Colin Gordon Talks Mapping Decline, Vacant Land and Urban Renewal With nextSTL

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People are leaving, we have this horrendous poverty and unemployment on the north side; let’s build a hockey arena downtown! This is how Colin Gordon describes urban planning in the City of St. Louis. Gordon, the author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, has likely spent more time charting the precipitous decline of our city than anyone.

With the Open/Closed vacant land conference this Friday and Saturday, I spoke to Mr. Gordon about his views on the past, present and future of our city and the vacancy left behind by decades of residential flight.

The basic thesis of Gordon’s book is that the current state of St. Louis is not the consequence of families and individuals making decisions in a free market. Enormous distortions in the market, public policy and subsidies provided citizens with plain choices and denied many, particularly minorities, the opportunity to relocate.

The distortions may not have entirely began with large-scale urban renewal projects, but from the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to the Gateway Mall, Busch Stadium I, the Mill Creek Valley and Pruit-Igoe, land clearance for regeneration has left enormous scars on the city and its people. Many recognize the renewal projects as planning failures, but what’s changed today and where do individuals belong in a declining city colored by racism and addicted to demolition?


{demolition at 3rd Street and Chestnut Street clearing the way for the St. Louis Arch}

nextSTL: Do you imagine that motives behind large-scale urban renewal projects were honest in trying to “save” the city?

CG: If you think what’s best for the city is to have no black people, it may be honest, but it’s not noble. It’s also not a relentless conspiracy. There’s a lot of nostalgia at work, like generals fight the last war, the city fathers are trying to reclaim the city they had as kids. Also, over time the real estate industry convinced itself it was adhering to its highest principal, maintaining property values.

Maybe the best explanation is that St. Louis working families in the mid-20th C. had the same goals: good schools, stable property values, etc. White families had the opportunity to move to suburbs. That doesn’t make them racist, but the institution was racist because it didn’t allow black families to leave.

What is the combined effect of moving 10,000 residents, demolishing their homes and businesses, then allowing them to move to only particular neighborhoods and then not allowing loans for those wishing to rehab, invest, or buy?


{City of St. Louis 1930 Census map showing “negro population”}

nextSTL: What has been the result of large urban renewal projects in St. Louis?

CG: They destroyed housing stock and replaced it with nothing. Residents move then the process is repeated. The city builds low-income housing and baseball stadiums. Downtown power interests run the city. A community of 10,000 African Americans lived where the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (St. Louis Arch) is now. Then they cleared the Mill Creek Valley and the black population moves north and west, just ahead of the bulldozer. Today, most blacks in the St. Louis area no longer live in the City of St. Louis.

Today, people in North St. Louis are enormously insecure. The problem is this big parcel view of urban renewal that you have. There has to be systematic respect for investments that are already on the ground. The story is wiping out small retailers for big development. The unwillingness of the City and Paul McKee (NorthSide Regeneration developer) to produce a community agreement is telling.

The early urban renewal effort that collapsed was building a park coming from the Arch past the public library, etc. That’s where the urban renewal investment went awry. It’s not that the individual investments are a failure, but they’re not stitched together. Go to any project, walk three blocks and you’re back to boarded up buildings and parking lots. You point to something downtown and you say, “look, a success” but how many times has a development been blighted and renewed? I’m surprised and disappointed that the developers were let off the hook. They promise spill-over benefits.


{the Gateway Mall, 1964 – image courtesy of National Geographic}

St. Louis also cleared what existed of its Chinatown on the site of Busch Stadium I. Today, the center of the Chinese/Southeast Asian population is on Olive Boulevard near I-170 in University City. The trend of white flight followed by black flight is well documented in Mapping Decline and the 2010 Census showed that more blacks are leaving the City of St. Louis than whites. The north side was hit especially hard, with several neighborhoods losing more than 30% of their population over the past decade. The city remains committed to urban renewal efforts of the past. A new master plan to develop the Gateway Mall has been completed and the Arch grounds are poised for a $578M investment.

The Mill Creek Valley was home to 20,000 African-Americans and more than 800 businesses in 1950. 


{the Mill Creek Valley at early stage of demolition, c. 1959}


{the Mill Creek Valley after demolition}


{the Mill Creek Valley, c. 2010}

nextSTL: Is St. Louis different than other American cities?

CG: Yes and no. There’s the tremendous impact of Federal money and policies that swamped local policy here. No one would have built Pruitt-Igoe, cleared the Mill Creek Valley or built Busch Stadium I without Federal money. St. Louis County was considered to be one of the worst performers in the nation by HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development).

For 20-30 years officials did everything they could to eradicate black residential enclaves in the County and to not build any new low income housing. Elmwood Park was cleared in the 1960’s and mostly in line with what the Federal Government wanted. Residents didn’t really move back, but they also didn’t build McMansions. It’s still going on. The FBI came in to facilitate reconciliation in Kirkwood and it just blew up because Kirkwood said the past wasn’t their fault.

