The town of Frip is “three leaning shacks by the sea.” The combined population of St. Louis City and St. Louis County is 1.3 million people. What the tiny fictional town and the Midwestern city have in common is that conditions are not working for the people. Something needs to change.
I grew up in the southwest part of St. Louis City, a section called St. Louis Hills. Driving east on Watson Road (part of the fabled Route 66) into St. Louis, I watched the “Welcome to St. Louis” sign’s population number tick down from over 750,000 to less than half that number. I myself am one of those who left, moving first to the inner suburb of University City, and then to the bedroom community of Creve Coeur.
One way St. Louis’s loss of stature struck home to me happened when I was in New Zealand last month. No one had heard of St. Louis. As I watched the blank, puzzled looks on the Kiwis’ faces, I tried Missouri (no), the Midwest (nope) or the Arch (not really). I finally settled on “300 miles south of Chicago.”
In addition, I realize that our region has real and substantive socio-economic issues: among them, racism, loss of manufacturing jobs, unequal school funding and unequal policing. I also realize that there are huge human costs attached to these dry sounding issues: loss of income, loss of hope, loss of future, health, life. One reflection of these inequalities was the months of unrest that unfolded in one of the County municipalities: Ferguson.
The fragmentation of the St. Louis area among the City and the eighty-eight municipalities of the County present formidable challenges to cooperative action in solving regional problems. For forty years, I have driven by boarded up buildings and leveled lots when I go to the Symphony, the Botanical Gardens and to see the baseball Cardinals, all located in the City. There have been improvements, for sure, but very piecemeal: a grocery store here, a rehabbed block or two there, a medical clinic elsewhere. I know I am emblematic of the problem. I go to the City for entertainment and culture but I pay my taxes to the County.
In 1876, St. Louis City officially separated from St. Louis County. At the time, the City’s population and wealth overwhelmed the County’s. The tables have turned and the City has become the impoverished partner. Now, a proposal to combine the City and the eighty-eight County municipalities would make the new Metro City the tenth largest city in the country. Because of the 1876 “divorce” and because of the huge number of municipalities that have their own police forces, municipal courts and sales tax structure, this is very complicated and contentious. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the status quo has not worked for decades.
In The Very Persistant Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and illustrated by Lane Smith, the human residents of Frip, all ten of them, are also in an untenable situation. The
very persistent gappers of the title are bright orange, baseball sized creatures with multiple protuberant eyes and little intellect. They shriek with happiness when they find a goat to glom onto. They are loving the goats of Frip , if not to death, then to the point that the goat lies “on its side with a mortified look on its face.” They quit making milk when covered by gappers. The three families of Frip all count on selling goat’s milk for their livelihoods.
It is the tradition in Frip that the human children brush the gappers from the goats eight times a day and dump them into the sea. The gappers love the goats so much that they climb back from the sea bottom, up the cliff and back onto the goats. All the children are exhausted, but only the girl Capable has the imagination and the guts to try doing something different. Through her wits, her courage and her kindness, Capable shows all the others how to make a change. In the end, even the gappers change.
What I love about this modern day children’s book is that there are no bad guys: no witches, no ogres, no meanies. The adults, like most of us, are pre-occupied with themselves. Mr. Ronsen spends his time shaving and trimming his nose hairs. Mrs. Romo’s passion is singing: ”She sang in a proud and angry way, as if yelling at someone.” Capable’s father is paralyzed by grief due to the death of Capable’s mother. The Ronsen girls only think about boys. The Romo boys spend all their time fighting with each other.
Just like most of us, the residents of Frip are a tad selfish, a tad self-absorbed, a tad self-righteous.They ascribe good luck to their own virtue and others’ bad luck to their inferiority. When the gappers temporarily left the Romo goats alone, Bea Romo crows, “God has been good to us….Why? I can’t say….I suppose we must somehow deserve it.” The Ronsens and Romos send a joint letter in response to Capable’s request for help. They write, “…although we are very sympathetic to your significant hardships, don’t you think it would be better if you took responsibility for your own life? …it only stands to reason that you are not, perhaps, quite as good as us.” For as long as I can remember, the more affluent municipalities have assumed very similar attitudes of condescension toward their less well-off neighbors.
I also see similarities in the narrow viewpoints and self-serving attitudes between the people in Frip and the different stakeholders in the debate to unify the St. Louis region. Most people, myself included, only worry about the direct effect on their own day-to-day lives. Blacks, as reflected in an editorial to the St. Louis American, are worried about dilution of their political power. They will make up a much smaller percentage of population in the newly united area than they have in St. Louis City now. Local municipal leaders and judges are loath to give up power even if it’s power over a small fiefdom. I wonder if the united police department would come and check on our house while we are on vacation which the Creve Coeur Police Department does.
There is also opposition to the actual process. My very conservative neighbor, an Ann Coulter fan, who has an opposition sign in her yard and a very left -leaning friend, a fan of Noam Chomsky, both oppose this unification plan. Both complain of lack of transparency and lack of input. What bothers me is that the one of the more visible supporters is Rex Sinquefield, a wealthy local businessman who has made out-sized political donations to anti-taxation bills and Republican politicians.
On the other hand, the supporters are an impressive group. The City Mayor and the County Executive vigorously support the plan. They have the backing of businesses and organizations, such as the BJC and Mercy Hospital systems, Emerson Electric and Washington University. They have a catchy name, Better Together. Most importantly, they have the populace’s sense that what we have been doing isn’t working. The official report gives projections of savings of scale in aligning the area’s taxation structure, courts, policing, infrastructure. That certainly makes sense.
Why so much opposition? There is concern that the money saved is going to line the pockets of those who already have clout. A tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor suggested how streamlined bribes would become if there were only one set of government officials instead of the near hundred we now have.
In Frip, Capable decides that “it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.” I venture that most St. Louisans agree with Capable in their heart of hearts.
This is what Better Together needs to do. They need to convince us that we are
better than we really are. They need to buoy us up, get us to buy into the future of the entire area and convince us how we are intertwined with the fates of our neighbors. They need to exercise leadership! Maybe the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team could be a part of that. Have you noticed that in almost every news cast—a fire, a car chase, a festival—when regular people are interviewed, they are wearing a Cardinals cap, or T-shirt or sweatshirt?
It is a good thing that the St. Louis region is starting to address the fragmentation, the disunity, the distrust. I think this proposal is a first offer. And for inspiration, I recommend the example of Capable in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.
Tell me: What fictional character inspires you?