The city of St. Louis presents the challenge of the present moment in the history of the United States in extremis. By virtually any standard measure the city is a byword for urban decay. Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the population of the city declined by almost two-thirds; the city today is smaller than it has been at any time since 1870. St. Louis is one of the ten most segregated cities in the United States, and has the highest rate of police shootings (of both armed and unarmed targets) in the United States.
And yet the city of St. Louis also presents a long history of Black genius, resistance, and flourishing. It is the city where W. C. Handy first heard the syncopated rag-time music that took root in the blues. It is the city of Maya Angelou, Miles Davis, and Chuck Berry. Of Ike and Tina Turner. Of Nelly and Chingy. It is also a city that has produced a trenchant critique of the racial aspects of American inequality. The Pan-Africanist radicals Claudine Jones and C. L. R. James both traveled to the city in the 1940s to learn from the example of its Black radicals. From Hershel Walker in the 1930s and 1940s to Ivory Perry and Percy Green in the 1950s and 1960s down to the Organization for Black Struggle and Hands Up United today, the city has produced a singular and enduring critique of racial segregation and inequality.
Why Harvard? Why St. Louis?
The two-year residence of the St. Louis artist and activist Tef Poe at the Charles Warren Center during 2016-2017 and at the Hutchins Center during 2017-2018 provided a unique opportunity for a sustained interchange of eyewitness knowledge and academic knowledge about the city of St. Louis. Out of that interchange emerged the idea of the Commonwealth Project. At the most general level, the Project seeks to provide a model of a new way for universities to engage with social problems and frontline actors by fostering genuine partnerships and supporting community-led initiatives. The intellectual and social mission of the Commonwealth Project is to be thoroughly mutual: to bring frontline knowledge into the university and university know-how into the community.
In St. Louis, the Commonwealth Project aims to respond to the combination of economic devastation and human wealth in the city of St. Louis by purchasing several buildings and surrounding lots and transforming them into a hub of artistic expression, community development, and social empowerment. The project combines an interested group of academics with cultural producers, community activists and local politicians to build upon and amplify existing initiatives in the city as well as provide a central locus for the arts and cultural interchange