Salvaging St. Louis, Part I: the macro influences that keep it afloat, if not flourishing.

In the most decentralized of American cities, much of the urban fabric that prospered until at least the Great Depression (if not later) suffered such devastation in the second half of the twentieth century that one could claim it was wiped off the face of the earth. Huge swathes of what were once densely settled neighborhoods are all but gone, having lost more than half of their population since 1950.  When one ponders the type of city that has suffered this fate, chances are it sits in either the industrialized Northeast or Midwest: places like Cleveland, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and even Chicago.  In Detroit, the condition of nearly complete depopulation may afflict as much as half of the land within the historic city limits.

Another Midwestern city that has endured almost as profound of a loss as the Motor City—but mercifully manages to escape the damning headlines most of the time—is St. Louis.  At its population peak in 1950, it had 850,000 people.  As of 2010, that number had plunged to 320,000—an over 62% drop in population, and, amazingly even a bit greater than Detroit’s 61% loss over that same time frame.  In stark contrast with Detroit, where the depopulation stretches in all directions from the city center, in St. Louis the majority of population loss has exclusively afflicted the north side of the city.  Many of the neighborhoods south of I-44 are as intact and manicured as they were in 1950, like the serene Italian-American neighborhood on the near southwest side of town known as The Hill:intact lower-middle and working-class housing in The Hill, St. Louisintact lower-middle and working-class housing in The Hill, St. Louis

Conversely, a disproportionate number of neighborhoods north of I-64 are pockmarked with scrappy lots and widespread evidence of long-term abandonment.housing blight in north St. Louis

The map below, from the city’s Land Reutilization Authority, pinpoints properties owned by the city due to unpaid taxes.

Obviously, a preponderance of these properties rest in the northern half of the city.  And yet, by many other metrics, greater St. Louis has stemmed its economic misfortunes, reflected in part through a modest but stable population growth of 4.2% across the metro area from 2000 to 2010.  Thankfully, the bleak era from 1960 to 1980 has long since passed, when the city limits plunged over 15% between each decennial census—a true nadir for St. Louis.  Nonetheless, the City of St. Louis continues to shrink: during the same ten years that the metro grew, the city lost another 8.3% of its population—smaller than any previous decade since 1950, but still enough that city leadership can hardly dismiss it as statistically insignificant.  A fairly recent article by Wendell Cox in New Geography explored this dichotomy, noting in particular that greater St. Louis appears reasonably stable, despite a core city that has consistently withered now for over 60 years, due at least in part to its low domestic out-migration rate of only 35,000 people.  Cox compares this rate to that of San Diego, a metro of comparable size to St. Louis but with domestic out-migration of 127,000.  Even if St. Louis cannot attract newcomers to its historic city limits, the festering urban problems are not repelling people from the suburbs, nor is it prompting too many long-term residents to emigrate.

Detroit, by comparison, could only be so lucky.  Within the city limits, it lost 24.9% of its population over just the last decade (2000 to 2010), making St. Louis’ loss of 8.3% seem meager.  It’s difficult to assess greater Detroit’s population change, because the varying definitions involve different combinations of counties, and greater Detroit features strong economic links to other prominent cities nearby, while metro St. Louis sits in relative isolation.  The conventional Detroit MSA involves six primary counties, which, if assessed for population change over multiple decades, also demonstrate an abysmal performance: from a 1970 peak of 4.5 million, the entire metro has declined in population in every ensuing decade except for a moderate gain during the 1990 to 2000 period.  (Current estimates place the metro below 4.3 million.)  Between the last two censuses, the Detroit MSA lost 3.3% of its population—a fairly uncommon phenomenon, as indicated by this Brookings Institution study, which reveals that most US metros maintain positive growth trends, even when the core city is shrinking (as is the case for St. Louis).  Metro Detroit’s numbers seem a little less depressing if the Combined MSA serves as the primary measuring tool.  The CMSA involves an agglomeration of counties that includes the previous six, along with three additional outer-belt counties that also house their own core cities to independent metros: Ann Arbor, Flint, and Monroe.  Nonetheless, the Detroit-Warren-Ann Arbor CSA also reported population loss over the last two censuses—only not as severe, at only 2.5%.  Whatever gains the prosperous Ann Arbor metro enjoyed, they have not been sufficient to offset the serious losses absorbed not just in the city limits of Detroit but in many of its inner-ring suburbs.

