Born in the MSA: What Does It Mean that St. Louisians are from St. Louis?

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The East-West Gateway Council of Governments blog recently covered "Born in the MSA" data showing that St. Louis is, to no one's surprise, a largely homegrown city. Nearly three-fourths, 69.4% of St. Louis MSA residents were born in either Missouri or Illinois, a percentage that ranked sixth among 34 peer MSAs. This says something about St. Louis. But what?

From the EWG blog: "St. Louis often is criticized as stodgy, not open to change, too insular, and not up-to-date. Image-wise, it sometimes is viewed as unattractive to people looking for a high energy, fun, robust metro area… Seldom is an attempt made to justify these claims with a metro metric quantified by substantive data."

The 69.4% was far below Pittsburgh's 83.2% (the highest percentage), a city that, while it may struggle with civic inclusiveness, has successfully been labeled and rebranded as a growing center for technology and an attractive and vibrant place to live. Not everyone may jump at a job transfer to Pittsburgh, but it's likely more appealing than a move to St. Louis. Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Columbus, OH also rank ahead of St. Louis.

The blog post cites Richard Florida's "The Rise of the Creative Class," quoting, "(Pittsburgh has) great difficulty opening up the social space in which members of the creative class can validate their identities." Maybe. But if that barrier to civic engagement isn't fully smothering Pittsburgh, is it reasonable to see it as a drag on St. Louis? Should it be an anchor chained to our collective identity. Should it justify the region's self-deprecating (some would say self-loathing) "where'd you go to high school" question?

What does 69.4% say about St. Louis? Again, in the post, Todd Swanstrom, the Des Lee Endowed Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, states, "We certainly have a reputation of not welcoming outsiders. I think the city is changing but I also think there is some truth to this." He says that where he grew up (Minnesota's Twin Cities) seemed less "ingrown" and that after 10 years in St. Louis, he still feels like a "newcomer". 

Swanstrom continues, “There are advantages to being ingrown. There are rich accumulations of social capital in St. Louis at the local level. Neighborhoods are tight and people feel comfortable in them — like a favorite old sweater. Who wants to live in Southern California where everyone is from someplace else and is constantly inventing themselves? Whatever we are, we are not fake.”

But here, EWG makes a big leap, "Having the majority of people who have voted with their feet by not moving them does suggests some positive attributes about St. Louis. They like it here, so they stay."

This proposes a different dynamic than is measured by the "Born in the MSA" data. To understand if people are voting with their feet, the question must be: "What percentage of people born here stay here?" and not "What percentage of people here were born here?"

St. Louis is a region of nearly flat population growth. The region is 27/35 in population growth, 25/35 in net migration, 34/35 in net international migration and 21/35 in net domestic migration. People are clearly voting with their feet and deciding to not move here. Without knowing more (specifically the question above), this points to the issue of negligible in migration. Shouldn't the conversation be: Why aren't people moving here?

EWG also seems to miss the point in stating, "Not surprisingly, the cities with lower homegrown numbers tend to have faster population growth, available jobs and in some cases, better or more interesting climates than the cities with higher “native” rates." I'm not sure what can be said about "more interesting" climates. I've never subscribed to the weather as a population driving factor with a discernable effect independent of economic determinants.

Perhaps the wording is simply unclear, but what's not surprising is that a region with significant population growth would have a lower percentage of "native" residents. But that doesn't say anything at all about why a region grows, or does not. In fact, reading EWG, one might believe that a city with a lower "native" population percentage would create faster population and job growth. See the problem there?

EWG's "Where We Stand" reports are invaluable to understanding our region. However, they are simply a base of data from which to depart and investigate. Presenting determinant factors based on peer MSA rankings is not particularly informative, and in some cases may result in abjectly false claims.

What's your take on the relatively high percentage of "native" born residents in the St. Louis MSA, what can and can't be concluded, and why might it matter?

