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May 8th, 2008
‘Mapping Decline’ Maps Out Urban Decay and Depopulation of Saint Louis

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PR — Sixty years ago St. Louis was a thriving city with a population of
almost a million. These days fewer than 300,000 people call The Gateway
City home. With decrepit Victorian homes and boarded-up
factories in abundance, some would say it’s a pathetic picture of decay
and abandonment. Even the post office moved to the ‘burbs. So what
happened?
Colin Gordon, a history professor in the University of Iowa College
of Liberal Arts and Sciences, addresses that question in his new book,
"Mapping Decline," published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
He argues that discriminatory housing policies, a collapse of the
city’s tax base, and shortsighted urban renewal policies are behind the
decline.

"Other cities found ways to reinvent themselves
throughout the years, but St. Louis remains a very old-fashioned,
river-bound industrial city," Gordon said. "When those industries
started to decline early in the 20th century, St. Louis ran into
trouble. Chicago transitioned from the meat-packing capital to a major
trade and finance center. But imagine Chicago without the developed
downtown — if all it had was the old packing plants. And that’s St.
Louis."

The city’s problems date back to the early 20th century
when restrictive deed covenants — which prohibited homeowners from
selling, leasing, renting or allowing property to be occupied by
"negroes" — came into play, Gordon said.

During World War II,
thousands of African Americans moved to the city for industrial jobs.
But with the deed restrictions in place, they were forced to live in a
small north-side neighborhood not covered by the restrictions, creating
tremendous stress on that area’s housing stock. The covenants were used
systematically until 1948, when the Supreme Court declared them illegal.

As
the strained city neighborhoods went downhill, whites fled to suburbs.
During the "white flight" — which began in the 1950s and picked up
steam in the ’60s and ’70s — each suburb developed its own zoning
code, typically providing for only single-family houses on large lots
and prohibiting industrial, commercial, multifamily housing or
small-lot development.

"Those codes guaranteed that people who
lived in the suburbs were of a certain income. They barred poor and
working-class people in the central city from ever moving to the
suburbs. So the city got a larger share of the area’s poor, while the
county got all the wealth," Gordon said. "The demands on the city in
terms of fighting crime, maintaining infrastructure and schools and
providing public housing steadily increased, but its ability to earn
money through property taxes collapsed."

Each suburb existed as
its own little fiefdom, setting its own taxes and running its own
schools, Gordon said. Since St. Louis is an independent city in its own
county, there’s no regional government or other system for sharing tax
revenues across the metro area to even things out.

"So cheek by
jowl, you see dismally poor schools where 95 percent of kids get free
lunches and ridiculously wealthy schools building football stadiums pro
teams could play in," he said.

All the while, St. Louis
attempted to reinvent itself. As neighborhoods disintegrated they were
cleared in the name of "urban renewal." This not only displaced many
residents, but also took enormous chunks of land off the tax rolls for
30 or more years at a time, further eroding the city’s income.

People
residing in tenement housing were pushed ahead of the bulldozer into
other areas of the city, shifting the strain to different
neighborhoods. That sparked a period of "black flight" in the 1970s
(continuing to the present day) as African Americans moved to the inner
suburbs.

"African Americans leave the city for the very same
reasons whites did — because it has become an awful place to live —
and because there are virtually no housing options within the city,"
Gordon said.

St. Louis’ urban renewal projects included two
baseball stadiums, hotels, a convention center, the Jefferson Memorial
and casinos. But with old rail beds scarring the city, a dismal view of
the struggling East St. Louis across the river and most of the
riverfront remaining unsightly industrial land, St. Louis never got
over the hump to stand out against other cities. And, unfortunately,
the efforts didn’t generate long-term stability or decent jobs, Gordon
said.

"The city puts too much energy into trying to make itself
attractive to visitors and not enough attention on making it attractive
to people who would want to live there and sustain it in the long
term," Gordon said. "In the process, it spends a lot of public money on
these projects and displaces a lot of people, while the redeveloped
property is taken off the tax rolls for decades to come."

Gordon
decided to investigate St. Louis’ decline after traveling to one of its
suburbs for a conference and being shocked by the city’s condition. He
was also drawn to the city because several landmark Supreme Court
decisions on racial discrimination in housing originated there and
because a rich collection of the area’s urban planning records exist at
Washington University.

His research for the book involved
poring through those files, along with legal documents and census data.
Using geographic information system (GIS) technology, he developed
layered maps to illustrate movement of the city’s demographic groups
and which areas were cut from city’s the tax rolls for redevelopment. A
selection of the book’s maps is available at http://myweb.uiowa.edu/cgordon/AHA%20slides.pdf.

"In
St. Louis, it wasn’t a matter of individual people and families making
choices — ‘Well, I want to live in a bigger house so I think I’ll move
here,’" Gordon said. "The ability to move was sharply constrained by
public policy. If there had been no racial restrictions dictating who
could live where, the movement of people from the city to the suburbs
would have been very different. The city’s downward spiral may have
never happened."

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