In 1869 L. U. Reavis spoke for many when he made the case for moving the nation’s capital from, as he put it, “the banks of the Potomac to the banks of the Mississippi.” Citing St. Louis’s location in the exact center of the nation, the growing population of the Mississippi Valley, the presumably temporary expediency that had led leaders to place the capital in Washington in the first place, and the commercial advantages of a capital city on the Mississippi River, Reavis thundered that just as Mohammed had gone to the mountain, so the nation would go to St. Louis. Predicting Congress would make the move within five years, Reavis concluded: “Before 1875 the President of the United States will deliver his message at the new seat of government in the Mississippi Valley.”
140 years later, the mountain waits. St. Louis today is not without the advantages that led Reavis to paint it as a bustling river town. The city hosts a federal reserve bank, a growing financial sector, a Boeing factory, excellent universities, and a collection of museums, gardens, and theatres that do, in fact, rival D.C.’s. Local demographics reflect the nation as a whole. Behind the Obama and McCain signs that dot my neighborhood are union members, Catholics, college professors, veterans, Jews, Reagan Republicans, pro-lifers, Muslims, and Hillary supporters. I can walk to the city where residents debate gentrification, community continuity, the quality of schools, and the costs of segregation. But if someone had asked me to describe the political vibe of the city when I first moved here in 2006, I would have settled on “resigned.”
Compared especially to residents of my previous home, Los Angeles, St. Louisans seemed reluctant to admit that they or their concerns mattered at all. At its best, this attitude comes across as midwestern plain-spoken humility. Whereas I couldn’t spend a day in LA without hearing about its status as the city of the future, few folks here mentioned that Missouri is a bellwether state, voting for the winner of every Presidential election since 1904 except that of 1956. And while St. Louisans regularly express familiarity with LA’s geography or its demographics or, at least, its Hollywood productions, I have had to tell Angelenos that St. Louis is on the Mississippi River, that it’s a union town and that, with a greater metro-area population of well over 2 million, we do, in fact, get first-run films in our theaters. At its worst, local humilty seemed to mean passivity and obeisance to national whims dictated by the coasts. When the rest of the nation figured out how to handle crumbling downtowns and failing schools, maybe they’d let us know what to do.
But in the past month, there’s been a slow rise in local pride. I’ve noticed more signs out for political candidates. Maybe that’s just because the election is nearing. No doubt, too, McCain’s surprise selection of Palin had similar effects here as elsewhere in the country. I see “Hockey Mamas for Obama” scrawled in shoe polish on the backs of mini-vans and sealed with a lipstick kiss. Local moms are writing their suburban papers to say they see themselves in the governor of Alaska and it feels good. The city turns its collective head to Phyllis Schlafly to hear what she has to say. But there’s also suddenly interest in who gets to attend the vice-presidential debates. And the St. Louis Post Dispatch is interviewing a retired high school debate coach on pointers for Biden and Palin, not for Obama and McCain.
The debates will be here, in St. Louis, at Washington University (what the father of a friend of mine used to call “the best university you’ve never heard of”) and people are excited. WashU has hosted presidential debates before. In fact, it’s hosted more than any other institution in history. And I confess that I detected the slightest disappointment among locals when we first learned that it would be the vice presidential, rather than presidential debates, that would be held there on October 2. But no one complained too loudly. After all, what are you going to do? It’s just St. Louis.
But all that has changed now. Although the sentiment may be tacit, people are beginning to think that St. Louis matters. Maybe instead of waiting for the nation to tell us what to do, we should be telling the nation. On my way to class at St. Louis University, in the city, I stop and chat with an African American man out registering voters. He’s an Obama supporter. I ask how I can get a handle on which way different St. Louis neighborhoods will go in the election. He tells me to stay in the city: “That way you can talk to immigrants, black people, white people – you’ll get diversity.” It’s an unusually gray day for September. We shiver. I ask him what he thinks of the vice presidential debates. He lights up. “They’ll decide everything!” he tells me enthusiastically. “The debate will determine Missouri, and Missouri is a bellwether state – and it’s going to make all the difference. I’m going to be there! I’m going to be there!” It is the most enthused he’s been in our conversation, the most enthused I’ve seen anyone here about the election.
I wonder if he’s heard of L.U. Reavis.
Flannery Burke is an assistant professor in the Department of History at St. Louis University. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, she writes about the American West, the environment, Los Angeles, and St. Louis.