Many metrics help to chart our city's progress and needs. Crime in St. Louis has declined markedly over more than 10 years. Yet, heartbreaking violence persists in pockets of our community. Public schools, traditional and charter, make steady progress toward meeting state standards -- but not nearly fast enough.
Billions of dollars define the investment in our medical, technology and bio science centers, in working to reduce chronic homelessness, in renovating of historic neighborhoods, in sustaining our cultural institutions and in improving our parks, trails, and other places of recreation. This excites our imagination.
But even the most comprehensive data points fail to capture, much less explain, the key to what has kept St. Louis in the game amid so many challenges.
Not long after he was elected mayor of Oakland in 1999, Jerry Brown, the former and current governor of California, gave a brilliant if meandering talk at Washington University in St. Louis. It was a discursive but captivating account of the conditions and strategies he found, after his first thirty years in public life, contributed most to community progress - and, more specifically, to advancing the cause of "justice for all."
He described how, just before Vatican II, he had spent three years at Sacred Heart Novitiate. One of the recurring themes of his instruction there with the Jesuits, he explained, was a prescription against "hankering after novelty."
Brown applied the principle to public projects and political style. He argued in ways subtle and direct how transient enthusiasms (including many he had championed), self-promotion and other forms of empty charisma become civic distractions or worse that delay or work against lasting progress, including progress toward the ideal of justice.
Brown's point was old hat for people in St. Louis. Many here know firsthand how St. Louis' stability, and most sublime social accomplishments, are case studies in low-key but widespread resistance to novelty.
Quiet and persistent good deeds by ordinary people are what characterize and distinguish this community. They are the foundation upon which St. Louis' progress has been built, and its best possibilities depend.
St. Louis knows painful injustice. Its progress has been impeded by emotional, sometimes cynical, detours into vanity, division and novelty. But level-headedness and plain virtue are what define our civic heroes - whether that be Civil Rights Attorney Frankie Freeman's lifelong devotion to equal justice or Stan Musial's personification of brilliant play and good sportsmanship.
Eero Saarinen's simple but soaring stainless-steel sculpture of a catenary arch, after all, is our great civic symbol.
For every two steps backward we have taken over our history, the sure-footed many, mainly working anonymously, have persevered to take three steps forward.
We are entering the season during which we see community gardens bloom, and we witness thousands of our children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, graduate from school.
We do so knowing their progress, and ours, has been a product of the caring cooperation and gentle support by the many.
The kindness of the many is what fills our hearts. They are what keeps us here, or cause us to return to St. Louis to raise our families.
They make us proud to be St. Louisans. They move our city ahead.
(Photo: St. Louis City Marshal's master keys to City Hall)
Tuesday, May 6, is Give STL Day. More than 500 nonprofits working on good causes will raise money with your help.