In short, both of the Midwestern cities of St. Louis and Detroit have suffered incredible population losses over the last sixty years.  But only Detroit’s struggles have also permeated the entire metro; by and large, metro St. Louis has persevered despite the City of St. Louis’ vicissitudes.  The real heart of this blog article is forthcoming, and in the second half I will focus much more pictorially on St. Louis’ efforts to stem its loss through some of the most proactive affordable housing construction in the country.  But before delving into that subject, the macro-level influences that have shaped St. Louis current condition are worthy of consideration, particularly in relation to how the city has escaped the profound economic malaise of Detroit.  Here are the two factors that I think are most critical at keeping the spirit of St. Louis alive and kicking:

1)    St. Louis has benefited from a more mature growth trajectory. Until Chicago exploded in population due to the proliferation of railroads, St. Louis was the largest city in the Midwest, surpassing Cincinnati during the Civil War.  It edged out Chicago in population in the 1870 census, but by 1880, Chicago had 150,000 more people (even despite the devastating 1871 fire).  Detroit was barely a dot on the map at this time, and it didn’t make the top 10 largest cities until 1910, when the automobile industry had finally emerged as a key contributor to the American industrial economy.  Detroit more than doubled in the next decade, and throughout the Depression Era, it was the fourth largest city, and twice as large as St. Louis.  Seventy years later, the population ratio for Detroit and St. Louis remains around 2:1, but, of course, both cities have plunged approximately the same amount.  Only Detroit, however, owes most of its population growth to the explosion of a single industry; with that industry’s subsequent domestic decline, the employment base could no longer justify so much population nearby.  St. Louis’ more conservative growth pattern—in addition to a head start in urbanization—has helped keep its raison d’etre from ever suffering the same automatic association with a single industry as in Detroit.  Still, despite its broadly different growth pattern, the city limits of St. Louis lost population at the same rate as Detroit’s.  Why?

2)    The housing stock in St. Louis fell out of favor more dramatically than elsewhere in the Midwest. Any outsider who visits St. Louis today is likely to find the inordinately high percentage of brick houses a bit disarming, at least in comparison to other Midwest cities.  The legacy of brick construction evokes Mid-Atlantic cities such as Baltimore or Philadelphia, which, to a certain extent, makes sense: some of St. Louis’ strongest population gains parallel those of its East Coast counterparts, which also enjoyed steady growth through mid-19th century industrialization.  And St. Louis shares with those aforementioned cities a housing typology that is otherwise rare in the Midwest:

overwhelmingly brick housing in St. Louis

overwhelmingly brick housing in St. Louis

That’s right—St. Louis has rowhouses.  While not all housing in St. Louis is attached (and the duplex is far more common in St. Louis than the Philadelphia/Baltimore rowhouse), the city has far more attached housing than, say, Chicago or Detroit.  However close in proximity the homes in Detroit are to one another, they are almost always detached.  With the emergence of the Levittown suburb by 1950, the attached house fell almost intractably out of favor.  Families abandoned the rowhouse typology in droves in Philadelphia and Baltimore; no doubt the same pursuit of detached housing and small side yards prompted families in St. Louis as well.  In addition, the brick construction, typically perceived as a desirable characteristic for its survivability, also seriously hindered families from making alterations or additions to their homes.  The wood houses of other Midwestern cities proved far less constraining.  Thus, in St. Louis at least, much of the flight from the city had less to do with a struggling industry and more just about a housing typology that was on the wane.  In Detroit, people fled the detached wooden houses as well, not because they were passé but because the entire composition of employment was moving along with them.

These external forces collapse several decades of nuanced socioeconomic considerations into some sweeping generalizations.  Obviously both St. Louis and Detroit have far more at stake than just historic population trends and housing stock, but the interplay of these two influences helps to shape what may prove the Missouri city’s lifeblood: its vigorous and unprecedented culture of widespread affordable housing provision, not just through restoring old homes or filling in vacant lots, but through the comprehensive reintroduction of entire neighborhoods.  Part II, to be published at some point in the near future, will explore the St. Louis advantage through some of the key projects implemented by the city’s (and perhaps that nation’s) foremost private developer of low-income housing.  While I urge my readership to stay tuned, I also welcome any comments on this First Part of the series—an ambitious, and, for me, particularly broad subject of analysis.