Percent Born in State of Residence:
1 Pittsburgh:  82.2
2 Cleveland:  75.3
3 Detroit:  75.2
4 Milwaukee:  73.1
5 Columbus:  70.2
6 St. Louis:  69.4
7 Cincinnati:  68.4
8 Indianapolis:  67.6
9 Louisville:  66.8
10 San Antonio:  64.5
11 Minneapolis:  64.4
12 Philadelphia:  63.5
13 Chicago:  63.0
14 Salt Lake City:  60.8
15 Baltimore:  60.5
16 Oklahoma City:  60.4
17 Boston:  58.5
Average:  57.2
18 Austin:  56.7
19 Memphis:  56.7
20 Nashville:  55.7
21 Dallas:  55.2
22 Houston:  55.2
23 New York:  54.2
24 Kansas City:  53.6
25 Los Angeles:  49.4
26 San Francisco:  49.0
27 Charlotte:  48.6
28 San Diego:  48.3
29 Atlanta:  46.8
30 Seattle:  45.2
31 Denver:  43.2
32 Portland:  43.1
33 Phoenix:  36.8
34 Miami:  31.5
35 Washington DC:  30.7

East-West Gateway – Where We Stand: The Strategic Assessment of the St. Louis Region 2011

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  • Scott Reetz

    I just moved away from St. Louis to my own hometown of Sarasota, Florida to be near my parents. Here are my comments:
    1. St. Louis is a beautiful city, and that includes its suburbs. For a metro area the size of St. Louis, there are over 20, maybe 30, pedestrian friendly historic commercial areas that persons in other cities would give their teeth for. Count them yourself and don’t leave out the up and coming ones: downtown, Grand Center, Midtown Alley, Grand South Grand, Delmar Loop, Clayton, the Grove, Soulard, Lafayette Park, St. Charles, even Fenton and Florissant have them. I am still amazed, but I’m even more amazed by the fact that you St. Louisans don’t know what you have and you never tell anyone about it. Why the secrecy? There is absolutely nothing like Soulard for 100s of miles around. I had no idea you had the historic resources you have until I moved here.
    2. St. Louisans bad-mouth St. Louis when they travel up north. When we moved from Michigan all anyone ever told us was “It’s hot”. It’s not hot. Half the US is hotter than St. Louis. I found this out when I did a little asking around and found out that a lot of St. Louis people vacation up north. Listen, St. Louis, it costs you absolutely nothing to start telling other people about the wonderful, beautiful, historic city you live in.
    3. If you look at the list of MSAs given, most of the major MSAs in the Midwest are “home-grown”, so this isn’t really a St. Louis phenomenon. Asking why people don’t move here is the wrong question. There simply isn’t a reason to do so unless you come here for college or you are transferred here for business reasons. The real question is why Kansas City is an anomaly for the Midwest. What is unique about Kansas City that it is less home grown? I suspect the reason is the same as for the Twin Cities–a number of corporate headquarters in the Twin Cities made it an extremely wealthy and attractive place as far as employment. I have not investigated this for KC, but it would be interesting to see if that is the case.
    4. I mentioned students earlier. I read in an article a while ago that there are 100,000 college studies within a 50 mile radius of St. Louis. I noticed in the 4 years I lived in St. Louis the number of music venues attractive to that demographic that have sprung up. Lots of opportunities there. 
    5. St. Louisans, like all Midwesterners, really don’t talk up the Midwest. Midwesterners just don’t care. Too bad. How many of you subscribe to Midwest Living, eat Midwestern food, travel to interesting spots in the Midwest, read books written by Midwestern writers, etc.? Or do you simply ape the national media with sarcastic, derogatory comments about the Midwest? Quit it–it’s to your own detriment.
    6. There seems to be an element of anti-corporate and anti-business attitude in St. Louis. As I stated earlier, the 2 main reasons to move to St. Louis would be for college and for employment. Anti-corporate attitudes will cost you dearly. Just ask Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although Pfizer never publicly stated that they closed a billion-dollar research facility there because so many Ann Arborites were so hateful, this after Pfizer had become an enormous foundation for much of the non-profit community and added immensely to the arts, I’m sure this had an influence.
    I hope you St. Louisans take my comments to heart. I had 4 and a half good years in your lovely city, but I can’t be the only one saying good things about you. You’re going to have to step up.
    Scott Reetz
    Sarasota, Florida

  • Mattwhall

    St. Louis’ metro’s population numbers are much better than detroit or cleveland. They are even as good as chicago on percentage terms. Don’t be too down and be closed to positive opportunities that come along here to start businesses or buy property. 

