About two years ago, Jake Hollander left a promising public relations career in D.C. to come home and found St. Louis Strong. The organization is working to bring all corners of the city and county together to move toward reunification.
However, unlike Better Together or other groups working on similar ventures, Hollander and his organization don’t appear to have an ulterior motive. In addition, they are including everyone in the city rather than just the major players, and don’t endorse any one plan.
Instead, the organization is hosting a series of community discussions that Hollander says he hopes will be the first step in drafting a plan for reunification that is truly from the people of the city and county – a plan that he hopes will come to a vote at an upcoming election.
Two of the three community discussions in St. Louis Strong’s first round of meetings have passed – they were held at the Ferguson Municipal Library and at the St. Louis County Library Indian Trails Branch. The final community meeting will be held on October 6th at the County Library’s Mid-County Branch.
Why does he do this?
Because he believes in St. Louis.
Hollander is a native St. Louisan, but growing up he never thought he would stay – or come back to town. Then “Ferguson” happened.
At his D.C. public relations job, Hollander found himself standing in a rapid response room surrounded by monitors broadcasting images of “my home town imploding under the weight of it’s ugly history,” he said.
“After Ferguson, I knew our region could no longer afford to sweep its broken system under the rug,” Hollander told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I had a restless desire to become a part the solution.”
“So, I dug up my old pitch idea, turned it into a business plan, and said ‘I don’t have a kid, a dog, a mortgage, I can live with my parents if I need to, so I’m going to take this crazy leap of faith and come back home and start this organization to fight fragmentation.’”
At a recent event Hollander began to list all of the fragmentation he sees. “We have 684 elected officials in the city and county (which is more than the United States Congress), we have 573 taxing districts, 57 police departments, 81 courts, I’ll stop because it’s really tedious to list all of them,” he said.
He also cited municipalities he’s dubbed “too small to succeed” as a further problem for St. Louis Strong to combat.
“Forty-three municipalities sit on one square mile of land or less. That means that these tiny towns—no matter how strong or weak their leadership—cannot sustain themselves due to the small size of their tax and consumer bases.” Hollander writes in a blog post.
It seems like a lot of issues to take on, but Hollander says his biggest roadblock is generational attitudes.
“The way people view each other in St. Louis gets passed down. ‘I don’t want to go to the City because it’s dangerous’ so people end up staying in the county and never see that Washington Ave on a Friday afternoon is full of people and it’s hard to get lunch because the lines are so long,” said Hollander. “All these euphemisms get thrown around and passed down through the generations – we keep piling abstraction, upon abstraction, upon people – never really getting to know who those people are.”
That’s why he’s making an effort to hold his roundtables and events in very different parts of the city. Overall, he’s hopeful that if city and county residents keep engaging and keep talking to each other from where they are right now, St. Louis Strong will continue to build momentum and succeed in “lifting the gateway higher.”