CHAMPIONS OF REGIONALISM PEIRCE AND JOHNSON HAVE STUDIED METROPOLITAN AREAS ACROSS THE COUNTRY. THEY HOPE THIS REPORT GETS THE ST. LOUIS REGION TALKING ABOUT ITSELF Series: THE PEIRCE REPORT A CALL TO ACTION First of Eight in a Series

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The St. Louis area, like some 250 other places across the country, wasn't virgin territory for Neal Peirce when he began researching for this Peirce Report last fall with his trademark helicopter tour of the region.

Peirce devoted 21 pages to St. Louis and St. Louis County in his encyclopedic "The Great Plains States of America," published in 1973. Just as this 1997 report does, the book describes St. Louis' promise and problems. The chapter on Missouri includes sections titled "St. Louis: The Nightmare Now" and "The New Spirit of St. Louis."

"St. Louis today is in desperate straits," Peirce wrote in the book. "No simple formulas, however, are likely to save St. Louis." Then as now, he fretted over the exodus from the core city and the fragmentation of St. Louis' suburbia into myriad municipalities. A quarter-century later, Peirce marveled at the similarities. "Look it up in the book, and you'll find many issues we had to treat in this report -- in fact, a spooky number," he said. This time around, Peirce returned with his writing partner, Curtis Johnson. The metropolitan region that Peirce and Johnson call the St. Louis "citistate" is the 14th on which they have completed a report. Again, the intent isn't to offer simple solutions. The authors make suggestions, but Johnson said they will gauge their success by the amount of introspection their articles generate. Consider them traveling urban seers, shrinks for a stressed civic psyche. "We throw the community on the couch, listen to people and try to initiate something therapeutic," Johnson said. "We're not trying to be as prescriptive as stimulating. We're not consultants. We don't come in and say, `Listen, here's the plan.' We're saying, `This is the situation. Now get together and make your own plan.' "If we succeed, there will be a lot of discussion and debate about what kind of future this region can have and who has to do what to achieve that future." Peirce's previous visits aside, what qualifies these two men -- essentially rank outsiders -- to come here and tell us where things stand in our town? Time magazine once described Peirce, 65, as a "journalist who got his career backwards." Many political reporters start out covering local news and state government, eventually graduating to the Washington bureau. Peirce did the reverse. Peirce, raised in Philadelphia and Brookline, Mass., was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University before heading for Washington. But after nine years as political editor of Congressional Quarterly, Peirce felt an increasing urge to break out from the Beltway. While covering congressional campaigns from Washington, he cultivated a list of sources across the nation. He also had side jobs compiling briefing books for TV networks to use on election night. The books contained background information, including the history of each state and pen sketches of major players. Peirce became interested in putting together a more thorough survey of the country's people and politics. So he approached John Gunther, whose "Inside USA" was the last such effort in 1948. Gunther, by then quite elderly, told Peirce: "I'll never do it again, but you have my blessing." With that dispensation, Peirce began a life of ceaseless wandering that has taken him to all 50 states and virtually every city of consequence therein. Nine books on the country's regions resulted. All were condensed into "The Book of America: Inside 50 States Today." "What I thought would take two or three years ended up taking 15," Peirce said. …