ST. LOUIS — LIKE many urban leaders, St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. (D) is fighting against a declining population and crumbling infrastructure with few resources and little power.
``Virtually all US mayors are in the position of being able to promise a lot but deliver little,'' says Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University. ``A lot of mayors throughout the United States are going to be looked at as failures not because they are poor managers but because no mayor can carry out miracles.''
Mr. Bosley, who completes his first year in office today, has handled the challenge by becoming a strong ``rhetorical mayor,'' Professor Warren says.
Bosley is a charismatic speaker who can rally a crowd. As the city's first African-American mayor, he has focused the Gateway City's attention on several racially sensitive issues.
``Just as it takes both black and white keys on a piano to play the Star Spangled Banner,'' he says, ``it takes blacks and whites and people of all ethnic origins working together to have a city moving forward.''
St. Louis has the nation's largest city-to-suburbs school busing program in the nation. But early in his administration, Bosley questioned whether this plan - viewed as a success by outsiders - is truly serving the city's best interests.
``I have to use my office as a bully pulpit to try to press people into action, to challenge them, and to form public opinion,'' he says.
Rather than spending $75 million a year to bus 14,000 St. Louis students to suburban schools, the mayor proposes using that money to improve the city's own schools. ``I can get on the stump and give good speeches about St. Louis, about the community, and about city life, but if people don't believe that their children can get a good education in the city then there's no real incentive for them to live here,'' the mayor says.
As a result of Bosley's public questioning of the city's voluntary desegregation program, ``the issue has come from the back burner all the way to the front,'' he says. ``It's on the front burner now and the heat is up.''
The city's previous mayor, Vincent Schoemehl, focused on downtown development. But Bosley has shifted priorities toward rebuilding residential neighborhoods. ``The city's infrastructure is falling apart,'' he says. ``Repairs to roads, streets, and bridges have been basically nonexistent. Street lights haven't been replaced. Parks are in disrepair. The basic attention to day-to-day needs of residents just were not addressed under the prior administration.''
Bosley was raised on the predominantly black north side of St. Louis and now lives just two doors down from the house where he grew up. He says those roots have helped him confront the city's gang problem. ``This community wanted to deny that we had a problem with young people,'' he says. ``We can no longer afford to have this ostrich, head-in-the-sand mentality about problems with our youth.''
Last year, St. Louis was among 15 cities that exceeded their previous murder records. ``To deny that we have a problem with young people is to further perpetuate the murder rate in our communities,'' Bosley says.
Several months into his administration, he met with gang members. Despite criticism by some who viewed his meeting as legitimizing criminals, Bosley says he plans to continue meeting with gangs. When the young gangsters talk about the need for jobs, Bosley challenges them: ``I've got jobs, and I'm committed to finding you jobs. But you've got to get a high school education. What if I wanted to take you back to my office with me right now? You couldn't go. Look at the way you're dressed, the way you act.''
Despite passing a sales-tax hike soon after his election, Bosley faces a shrinking tax base. The recent failure of a statewide vote on riverboat gambling means the city can't count on that revenue in the near future either.
Bosley is working to convince the governor to put the gambling amendment back on the ballot in August. Meanwhile, he has convinced corporate sponsors to offer 500 paying jobs to city students this summer. City corporations are also bankrolling a Midnight Basketball League to help keep young people off the streets and out of trouble.
``When I talk to young people and ask why do we have so much violence. Why the drive-bys? Why the gangbanging? They say: `We just don't have anything to do.' I've had young people tell me that violence is just another form of recreation,'' the mayor says.
To help address that, Bosley has established eight community schools with recreation centers open until 10 p.m. More than 35,000 young people have enrolled at the centers.
As he begins his second year in office, Bosley is pushing for more local control. He's campaigning in the state legislature to allow St. Louis to write its own, tighter gun laws, and he wants the power to run his own police department.
In a system that dates back to the Civil War, the St. Louis Police Department is controlled by the state legislature. A governor-appointed Board of Police Commissioners oversees the department and picks the police chief. The mayor also sits on the board.
But, he says, ``I have very little control over what type of policy develops there. Everybody wants to hold the mayor responsible for crime. I'm willing to be responsible but let me control it. What they're doing now is tantamount to sending a soldier into battle without a sword.''