In his acceptance speech after winning St. Paul’s mayoral race, Melvin Carter said that in St. Paul, “the only constant is change” and spoke eagerly of an ever-transforming city. Not to pick on Mayor-elect Carter, but this seems like a fairly significant overstatement. Let’s list just a few things that have stayed the same in St. Paul for generations:
- Starting with the obvious, the name of the city, its geographic environs and the fact that the Mississippi River runs through it has been the same for well over 100 years
- St. Paul has been Minnesota’s capital since it became a state in 1858, and the current Capitol building has stood since 1905
- Central Presbyterian Church has been a place of worship since 1888; the Cathedral of St. Paul’s first liturgy was held in 1915
- The Landmark Center opened in 1902 and been home to Twin Cities’ art groups for 40 years; the Ordway has hosted musicals and opera for over 30 years
- The St. Paul Hotel has been serving guests in the same building since 1910; Mickey’s Diner has been slinging burgers, fries and the best malts since 1939
- The James J. Hill house has stood on Summit Hill since 1905 and been a public museum since 1978
- Built in 1930, the St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse still serve the needs of justice and city administration
- The population has been quite stable over the past 80 years, hovering around 300,000 residents
Of course, much has changed as well. St. Paul has gone from overwhelmingly Caucasian (95% in 1970) to having a very diverse population (as of 2010, St. Paul is 60% Caucasian, 15% Asian, 15% African American and 10% Hispanic). It’s added a hockey team, opened and closed different restaurants, built a baseball stadium and attracted new corporate headquarters (while losing others). Clearly, like all cities, things change in St. Paul all the time.
That’s the challenge of being in politics. A leader is faced with a complex community full of people, businesses, churches, non-profits, volunteer organizations, block associations and many other groups and interests. While aspects of communities change over time, much stays the same. A good leader will seek to fully understand the people that he or she governs, appreciate the good in them and their institutions, and seek to retain and build on that good as new situations arise. That has the important benefit of allowing people to maintain the arrangements on which they have built their lives and prevents the destruction of important places and institutions.
Edmund Burke said it best in Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he wrote: “A good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.” A leader who says “the only constant is change” could easily miss this key point, and leave behind the good that people and communities have built over time.
The irony is that Mayor-elect Carter knows all of this. He is a longtime Minnesotan whose family’s roots trace to an area of St. Paul known as the Rondo Neighborhood. Rondo boomed in the 1910’s and 20’s, housing 85% of St. Paul’s African-Americans by the 1950’s. Unfortunately, it was substantially destroyed by the construction of U.S. Interstate 94 in 1956. As the Minnesota Historical Society states “the construction of I-94 shattered this tight-knit community, displaced thousands of African Americans into a racially segregated city and a discriminatory housing market, and erased a now-legendary neighborhood.” Mayor-elect Carter, who calls himself a “son of Rondo” remembers well that his own grandfather lost several properties when Rondo was cut through.
So, what’s the disconnect? First, “change” is a handy talking point for politicians, especially for an outsider seeking to gain election for the first time. Also, people confuse the world of business and politics. In business, change is constant and beneficial to society. Only one of the original members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average is still part of the index. Business change reflects the massive disruptions caused by technology, international trade and consumer tastes. These forces cause companies to rise and fall, and those that remain are constantly remaking themselves.
But life in a community is not the same as a business. Unlike a business, geography, topography, history, weather, natural resources and important landmarks create an environment within which an organic and settled place emerges. Of course, change should and does occur in a community. But, the wise politician takes the best of their city and builds on its strengths to help shape a better future for his or her citizens.