Built St. Louis > > The North Side > > The Decline of the City

"This Building Will Be Demolished With Public Safety Bond Issue Funds. Demolition is Scheduled 4th Quarter of 2000." Photograph from August 2001.

North St. Louis is not alone in falling into widespread ruin since the 1960s; numerous cities have and still do face similar problems: Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and many others. The circumstances that led to their decline are often shared. In St. Louis's case, the factors include:

  • Unemployment. After World War II, a huge influx of rural blacks migrated to St. Louis from the South, seeking the jobs that had always been available in the city. But industry in the city began to dry up at the same time, as companies closed down, moved to other cities, or abandoned the inner city for cheaper land and newer facilities at the outer edges of the metro area. The same discriminatory housing practices that channeled black residents into north city also prevented many blacks from following jobs to the suburbs.
  • Middle class flight. Middle class residents began moving to the suburbs en masse in the 1950s, lured by the prospect of larger, newer homes, cleaner neighborhoods, and an easy commute along the city's new highway system. As the middle class fled the city, their tax dollars went with them. Though characterized as "white flight", many middle class blacks eventually joined the exodus. Furthermore, once people began moving out, it created a perception that neighborhoods were in decline; in time, the perception became the reality. Neighborhoods emptied out and entire communities vanished. This appears to have been the sole factor behind the abrupt and utter destruction of Gaslight Square in the early 1970s.
  • Racism. In the 1950s, once a single black family moved onto a white block, it was pretty much all over. Whites would sell out in droves on the perception that the neighborhood was "in decline", no matter what kind of people their new neighbors happened to be. The actual decline would not set in until later, fueled by the higher loan rates and rents charged to blacks, which often made it difficult to maintain or improve properties.
  • Population loss. The city of St. Louis proper has been constrained within the same political boundaries since 1876; the city was completely built out by the 1950s and could not expand, as smaller cities had incorporated around it. Unable to annex the newer, growing communities surrounding it, St. Louis went from over 850,000 residents in 1960 to just over 300,000 in 1990. There simply aren't enough people in the city right now to take care of it all. (Note that the overall metro area has grown at a slow but steady pace, with about 2.5 million residents today; however, land use has increased exponentially in recent decades, far out of proportion to the population.)
  • Age. Excepting a few scattered infill sites and new projects that have risen since the 1990s, most houses on the north side date from the 1920s or earlier. By 1960, even the newest homes were showing their age. Many had no indoor plumbing or other basic necessities. Policies of the day dictated demolition of such properties (somehow it never occurred to anyone that if the problem was a lack of plumbing, perhaps the solution was to install plumbing.)
  • Highway and housing construction. Old North St. Louis lost a huge swath of land to Interstate 70 in the 1960s. This physically severed it from the riverside industries that had been its employment base, and forcibly relocated a part of the community. Public housing projects, wherein entire blocks were razed and replaced with multi-story slab towers, caused similar destruction of communities.
  • Redlining. For several decades, banks across the nation would "red line" urban neighborhoods that were percieved to be in decline. This made it virtually impossible for residents to obtain home improvement loans; the reasoning held that the house's falling value made it a risky investment, with the collateral likely to not be enough to cover the loan. Home owners were therefore denied the basic tools they needed to keep their neighborhoods from decaying -- precisely because their neighborhoods were seen as decaying. Perception was made into reality by policy.
  • Urban ills. Crime and violence are a major factor in driving away more upstanding citizens. With a shrunken tax base and social deterioration, St. Louis public schools have had a difficult time meeting standards. Drug use and gang violence have also plagued various neighborhoods, not just on the north side but across the city.
  • Changing values. The idea of historic preservation was just beginning to gather momentum in the 1960s, and then it focused primarily on saving major monuments such as New York's Penn Station (a failed effort) and St. Louis's own Old Post Office. The concept of an entire neighborhood having an overall historic value came still later. Today, many north St. Louis neighborhoods are registered National Historic Districts.
  • Perceptions. Many St. Louis area residents don't want anything to do with the city. When downtown is seen as a dangerous place (even though it absolutely is not), what hope is there for neighborhoods full of abandoned houses? Fighting this attitude has been an ongoing struggle for city residents as far back as the 1970s, when the first renovations were going on in the now-prosperous Central West End, Lafayette Square, and Soulard neighborhoods.

    So what's to be done about it? That's a question that's plagued planners, architects, community leaders and elected officials for many years. In St. Louis, some of the most successful neighborhoods have been those that largely pulled themselves up by the bootstraps -- Soulard, Lafayette Square, the Hill. Others got a boost from major institutions in the area, such as Midtown and the Central West End.

    But most north St. Louis neighborhoods don't have major institutions. Their major physical asset is the architecture of their houses, churches, and schools, along with their comparative density and proximity to downtown. Their prospects are not likely to improve until more obvious areas such as downtown have been filled to their potential, encouraging people to move into outlying areas of the city. There must be a strong enough tax base that public schools can be viable; without this, working class people with children will never move back into the city.

    Probably the most important factor will be perceptions. Neighborhoods grow when they're percieved to be good places to live. Until positive word spreads about these neighborhoods, the best they're likely to do is hold steady. It can happen... but it will take lots of time and lots of work.

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