Imagine for a moment that it’s the turn of the Twentieth Century. Industry is booming. Saint Joseph contends with St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago for the title of “Gateway to the West.” It is winning, but if the city wants to stay on top, it would have had to do something incredible. So, they hired renowned architect, George Burnap to develop a new parkway system to be the envy of the world. This man had designed congressionally-approved parkway systems for Washington D.C.–just imagine what he could do with the beautiful hills and access to the Missouri River that St. Joe had to offer. He produced such a fine piece of art for this city that people from across the country came to witness his masterpiece. With a population of over 100,000 people, plenty of railroads, the river, stunning architecture, an award-winning parkway system, booming businesses, vibrant concert scenes and culture abounding, there was truly very little that could have stopped St. Joseph from becoming the shining star in the Midwest. But that didn’t happen.
I’ll be honest, I’m an outsider looking in. I was born and raised in Las Vegas and have lived elsewhere. I’ve lived here a little over a year and have attended university here for four. During that time, I have come to know and love this town. It wasn’t the North Belt that fostered my affection, and it certainly wasn’t river access and the 229 freeway. It was downtown. The people who patron, work, develop, and live there create an atmosphere that is both grand and familiar. I haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t want to see St. Joseph become a better place to live. When asking people how, I hear them say often that to revitalize downtown we should focus on St. Joseph’s history–to bring it back to the glory it held before The Great Depression. I wholeheartedly love that idea. But we need to be truthful. It’s not all good history.
In fact, some of it is near-unmentionable, but as Mr. Rogers said, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” So, I am going to mention it. Not everything will be bad; I’ll talk about the undaunted courage of the Pony Express riders, the claims of Abraham Lincoln speaking from local balconies and more. It is with these stories in mind that I want to put on my fuddy-duddy clothes and meander downtown where there is live music, great stores, fantastic food and a vibrant, thriving culture envied by all. There are a great number of businesses downtown and people at City Hall working very hard to see that this happens. They are fighting for your business and your support and they deserve it. I believe this city that I love is about to reach its fullest potential. But we must be patient.
However, if we really are going to put our hearts and souls into making this a wonderful place, we need to remember the good, the bad, and the ugly. We need to remember why St. Joe was so close and yet so far from becoming the Gateway to the West. We need to remember the opportunities that were taken and the mistakes that were made and what they mean for the future of this city. It is with this animus that I will attempt to bring to you news, commentary, history, and an outsider’s take on what I believe can be done by all to make our home a better place for everyone.
By Evan Banks