[Both this and subsequent sections of the St. Louis study owe a great deal to Heather Milton, without whose assistance I’d probably be fishing for answers and ideas.  Many thanks for all of her help.]

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15 thoughts on “Salvaging St. Louis, Part I: the macro influences that keep it afloat, if not flourishing.

    1. AmericanDirt

      Uri, I can visualize the cover and I know I’ve read excerpts. Not the whole thing though. Probably ought to add it to my never-shrinking to-do list though.

  1. Matt Edmond

    Eric– interesting analysis so far. I’m a bit confused, though. If St. Louis’ housing stock fell out of favor so quickly, how does that translate into success for St. Louis? Logic and experience usually points in the opposite direction. I’m sure it will be explained in Part Two.

  2. AmericanDirt

    Good question, Matt–and, yes, I’m trying to hint at what I will explore further in Part Two. The real point of this is that St. Louis city lost significant population because (at least in large part) of its housing stock being undesirable, whereas Detroit lost population DESPITE the fact that its housing stock remained desirable. Thus, the outmigration in St. Louis is far more indicative of people simply seeking a new housing typology on raw land nearby, whereas in Detroit it reflects an entrenched problem with the region as a whole.

    Because the popularity of housing styles waxes and wanes like fashion, St. Louis has less of an uphill battle reorienting its suburban population to its housing stock.

  3. Tory B

    Interesting blog post. I’m writing to you from upriver in Davenport, a much-smaller city, but one that saw similar changes to St. Louis. Interestingly, the central city here is now growing faster than the suburban areas – thanks in part to a company from St. Louis – (Restoration St. Louis) – that has undertaken several very large housing projects in our downtown.

    Looking forward to part two.

  4. Yake

    These sorts of comparisons (e.g., between St. Louis and Detroit) by someone such as yourself who knows the histories and the places in depth are really rich and rewarding. I’m especially fascinated by your theory about the pre-existing housing stock differences between Detroit and St. Louis shaping each city’s past and possible future trajectory. As a card-carrying academic, I’m wondering aloud if there is some way to test it.

    In any case, very interesting stuff, and I really look forward to Part 2.

  5. Anonymous

    I’m quite interested in this theory of STL too. But in a cursory glance at Google views (to refresh memories of years of driving around STL), I’m seeing not much more or less attached housing in South STL, the part you correctly describe as largely intact, than in North STL, huge parts of which are now vacant, though you can see the prevailing patterns in what is left. In the part of STL that has withered so badly, race and redlining have been the likely drivers of demise, probably far greater than building types. I have been seeing the same pattern in the town in north STL County where I grew up over the past 30 years. Attitudes about race in STL are quite vicious, and have dominated conversations I’ve heard there about who lives where pretty much forever.

  6. Matthew Hall

    St. Louis is much older and has developed a more balanced economy through its successive ups and downs. History matters. Detroit rose on one economic model and fell on that same economic model. It put all its eggs in an early 20th century industrial model. St. Louis has a much wider variety of businesses and industries because it developed them over time. It is more resilient as a result. St. Louis and Detroit may appear similar today, but their histories are very different.

  7. AmericanDirt

    Thanks as always for the comments everybody, and please be patient with the Part II. I have a backlog of articles to complete before I can tackle this one, so it may be a few weeks. Definitely stay tuned.

    Anonymous, you raise an excellent point that hasn’t escaped me, though I’ll admit I didn’t really cover it in my analysis. Obviously obsolete housing isn’t the overriding force influencing middle class flight in STL–otherwise, as you say, it would follow that the preponderance of attached housing is solely in the north, which we know isn’t the case. Redlining and segregation had their influences in St. Louis, but that hardly distinguishes it from Detroit, or most other major US cities.

