The White City: Is St. Louis Too Black to Ever Be Considered “Progressive”?

{a view of “progressive” Portland, OR}

On the website New Geography, Aaron Renn (aka the Urbanophile) has an article titled “The White City.” Renn looks at the metro area core county population of African Americans and asks whether the term “progressive” as used to describe such cities as Austin, TX, Portland, OR, Minneapolis, MN and others is synonym for “white”.

Among other things, Renn simply shows that the core county population of places such as Cleveland, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Nashville and Kansas City have a much higher percentage of African American residents, well above the national average, than the aforementioned “progressive” cities. Without judging the validity of his argument, the idea introduces very relevant, interesting issues.

To re-frame the question: Why are some cities considered “progressive” while others are not? No definition will satisfy all, but if we define a “progressive city” as a city with more bike lanes than other cities, more comprehensive recycling programs, extensive transit options, pro-density policy, more awareness and protection of greenspace, cleaner and safe, we can begin to understand why some cities make the cut and others do not.

I do not think it’s accurate to view “progressive” versus non-progressive cities as black versus white, but rather has homogeneous cities versus heterogeneous cities, especially in terms of economic segregation. What I do think is likely accurate is that homogeneity can help pass legislation. It’s easier to agree on policy. Others will never see a place like St. Louis as “progressive” because we are not proactive policy actors. What we do typically follows policy in other cities and is rarely implemented to affect the entire region.

Another way to think about the issue is to consider what our region may be able to accomplish without race being such a divisive issue. If the city were 80% middle class (and the reality is that in St. Louis this means “white”) you can bet that there would be city-wide historic preservation review. There would be more bike lanes too. And in the end what is typically labeled a “progressive” city is what “progressives” admire; mass transit, bicycles, sustainability etc. and some cities may be better able to implement such policies.

As a region we have twice failed to support public transit. The 90+ municipalities in St. Louis County are not in a hurry to give up their inefficient independence and fewer still want to meld with St. Louis City. A significant part of the history of our fragmentation is based on race. And here Renn’s observations offer some food for thought.

Regardless, shouldn’t spend much time seeking a “progressive” label, but instead work to create a government and community that serves those who live here. If there’s an answer to the question in the headline it is: “St. Louis is too fragmented to ever be considered “progressive”.


NextSTL is committed to providing original stories and unique perspectives on a variety of urban topics such as architecture, development, transportation, historic preservation, urban planning and design and public policy in St. Louis. We're always looking to add new, diverse voices to the mix. We accept anonymous tips, pitches for story ideas, and completed stories.

Learn More