africa - in 1970.
It reminds us that African Americans are regularly discriminated against in the housing, credit, and jobs markets, and, “black applicants were half as likely as equally qualified whites to receive a callback or job offer.”
It reminds us that if we don’t reduce our incarceration rates, one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, and that life expectancy is almost 5 years lower for Black Americans than White Americans.
Our divisions hold us back on every front, imposing unacceptable human costs. We have a moral and economic imperative to act, and I hope you’ll join me to make the investments St. Louis needs to thrive, and I hope you’ll join me to bring our region together.