    I was trying to identify factors that distinguish the outmigration in St. Louis from what took place in Detroit. So I still postulate that metro St. Louis has been more resilient than Detroit (as Matthew Hall asserts), despite equally staggering population losses. And when scrutinized at a fine-grain level, one can see that some of St. Louis’ most stable neighborhoods, such as The Hill (never a rich neighborhood, but still pretty much like Mayberry), have remained stable for decades because the housing stock–mostly detached and slightly lower density than elsewhere in the city–is still pretty desirable. Conversely, rowhouse/duplex neighborhoods like Tower Grove South most certainly DID decline–though not as much as that same housing stock would have if it had been in North STL, and, by virtue of being on the near south side of the city, Tower Grove South is now one of the most significantly revitalized/gentrified neighborhoods in the city.

  8. samizdat

    Nice pictures of the intersection of Hartford and Roger from the Hartford Coffee house patio at the bottom. How do I know that? I buy a pound of their High Octane whole bean every week and half or so.

    And the St. Louis vernacular row house is fairly rare these days, largely as a result of widespread demolition in the oldest neighborhoods. Soulard and Lafayette, and to a lesser extent, Benton Park and the rather truncated Lasalle nabe still retain some fine examples of this style. Most of what you refer to as row houses are truly four-family flats or two-story duplexes, of various configurations, including a bungalow variety for the duplex. (My older brother owns four of these types on one street near the Missouri Botanical [Shaw’s] Garden, including the one he and his wife live in.) All of these types, at least in the neighborhoods east of Kingshighway, are a direct result of the growth of the streetcar system in the City. My own house is located in the Gravois-Jefferson Streetcar Suburb National Historic District, in the Dutchtown (Deutsche, really) nabe. Yards? We don’t (didn’t) need no stinking yards. We have (had) a streetcar line every three to five blocks. Hop on and a large park will be available within fifteen minutes.

    Though I do note your intention to further expand on your subject in the future, one aspect of the decline of STL I think is missing from many analyses is the grave consequences of the mass clearing of whole blocks for urban renewal, and the short-sighted widening of many City arterials in the middle part of the twentieth century. Thousands of people forced out of their homes, entire neighborhoods gone, and few or no provisions made for new housing. Imagine the destabilizing affect this must have had as these displaced residents spread out to other parts of the City in an attempt to find housing. You have overcrowding and racial issues all wrapped up into a nice stinking package, and the rest of the City had to swallow it. Many didn’t want to ‘swallow it’, so they left. And since the vast majority of them, including black families, were middle class. So as they left, the City became poorer.

    Of course, the City (wholesale clearing, for example) shot itself in the foot so many times, it’s a wonder we can still walk. But that’s another story.

  9. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for the observations, samizdat. You hit the nail on the head regarding my location for that rowhouse photo. And yes, you’re right that a significant portion of St. Louis’ attached housing comes in the form of two-story duplexes. The very word “duplex” often unnecessarily conveys a certain pejorative quality; I can’t help but think of the notorious Annette Bening line in “American Beauty”. Glad to see a rediscovery of some great housing stock in some of St. Louis’ surviving neighborhoods on the near southeast side of town.

    In terms of surviving, you of course also raise a good point in terms of the devastating legacy of slum clearance and urban renewal. I didn’t scrutinize on that aspect in this blog post, mainly because I was seeking characteristics that positively distinguished St. Louis’ decline from the more lethal implosion in Detroit. And urban renewal took place in cities all across America–nothing unique to St. Louis. Perhaps St. Louis’ one distinguishing feature is that it was the first city in which the subsequent “tower in the park” first bit the dust–over with the legendary Pruitt Igoe complex in the old (and now essentially extinct) Desoto-Carr neighborhood.

  10. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    What was the historical wealth distribution in St. Louis between the north and south sides? This is something that seems to flip-flop going through the troubles of the post-WWII period.

    In Chicago for example, the south side was historically the wealthy part of town, which has since been completely decimated. Today’s affluent north side neighborhoods were somewhat rough working class neighborhoods. I’ve seen similar though much less consistent trends in Cincinnati, where some of the wealthiest urban neighborhoods have crashed the hardest and other more modest ones have at least remained stable.

