Monday, February 18, 2013
Growing up on the south side of the City of St. Louis in the '80s and '90s, most of my friends' dads didn't work in offices. Most of my friends' dads were firefighters, police officers, electricians, carpenters, pipefitters, or laborers. Many of my friends' dads worked for the City, or for Laclede Gas, or for (at the time) Union Electric, or for the Water or Sewer District. The office workers most often were my friends' moms: administrative assistants, bank tellers, clerks, and the like. A not insignificant portion of the moms (those with more formal education) were nurses or teachers. Culturally, I grew up in a working-class, "blue collar" neighborhood, but economically, my neighborhood was for the most part middle class. Hard work and post-secondary-school training meant a good wage and a secure retirement. That was the deal: the people who built, maintained and protected the City - the people who worked hard to make the City "work" - were compensated with a well-earned middle-class wage.
At the time, my neighborhood was nearly 100% "white ethnic" and probably something like 80% Roman Catholic. The parish church and its K-8 grade school was the social hub of the neighborhood. Nobody I knew identified with the "official" names of their neighborhoods: Southampton, Princeton Heights, Tower Grove South, and the like. Instead, we identified our neighborhoods in terms of the parish boundaries: Mary Magdalen, Holy Family, St. John the Baptist, Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Stephen's and the like. When people asked where you lived, that's what you'd tell them.
That's not to say that this was some kind of long-lost ideal of close-knit community. There were plenty of negative aspects to it. Literally and figuratively, it was parochial. Moreover, it was understood quite explicitly to be racial. "They" had moved into neighborhoods on the near-South Side and on Cherokee and had trashed them. Riding in the backseat of the car up Gravois to Busch Stadium (ironically enough, to cheer on African-American heroes such as Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee), "we" would pass by the bombed-out Darst-Webbe housing projects. The message often was explicit: "they" will trash wherever "they" live. "We" can't let "them" move in and trash our neighborhood. We are the people who make this City work. "We," as Bill Clinton would later put it during his '92 Presidential campaign, are the people "who work hard and play by the rules." That was the message, and the message very much was part of the deal, too.
When in 1993 Freeman Bosley Jr. was elected mayor of St. Louis due to a split in the white vote, there was genuine fear south of Manchester. Bosley was a black guy from a big North St. Louis political family who talked "like a black guy." On Democratic Primary night (the election night that really matters), the first words out of Mayor-elect Bosley's mouth during his victory speech were "Wassup, St. Louis!" Oh my. There goes the neighborhood. "We" who "worked hard and played by the rules" didn't have a mayor anymore. "They" now had a mayor.
For the 1997 March Democratic primary, the South Side politicians got their act together and backed Clarence Harmon. No split white vote this time. Harmon was black, but was the recently-departed St. Louis Chief of Police who had publicly dueled with Bosley. It didn't even matter what the duel was over (I can't remember what it was over, and I doubt that most people remember either - the substance of the dispute didn't really matter). Harmon won handily. "They" didn't have a mayor anymore. But "we" didn't really have a mayor either.
Francis Slay was from Epiphany. In 2001, he handily defeated Bosley's comeback bid. The putative incumbent Harmon received some tiny percentage of the vote. "We" had a mayor again, and "they" did not.
A lot has changed in 12 years. In my neighborhood now, there are a lot more people living here who work in offices somewhere. That old "white ethnic" Roman Catholic population isn't what it used to be. Our Lady of Sorrows and Mary Magdalen each now are better known as "SOHA."
"We" are still around, but not in the numbers that "we" used to be. Francis Slay is still counting on what's left of "us" to vote for him for mayor on the first Tuesday in March. Slay still makes the Fish Fry circuit during Lent.
The problem for Francis Slay and for "us," though, is that Francis Slay is not "our" mayor anymore.