The February 7, 2008 shooting at Kirkwood City Hall put a spotlight on continued racial tension in St. Louis. Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton, a Meacham Park resident shot and killed six individuals seemingly because he felt he was the result of racist treatment by Kirkwood City Hall. Meacham Park’s history as a black St. Louis County enclave spans more than 150 years, well before metropolitan area growth surrounded, and bypassed the neighborhood.

The county ignored the enclave, only connecting it to the larger county sewer system in 1971. In 1992, residents of Kirkwood and Meacham Park voted in favor of annexation. This brought trash, police, fire service and the municipal codes of Kirkwood to Meacham Park. These were the codes that would result in varies fines against Thornton. The annexation also led to the use of eminent domain, clearing a substantial portion of Meacham Park for retail development. Thornton, who owned a small construction company, supported the use of eminent domain and believed his company would receive substantial work. In the end, he received much less than he felt he was promised.


{opening stanza from 1923 St. Louis Real Estate Exchange covenant}

nextSTL: Should The Ville be saved? At what cost?

CG: It’s enormously important that the Ville is a productive neighborhood. I became interested looking at the Victorian housing stock going to waste. The cost looks steep on paper, but what are the costs of building a McMansion in Franklin County in terms of providing and maintaining infrastructure? Whatever housing stock you have in 50 years, you have to be able to service it, pick up garbage, police it, supply water, etc.

You don’t want to lose one home per street. You want to plan growth. You have to proceed slowly and on a small scale; show how this will work on a four block footprint. Clear one block and create density on other blocks. There are going to be winners and losers, but there are far fewer losers if you proceed slowly. You need to pick a place to start.

The narrative of Mapping Decline focuses largely on The Ville neighborhood, an established majority black community by WWI. At first, blacks were zoned out of many neighborhoods as their presence was considered a “non-conforming use” in a white neighborhood. This was ruled unconstitutional in 1917, but the real estate profession continued the practice under the auspices of maintaining property values. The Ville became a dense, vibrant neighborhood, one that nearly instantly began its decline when restrictive housing covenants, the agreements keeping blacks confined to particular neighborhoods, were ruled unconstitutional. The Homer G. Phillips teaching hospital in the heart of The Ville witnessed a similar decline as hospitals were integrated and black doctors could receive training elsewhere.


{just one of the crumbling structures in The Ville}

nextSTL: What surprises you about development in St. Louis?

CG: What I always find most surprising about development is that it’s always justified on a market basis, but what happens is that it terribly distorts the market. When land value falls, it typically falls to a point where individuals can make an investment. In St. Louis there’s always the threat that a developer is going to grab a large area, have it blighted and the micro investment doesn’t happen.

I generally agree with the libertarian view of property rights regarding the politics of redevelopment. Given a choice between redevelopment politics and the market, I’ll take the market. They won’t let go of the growth dream. What’s really needed is a policy of smart decline. What if your bottom line was that (St. Louis) didn’t get any smaller? Drop your dreams of people pouring back into the city. Then what do you do with the land?

nextSTL: Why is this story not discussed more in St. Louis? Why aren’t we exploring this important part of our history?

CG: I think it reflects in part the fragmentation of the metro area. People are extraordinarily sensitive to the idea that they or their parents were responsible for what happened. To them, their move to the suburbs was a personal success and the failure of the city is the result of corrupt politics. They’re not entirely wrong and they’re not entirely right either.

It’s easy to see a metro region as the sum total of individual decisions. Conventional wisdom is that my parent’s, or my move to the suburbs was an individual choice I made because I was successful enough and had the money to move. There’s little knowledge of the subsidies that made that possible for some and not others.


{mapping white and black flight from the City of St. Louis – map from Mapping Decline}

nextSTL: What’s different today?

CG: People are fundamentally less racist than a generation ago. What hasn’t dissipated at all is the connection between race and property values. It’s remarkable the way the connection between race and property has become worse despite a legal revolution and Civil Rights Movement. The stakes got higher. Today, where you live determines even more the quality of schools and other services. And more family worth is tied in the equity in a family’s home.


nextSTL: What does mapping do to inform readers and illustrate the issue of urban decline that can’t be conveyed in a narrative?

CG:It automatically expands your audience. (With maps) I can tell this story to a much more diverse audience. Maps allow people to see themselves in the story.

nextSTL: What’s next?

CG: The fundamental question for St. Louis is if the population continues to thin out into the metro area that’s one policy problem, if the metro region is shrinking, that calls for a different policy response.

I’m focused on Meacham Park and Elmwood Park. It may be a book, but more likely to be put online with animated maps and information. I’m interested more broadly in imminent domain and the displacement of residents from urban renewal. There was a lot of press around a woman in New London, CT, but it happens everywhere. (Kelo v. City of New London)

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  • quincunx

    Mapping Decline is an absolute must read for every St louisian.