    My own theories on why this happens has to do with the housing stock as well. I don’t necessarily agree about brick buildings becoming a liability, but I do see where you’re coming from. Overall though, these wealthy neighborhoods have a housing stock that can only really be cared for by the wealthy. When those people left, their houses and apartments were either subdivided or simply left to decay as their new owners didn’t have the means to care for something so big and elaborate. The more working class neighborhoods however have a building stock that’s easier to care for, and the building sizes are more manageable for pioneering types or the long-term owner to handle.

    There are other factors as well of course. Sometimes grungy neighborhoods can flip over because polluting industries downwind close, allowing other assets in those neighborhoods to become exploitable. Mt. Adams in Cincinnati is a perfect example. Perched on a hilltop a few hundred feet above downtown it has magnificent views of downtown and the Ohio River. Back when most of it was built however, there were railroad yards, coal docks, steel mills, and many tanneries and slaughterhouses at the base of the hill. All that pollution would blow up into Mt. Adams, so it developed as a rather poor working class neighborhood, no matter how good the view might be. Now all those industries are gone, and the modest houses (mostly 2 story detached row houses) have been mostly fixed up, and it’s one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city.

    Transit and highways are factors too, as the removal of one or addition of another can have drastic impacts on the way the neighborhood functions versus how it was designed to function historically. Demographics play a big part as well. Someone once said of St. Louis that it had more of a history of big households. Whether that’s extended families, or garage/basement apartments, or simply larger nuclear families I’m not sure. As those living arrangements have shifted to much smaller households, it’s led to significant depopulation even in the neighborhoods that are still fully occupied. To be sure this is happening across the whole country, but maybe that’s more of a factor in St. Louis than elsewhere?

  11. AmericanDirt

    Jeffrey, thanks for your thoughtful observations, as always.

    I don’t know enough about the distribution of wealth in St. Louis, but judging from the housing stock, the historically elite neighborhoods stretched directly west of downtown, carved out of a U-shape formed by Forest Park and then Tower Grover Park to the south. Sadly, many of these neighborhoods struggled after both I-64 and I-44 plowed through, which begs the question: why go through some of the most expensive real estate with the highways? No doubt a St. Louisian is better versed on this than I am.

    However, I am familiar with Mt. Adams in Cincinnati, though I didn’t know it had working class roots. The blue collar history of Tremont in Cleveland is a bit more obvious, and the fact that much of the adjacent nuisance-industry is now gone surely contributes to Tremont’s trendy reputation.

    As for the north-south divide in Chicago, you raise a good point about how the south wasn’t always as blue collar, which was first made evident to me by references to then-fashionable neighborhoods in Richard Wright’s “Native Son”. But was all the south side uniformly wealthy, or was it simply much more mixed–with industry management living in adjacent districts to the workers’ housing, which in turn directly abutted the factories? My suspicion is Chicago is simply more extreme after 3-4 decades of broadly tolerated blockbusting/redlining in middle 20th Century, resulting in a Southside that is now almost exclusively working class (except for Hyde Park/Kenwood, which would probably also have declined much more if it weren’t for the institutional heft of U of Chicago).

    I’ll talk more about the mixed-blessing role of St. Louis’ brick housing in part II, because I agree that it isn’t fully a liability, and certainly may seem like more of an asset today.

  12. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    I don’t know for sure how the north-south divide in Chicago represented itself “on the ground” back in the day. My feeling though is that it was pretty similar to how it is now, only in reverse.

    What you have now is a mostly affluent north side with a few more scruffy neighborhoods and industrial areas scattered around, like Rogers Park, Uptown, and the Clybourn corridor. Cabrini Green notwithstanding, even nearby Old Town was pretty rough until recently. The south side is pretty well ravaged, with a few nice enclaves like Kenwood and Hyde Park.

    Previously though, it seems the south side was overall more affluent, if a bit more industrial. While Hyde Park was always pretty nice, there was also the Prairie District and what just seems like a more upsacle built form for the most part. The north side though basically had the wealthy Gold Coast and Edgewater, while the rest was a bit more pedestrian.

    Of course there’s a very fine-graned aspect to this, and I’m just not as familiar with the intricacies of Chicago’s neighborhoods, but this is the overall impression I get. It’s difficult to connect with a more affluent history when the buildings have are demolished as opposed to just decaying.


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