Crying Over Spilt Milk: The Suburbs Happened, Get Over It!

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A reflexive tension exists between St. Louis City and St. Louis County that often feels like an intense sports rivalry. Going strictly by the numbers and resources, St. Louis City is the perpetual underdog in this competition, and that creates a defensive state of mind amongst its residents.

An unusually large number of St. Louis Urbanists are defectors from the County, so trash talking the former team happens instinctively and often. I should know, because I'm one of them, and I agree with the laundry list of complaints about why the County team is lame: sprawl, fixed zoning and car dependency makes the County feel soulless. Much of the architecture is bewildering and all those highway exchanges are maddening… why would anyone chose to live there?

For those of us who choose to live in the City, some historical perspective could be enlightening. While having a suburb-bashing conversation with my father (who was born and raised in North St. Louis) he responded to my anti-County tirade with a simple but powerful question:

"Where were we going to put all those people?"

What?

"It's documented fact that we had a baby boom," he explained. "In a 5-10 year period after World War II we suddenly had thousands more people, and they needed places to live and schools and churches and jobs. Even if they had re-used every sturdy building in the City, there still wouldn't have been enough resources for all the people we had to contend with. The suburbs happened out of necessity because those people had to go somewhere."

It was sobering to think that the rapid suburbanization of St. Louis County was partially out of necessity, because it didn't fit the common Urbanist rationale that suburbia was a choice. While there can be no denial of the racial problems (as detailed in Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City by Colin Gordon) or the financial and sociological issues (addressed in The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration by Ray Suarez) that propelled the rise of suburbia, is it possible that Urbanists are overlooking the basic facts of space for the sake of a preferred perspective?

Researching the numbers does show that Metro St. Louis – and the state of Missouri – wholeheartedly contributed to the fertile period commonly known as The Baby Boom. When focusing exclusively on what inspired that label – the number of babies born – we get some staggering numbers.

From 1940 – 1945, births in both St. Louis City and County increased by an average of 10% per year. World War II ended for America on September 2, 1945 and the boys came back home to St. Louis during the last quarter of that year. These reunited couples obviously got busy, because births from 1945 to 1946 increased by 24.17%. From 1946 – 1950, they added another 143,109 babies to the Metro population, and they were just getting started. In the next 4 year period (1951 – 1955), the baby population increased by another 172,609 children.

The year the national Baby Boom ended is always up for debate, but in Metro St. Louis, 1959 was the peak, with 36,824 children born, and the rates dropped by an average of 3.46% per year over the next 7 years. By following local statistics, the Metro St. Louis Baby Boom was from 1946 – 1959 during which they added 424,220 children to the area.

These statistics do not reflect the numbers of adults with existing families that moved into the area for the plentiful job opportunities brought about by post-war prosperity. The resulting economic boom pushed St. Louis City's peak population to 856,796 in 1950.

That the City could only hold so many people was a fate sealed in 1876 when St. Louis finalized its boundaries at 61 square miles, with a population at the time of roughly 200,000. City Fathers did not want to be responsible for the expense of developing infrastructure for a largely rural St. Louis County, but by 1920, with a population of 772,900, the financial and physical need for more room was obvious. This prompted City business leaders to sponsor a referendum to incorporate the County, which would have made St. Louis the world's largest city. City voters approved the action while St. Louis County voted a resounding "no." It is safe to say that The Suburbs were born immediately after this failure to merge.

At the start of the 20th century, people were already leaking into St. Louis County, following the street car lines that ran out through Normandy, Maplewood, University City, Webster Groves and Kirkwood. Today, we call these communities inner-ring suburbs, but they were originally referred to as Streetcar Suburbs, and these lines would not have been developed without a financial incentive to do so.

If you pay attention to our inner ring suburbs, it is easy to observe that they closely match the density and layout of the City neighborhoods they grew from. Take a trip across the City/County border and you may have difficulty knowing when you've crossed over without the aid of a boundary marker. These new communities naturally mimicked City neighborhood layouts and architecture because that was the norm up to that point.

The suburban layouts that cause the most Urbanist derision were eventually created by two key events: The 1944 G.I. Bill and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The former granted federal subsidies for returning war veterans to buy new homes, while the latter created an interstate highway system that made it easier to get to the new communities created by the former. Both of these bills were created out of the necessity of bolstering a post-war economy and dealing with an unprecedented population explosion.

It is true that both of these governmental acts were decidedly anti-urban, and there are two key reasons for this. First, the G.I. Generation were culturally predisposed to the new and progressive, so for every urban area they bulldozed for the sake of Urban Renewal they created new, modern suburbs to further the promise of a powerful nation. Second, the American slogan "Go West, young man" was inspired by historical fact, and a pioneering need to forge new frontiers is an inescapable trait of the American psyche.

St. Louis was so proud of its "Gateway to the West" moniker that it bestowed it upon The Arch, and the citizens of St. Louis City were firmly on board with westward expansion long before it was erected. The spirit of progress was hard to resist, but the reality of a finite city border made an exodus to St. Louis County unavoidable. Where else were all these people going to go?

The indisputable facts of limited acreage, restricted borders, national history and generational propensity created the St. Louis suburbs. It is hard to imagine a scenario that would have kept it from happening, and even if a City/County merger had happened in 1920, the American advantage of endless land and possibility could hardly be overcome in St. Louis.

Bemoaning the existence of the suburbs requires ignoring historical facts for the sake of an urban ideal that only existed in St. Louis for a short time a long time ago. And even then, many City residents had their eyes on western pastures. And, yes, the problems of the St. Louis suburbs are real, and there is room for improvement, but the same applies to St. Louis City.

If we could view Metro St. Louis with a clear historical eye and accept that we are inextricably linked, maybe we could see our way clear to bonding together as a region. Until that time arrives, my fellow Urbanists, I say in a kindly manner: The suburbs happened – get over it.

Toby's blog B.E.L.T was recently named one of the "50 Most Amazing Architectural Photography Blogs". Read more from Toby here.

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