  • Karen Simmons

    As an African American graduate of Sumner High School, located IN the Ville, there is no one clear cut answer. I am a CITY resident and will remain a CITY resident. It is now time for African Americans to begin to chart our desitiny. The spirit with which some decisions were made in the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s was a different spirit than we find ourselves faced with today. White flight has given way to black flight as the census figures substantiate.

    Everything is not a contrived, clear cut plan of out with the old and in with the new. Short answer, time for African Americans to rebuild our neighborhoods and create a plan to make this happen. Even our churches are not made up of people who live in the community. Most of our ministers don’t live in the neighborhoods where they minister. I hear so manyAfrican Americans talk about “THE PLAN” and I immediately ask African Americans where do they live and what are they contributing? I immediately get a chuckle, then a soft laugh, well, “I live on the south side, I live in U City, I live in Kirkwood, I live in Creve Couer, I live in West County, I live in North County” and the list goes on to end with, “I need a good school system for my kids to attend.” I am not mad at them, folks do what they must and what they can well afford to do.

    We as African Americans have to begin to also chart our cultural destiny as it relates to the city of St. Louis. Not to the old school exclusion because of race, income, banking etc. People want to live in neighborhoods with a good quality of life. Time for a quality of life change and a change in our schools system. It’s going to take a plan to bring HOMEOWNERS back to the city. With the price of gas, folks had better get busy working together so we can all win. Kind of nice to live five minutes away from where I work!

  • Karen Simmons

    And I might also add to the above comments, instead of fighting NSR on the north side, claiming eminent domain is destroying the area, as this article points out showing vacant land and buildings falling down, there is little to eminently domain. How can you take a vacant lot from no one who lives there. Time for us all to work together, plan our work, concentrate efforts in contiguos areas instead of scattered site development, which time has proved does not work.

    Time to build homes, apartments and neighborhoods we all would feel comfortable living in. Homes that would attract lower, middle and dare I say upper income African Americans and people in general to live in.

    If we miss this opportunity, shame on us all!

  • JoeBorough

    St. Louis is the 11th most populous african-american MSA in the country and this how it treats its citizens? Embarrassing. Sad. Pathetic.

  • Zun1026

    I think Gordon is right to question the patchwork attempts at urban revitalization. These large scale projects do not accomplish much unless they are part of the larger plan and probably more importantly that they are integrated with grassroots development mechanisms.

  • quincunx

    “the city fathers are trying to reclaim the city they had as kids” – by tearing it all down? It was about the people not the buildings, I know.

  • Esteban

    Sad, but true, when the blacks dominate a neighborhood in the City of St. Louis (and many other places) it is almost always riddled with crime, lack of upkeep of structures, trash in the streets and alleys, noise, inconsiderate neighbors and general insecurity for anyone with nice things they don’t want stolen or destroyed. Sorry, but that is reality. There may be many historical reasons for it, but that is current day reality. Don’t hate me for telling the truth. Is there any reason people of quality, including quality people with dark colored skin, should subject themselves to all that? If you call me racist for pointing this out and moving out of that situation (yes I moved away and I’m glad I did), you are an idiot and know nothing of what you speak.

    • Alex Ihnen

      The idea that when “blacks dominate a neighborhood..it is almost always riddled with crime…” may have a factual basis, but the cause isn’t that people are black – that belief would be racist. The reality is that when a neighborhood becomes economically depressed, it often becomes predominantly black. One can say there’s little or no difference in those statements, but one more closely attributes the outcome to race and the other economics.

      • Esteban

        Fair enough as far as it goes. But actually, there are more than economics at work. There are aspects of black culture which contribute to the economic conditions you describe. They are all well-documented and I don’t need to set them out here, but chief among them is the illegitimacy rate, fatherless children and virtual absence of the nuclear family among urban blacks. Another cultural aspect is the violent gangs and the admiration of criminal thug behavior. Do these things result from the color of their skin? Well, to the extent people have formed a sub-culture based their “blackness” and these debilitating features emerge, and are unique to black culture, then, well, yes it is because they are black. It is not racist to observe, believe or state this.

        Apart from common street crime though, economic disadvantage has nothing to do with ruining your neighbors’ quality of life with loud gatherings and loud music at highly inconvenient times, throwing your trash wherever feel like it instead of putting it where it belongs, and just generally being completely inconsiderate of, and even hostile towards, your neighbors, their peaceful enjoyment, or the investment they have made in their home. Again, it is readily apparent black culture teaches that none of those things matter very much. Rather than spend their lives suffering from the highly undesirable conditions produced by this culture, decent people leave if they can. Other responsible people don’t invest in places like that which then keeps values down, except perhaps when there is a trend of gentrification, which of course usually gets vilified by the usual suspects as unfairly “displacing” the blacks once again.