250 years later, St. Louis still matters
St. Louis may not be the most important city west of the Mississippi River like it was in the days of westward expansion and, later, the 1904 World’s Fair. In fact, the rest of the country probably considers us little more than another midsize city in “flyover country.” Washington University attracts students from all over the world, especially from “important” cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Because of all this geographical diversity, it may sometimes seem like our student body does not have a particularly strong attachment to St. Louis as a whole. But regardless of where we’re from or where we’re going next, one thing is for sure: right now, in the present, we’re all living in St. Louis, and as the city celebrates its 250th birthday, we should take pride in the fact that this city—our city—still matters.
From a historical perspective, St. Louis is perhaps the most important city in the Midwest. Lewis and Clark started their westward journey that re-defined America spatially, politically and culturally right here in St. Louis in 1804. The city later became the jumping-off point for thousands of pioneers heading west throughout the 19th century. We became the main shipping hub for goods traveling back east before improved railroads and the Great Lakes canals shifted more trade toward Chicago. St. Louis’ status as such an important city in the days of westward expansion led to us hosting the 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics (the first Olympics in the western hemisphere). And the 1904 Olympic marathon will go down as perhaps the most insane in the history of the event, with the winner being disqualified for riding in a car for 10 miles, the second-place runner almost dying at the finish line after eating rat poison given to him by his trainers and a prerace favorite from South Africa being chased off the course by wild dogs. Seriously, that all happened.
From an economic standpoint, St. Louis is more important than people on the coasts give us credit for. We’re home to eight Fortune 500 companies, and capital investment firms like Arch Grants and Cultivation Capital are trying their best to make St. Louis the next great city for tech startups. And regardless of your opinion of them from an ethical standpoint, St. Louis is undoubtedly the American hub for the coal and biotech industries. Peabody and Arch Coal, both headquartered in St. Louis, are the two largest coal producers in the United States. Monsanto and Wash. U. pioneered the field of biotechnology and genetic modification, with cutting-edge research still focused on fighting hunger in third-world nations still taking place today at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Regardless of your opinion of these two industries, their impact on the American economy is undeniable.
The medical research that goes on at Barnes-Jewish Hospital is also definitely something to brag about. We’re world leaders in malaria, HIV and cancer research. Doctors from Wash. U. also published the first influential studies on the dangers of smoking in the 1950s.
The city that brought the world Chuck Berry, Nelly, Bob Costas, Tina Turner, T.S. Eliot, Jon Hamm and Ellie Kemper may not be one of the biggest cities west of the Mississippi anymore, but don’t tell us we’re irrelevant. Try telling that to the St. Louis Cardinals, who are baseball’s model organization of consistency, a prominent fixture in the community because of their commitment to charity work and a team that just doesn’t seem to stop winning. Or try telling that to every kid who’s ever experienced the sheer joy of visiting Build-A-Bear Workshop (headquartered in St. Louis). Or try telling that to any college student enjoying an Anheuser-Busch beverage—six of the eight top-selling domestic beers in 2012 were Busch products. Most of us here at Wash. U. may come from different places, and most of us will be going different places once we graduate. But while we’re here, let’s take pride in the impact our city has on the rest of the country.