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In St. Louis, the Best and Worst of Times

The famous quote from the opening of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Tale of Two Cities” could be read as a description of the St. Louis area today: 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

The pairing of shining hope and dark despair is oddly appropriate to the current situation that our region finds itself in.

It is indeed in many ways, “the best of times” for St. Louis:

• Our St. Louis Blues at last won the Stanley Cup.

• We have been approved for a Major League Soccer franchise.     

• We are on our way to becoming a major tech hub, not only nationally but globally.

• Major corporations, such as Bunge Ltd., are setting up shop in St. Louis.

Our own 60,000-member Jewish community has many reasons to be hopeful and proud:

• We have a strong network of local Jewish programs to enrich our lives: the Jewish Federation and its network of life-sustaining programs locally and nationally, in Israel and worldwide.

• St. Louis has 17 strong synagogues and temples with exemplary rabbinical and lay leadership.

• We have one of the finest Jewish Community Centers around, with first-rate sports facilities, preschool, and cultural programs, including the Jewish Book Festival, Jewish Film Festival and the New Jewish Theatre.

•  Through the Sh’ma: Listen! program and the Center for Jewish Learning, day schools and synagogue classes, we are blessed with a plethora of educational programs.

But those examples of the best of times have a shadow corollary. We may have a lot to celebrate, but we also have a drumbeat of negative news that reveals the darker side of the metropolitan area.

• St. Louis is making national news for the number of innocent children killed in senseless violence. Some 13 children have been murdered on our streets in recent days. 

• Overall, we have at least 134 homicides so far this year. We have become the “murder capital” of the nation, rising — or sinking — to that spot even as other cities such as New York and Detroit have found ways to curb crime.

• The victims have included not only children and innocent bystanders but law enforcement agents such as Illinois state troopers and local police officers gunned down in the line of duty.

• Our community often seems helpless and hopeless to combat this murderous rampage, which has afflicted not only inner-city streets but neighborhoods throughout the region. Prayer vigils and makeshift memorials can be an important part of healing, but concrete action is needed now.

Sadly, our Missouri General Assembly is more content to while away its hours increasing the availability of firearms than it is to passing common sense background checks. Legislators will be returning to Jefferson City for a special session, but they will consider only a limited sales tax exemption; Gov. Mike Parson ruled regulation of guns off the table.

St. Louis has had its ups and downs in its more than 250 years of existence. In the 1930s, St. Louis had the worst smog problem in the nation, resulting in lung disease and other ailments. The late, great Mayor Raymond R. Tucker, a highly qualified engineer, took the steps necessary to eliminate most of the toxic smog.

His efforts inspired a LIFE magazine cover story:  “Smoky St. Louis Cleans Up.”

In the 1950s, the once proud infrastructure in St. Louis was crumbling; slums were replacing stable neighborhoods.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in  the spirit of its founder, Joseph Pulitzer, launched a series called “Progress or Decay: St. Louis Must Choose.” Many of the public works and governmental reform projects proposed in the series were shepherded by principled local and state leadership.

It’s time to bring such activist leadership to the pressing problems of today. We did it before, and we can do it again. Do we want St. Louis to be a “Shining City on a Hill” or a Dickensian cesspool of decline and decay. Let us choose progress and get to work now, to throw the spotlight on the best of times once more.