McClellan: To all those who want to force a merger: Thanks, we’re good

For civic boosters like myself, the recent attempted annexation of the city of Manchester was self-affirming. People who were supposed to be annexed came out in large numbers to vote against it. Thank you, we are fine, they said.

That is. Louis zen. We know that the secret of happiness is to be happy with who you are. While our critics tell us we need to change if we want the region to grow — as if heavy traffic and long lines are things to crave — we smile and collectively shake our heads. Thanks, we’re fine.

When I moved here all those years ago, I learned of two semi-secret organizations—the Veiled Prophet Committee and the Freeholders Committee of St. Louis.

While the VP men organized an annual ball and later added a public fair, the Freeholders were more mysterious, almost mythological. In their earliest incarnation they were the secret force behind the separation of the city and county in 1876. Somehow, as the decades passed, they switched sides, and when I heard of them, they were in favor of reunification. They led several failed merger attempts. After each failed attempt, the plaque would dissolve, but the citizens could not throw enough dirt at them. Like a zombie, the record kept popping up.

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Freeholders are for St. Louis were what the Headless Horseman was to Sleepy Hollow. A shared nightmare. How many cities can boast of that?

In 1989, the US Supreme Court ruled that the board was unconstitutional because members had to be landowners. It seemed that the court had finally driven a stake into the heart of the beast. Goal no. The committee amended its demands and returned.

In the mid-1990s, citizens’ associations raised a great deal of noise about the merger of the city and the county. They received support from former officials – all living former mayors were included – and the effort was led by Bert Walker, perhaps the most respected man of the day. But their good faith efforts generated no interest, only intense hostility.

Everything was given up again.

Is our attitude nothing more than reckless resistance to change? Or is it a sign of good luck?

I’m going with the latter. We are not overly happy. It’s for people in San Diego with a beach and sunny skies. But anyway, we are happy. Yes, the world is still throwing itself at St. Louis. Taylor Swift did not appear here during her last tour. She had two performances in Kansas City. Her boyfriend plays football there. He is very grateful for that, because he was afraid that St. Louis choose. Well, guess what Mr. Swifty, this is a great place to live. You could be happy here.

In 2008, the city built a new bridge over the railroad tracks at Jefferson Avenue. The workers discovered a small community of people living under the bridge. You will have to leave, they said. Most people picked up their things and left. But one guy had a house. Actually, it was a raised hut. Construction boss Dan “Hippie” Zuroweste appreciated the work put into the cabin. He asked the man how long he had been living under the bridge. About 12 years, the man said. Zuroweste spoke with business owners on Chouteau Avenue whose businesses bordered the bridge. They knew about the man with the hut and had no problem with him.

So Zuroweste had his crew move the man’s house aside while they built the bridge. Then they returned it.

I visited the man in the hut. He said his name was Robert. He had several jugs and made a daily pilgrimage to businesses in Chouteau where he used outside taps to fill his jugs. He told me that the railroad detectives knew about his cabin, but they didn’t bother him. I keep the place clean, he said.

While we were talking, several trains slowly rumbled by. It was winter and I asked Robert if he ever wanted to hop on a southern drive and get out of the cold.

Thanks, I’m fine, he said.

In fact, what he said was that if he jumped on a southbound train, he wouldn’t know what was in store for him. Better weather? Safe. But what else? Could you find a place to build a cabin? Would he find an area where companies wouldn’t object to him using their outdoor faucets?

He had the attitude of St. Louis. He appreciated what he had.

In 2019, our luck faced another challenge. Better Together, who looked like the Freeholders on steroids, announced that we were going to undergo self-improvement whether we wanted to or not. They would ask for a statewide vote on merging the city with the county. Steve Stenger would be the unelected emperor of the new entity.

This was beyond shocking. There are no more municipalities. Small towns with their own mayors and chiefs of police. disappeared. Webster Groves and Kirkwood. disappeared. Clayton and Chesterfield. disappeared.

I’ve never seen an entire region come together like it did then — THANK YOU! THEY WERE GOOD!

Of course, people from “good government” never stop. After the Better Together debacle, the Municipal League of Metro St. Louisa called for a revival of the Freeholders. That ended happily. The county appointed some people to the new Board of Freeholders, but the town could not agree on their choices.

That’s the last I’ve heard of the Freeholders, but we know, in our collective hearts, that the board never dies. It rests for a while, but will rise again.

As I said at the beginning, I am a civic booster. Proudly so. In my study, I have a commemorative brick from 5135 Kensington Avenue, the house made famous in the Sally Smith Benson classic “Meet Me in St. Louis.” And I cried without shame when that show came to the Muny, and Alonzo Smith, the father, who had been offered a big job in New York, finally gave in to his daughters who wouldn’t leave St. Louis.

“We’ll stay here until we all burp!” he said as the girls screamed with glee and the crowd went wild.

County Executive Sam Page argued that the no-incorporation vote was a nod to the county, but it ran deeper than that. It was about the people of this region and our attitude towards changes. Thanks, we’re fine.

See the history of Tower Grove Park, which was established on October 20, 1868 and was a gift to the city of St. Louis.

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