On March 22, 2018, the Honorable Julian Castro, former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama Administration, spent the day in St. Louis, a guest of Incarnate Word Foundation. Castro participated in “RECON: Toward a New Public Discourse,” a series of events to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Foundation’s presence in St. Louis.
A group of civic leaders, including members of the Board of Aldermen, representatives of Missouri Congressional leaders, and educators, met for lunch, hosted by Fontbonne University. After lunch, Mike Eggleston, Federal Reserve Bank employee and member of the Foundation Board, fielded questions for the Secretary.
Participants repeatedly expressed concern over the housing situation of St. Louis, centering on strategies aimed at prevention of displacement of the poor as housing development occurs. Castro’s response stressed the need to plan development through “an equity lens,” convinced that no neighborhoods where people live should be relegated to second-class status.
Later that evening, Castro addressed a crowd of about 200 as part of the Fox-Clark Policy Institute at Washington University. His opening comments shared his explanation to his youngest child that he was traveling to deliver a speech in St. Louis. He showed her a lovely picture of the St. Louis skyline, highlighted by the Gateway Arch reflected in the Mississippi River. Father and daughter praised the beauty of the city, and the Secretary contrasted the response with his boyhood disappointment in the rather mundane look of the San Antonio skyline.
Castro reflected how he came to truly appreciate San Antonio, his home town, only as an adult after a visit to Jerusalem. On that fateful trip, he discovered the beauty of “Jerusalem Stone,” the stunning ancient material from which the city is built and which serves as a symbol to distinguish it from all other cities in the world. Natives point it out with tremendous pride.
The Secretary then posed a challenging question to his audience:
“In reflecting on the City of St. Louis, what is your ‘Jerusalem Stone’?”
“What is it that we would work very hard to protect and make sure can be passed down for generations? We can ask the same question for the United States. What is our ‘Jerusalem Stone’?” Castro suggested that for the USA, it might be constantly forging “a more perfect union”—a task that in recent times is becoming more and more difficult.
“For the most part, we live in silos,” Castro observed. “They keep us from knowing one another and from working together on meaningful progress.” The remainder of his presentation outlined some concrete approaches to address challenging issues in St. Louis and perhaps rediscovering our “Jerusalem Stone”.
We need to break out of the silos. This requires “connecting the dots,”–bringing private, public, governmental, and not-for-profit entities together to create comprehensive solutions to our shared problems of racism, crime, deteriorating infrastructures, poor education, etc. Castro praised those initiatives currently in place to do just that, including RECON. “We need unselfishness, creativity, and a willingness to struggle against those artificial barriers that keep us apart.”
To succeed as a city, we need to imagine, dream, and ACT together. As an example of this, Secretary Castro explained his involvement in a San Antonio program entitled Target 90 and later United San Antonio. This was a comprehensive community planning effort created to implement strategies for meeting San Antonio’s economic, cultural and social goals. This city-wide effort was designed to bring together diverse civic constituencies to carry out shared and self-identified goals.
Target 90 took a grass roots approach, calling together people from all sectors of life and posing a question: “What kind of city do we want to be?” The process was comprehensive, and the results were measurable. When the recommendations came in, a small tax increase was posed to address identified issues. “It was the first time San Antonio had asked taxpayers to invest in people rather than in things.” Tremendous results followed. San Antonio is now a growing, multi-ethnic metropolitan area of over 1.3 million people. Education and infrastructure are keeping pace with growth.
For St. Louis, Secretary Castro proposed bringing the Mayor, the County Executive, the head of the School Board, the Security Director, etc. into a room that could serve as “Neutral Ground,” where they could truly generate positive solutions to the area problems. He lamented that we have witnessed generations of “talking at” each other rather than collaborating.
Thinking regionally is another aid in recognizing the area’s potential. Poverty and homelessness are not limited to urban areas as some surmise. We need to find where the population wants housing development to occur. Such an approach can alleviate the backlash on the part of some neighbors rejecting “bad elements” who might move in.
Secretary Castro ended on an optimistic note. “A city needs to ask the people what they want.” When they do, “The people will tell them.”