St. Louis was founded today, or maybe it was yesterday; I can’t be sure.
While it might offend some of my readers, I take little stock in the arbitrary date today that is the probable date of the founding of St. Louis. Or was it yesterday? Regardless, this anniversary first off ignores the fact that there was already a Native-American city here, whose breadth and importance is just starting to be understood. While most Mound Builder sites scattered around the Cahokia Mounds are broadly, and dismissively, labeled “suburbs” of that famous site in Collinsville, Illinois, we cannot deny that there was a long history of human settlement already in place here. And that is not even considering the possibility of a pre-existing European settlement already sitting on the bluffs when St. Louis was officially founded. Really, for Louis XV back in Versailles, France, the Louisiana Territory was so distant as to border on the abstract. And honestly, due to the strategic commercial siting of the city, an American fur trading company probably would have founded a city on the spot eventually anyway.
So yes, St. Louis as a concept is 250 years old, but what does that really mean for us today? I’m sure that other commentators will muse at what the founders of St. Louis would think of the city today. Certainly, they would be impressed with the mighty bridges crossing the river, the skyscrapers or the gigantic arch that has replaced their original town, but I also think that Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau would be shocked to find almost no one who speaks French, because honestly, this city’s French heritage is perhaps as distant and nebulous as its Native American past. They also would almost certainly have harsh words for much of the way this city currently exists.
They would be perplexed at the short-sightedness of the City leaving the county, even if they could not grasp the shear size of the modern St. Louis. They would wonder why so much time is wasted sitting in cars after they had taken pains to design a city where everything one needed was a five minute walk way. They would be ashamed of the bitter racial divisions throughout the city, and the absurd lengths people will go to in this country to live as far as possible from people of other races. They would wonder why so much of the city sits empty 95% of the year, just so someone can park their car in those spaces for three hours.
St. Louis has hemorrhaged 500,000 people in the last sixty or so years (probably more technically but it’s been offset by new residents). What are you going to do about it? I’ve been to countless beautiful cities in Europe that “used to be important.” I’ve also been to many European cities, despite being older than some of the aforementioned ones, that are still vibrant and alive–and relevant. Which one is St. Louis going to be in 250 years? A tourist attraction about the “good old days,” or a city seeing its best new days?