    • Alex Ihnen

      Right. Perhaps the percent of “native” born residents is determinative of nothing. 

  • Ibleedlou

    It says our state policy’s are not allowing us to be as competitive as other states, think china hub @ Lambert. I’m in MSP and the business culture here is progressive and the influx in people is near 100% due to new jobs and growth of their booming businesses. No other reason to be up here if you aren’t from this part of the country.

  • Rick

    What does it say?  I think it says St. Louis is a pretty nice place to live.

  • I recently moved to St. Louis from Maine, and I have to say I have found a very vibrant community of people here. It seems to me very evident that change can and will happen, but the simple fact that I have run into time and again, as one who has arrived here not knowing a whole lot of local history, is that there is little infrastructure in place to help people get things done. Community-building is seen as an architectural experiment, rather than a personal investment in the people who live there, and it seems to me that the majority of the movers and shakers that I’ve met are either jaded or starting to feel like Sysiphus, hopelessly pushing the same message to apathetic, ignorant people. 

    What is needed is a redefinition of community, a necessary inreach that brings neighbors together, door-to-door communication and cooperation. The strengthening of these ties will allow people to appreciate the true value of community much more, and also increase awareness of skills, jobs, and opportunities. Almost every opportunity I have found for work has been through word-of-mouth, and that is true anywhere, not just St. Louis. However, people seem dubious of anything overly ambitious here, and I think that is simply a factor of not seeing success in the past, and seeing money from grants or other big players going to ineffective and shiny projects that ultimately do nothing for the community. 

    I moved here to be a part of a community, and I’m finding it. I couldn’t be happier with my decision, and I think St. Louis has a very bright and exciting future ahead, but it will only come through work and dedication to strengthening communal ties. We must connect with our fellow citizens in order to form strong bonds, we cannot rely on outdated institutions or the amorphous power of the internet. Ultimately, we must know our neighbors, and our neighbors’ neighbors, and utilize that knowledge to grow a better community.

  • Douglas Duckworth

    “Instead of acknowledging the possibility of local communities, regional leaders would rather coordinate relationships with the global community.”

    St. Louis has no relationship with the global community.   If it did its local communities would be able to grow.  

    “If we continue trying to attract a bunch of 20 somethings with graphic design skills, who is going to run the barbershop, fix the pipes, wire the houses? ”

    The 20 somethings buy houses and the trades people wire them.  

    The whole idea of attacking St. Louis for pursing the “creative class” makes no sense as they are not trying to do so.  Or failing.  St. Louis has no global presence and is not trying to compete with other cities where creative economies have driven up the cost housing.   St. Louis builds highways even though they rank high on lane miles per capita.  St. Louis builds parking garages though they have too many and lack bike lanes.  St. Louis demolishes historic buildings even though they are economic resources to be leveraged against the glass towers of Chicago or McMansions of the Sunbelt.

    People might like St. Louis and never leave.  But that doesn’t mean people want to come here and that’s evident every ten years.  If St. Louis wanted a global presence then it should rethink how it does everything.  Maybe Slay forgot his own words of wisdom? 

    The indicator of St. Louis in 30 years was the opportunity to remove the depressing lanes.  It’s not being studied because St. Louisans like it the way it is.  Nothing wrong with that.  

    • Guest

      I’m from St. Louis and want that highway gone.  As with almost every other person I know here.  The only ones that want it to stay are those people that are going to get pissed because not having it there will add an extra 5 mins to their commute to our god awful suburbs.

  • Florida is as obsolete as the Falstaff smokestack. Do we really need to build cities to validate the identities of people for whom diversity is a knick-knack they carry with them? Likewise, EWG needs to put down the Tiebout and recognize people staying in a city isn’t necessarily because of desirable services or resources, but because of many intersecting and intervening variables (ethnicity, age, housing, history, costs). The last census indicated the poorest neighborhoods are still hemorrhaging population – likely due to residents having the means to leave (not to mention how this re-concentrates poverty). Additionally, these same cities also fail to attract immigrants. Instead of seeking answers to why people aren’t moving here – which we’ve known for many, many decades – we should be discussing what to do with the spatial, social and infrastructural correlates of these issues.

    So here’s the thing: you have an insulated, segregated community failing to attract outsiders, you have a rapidly aging population, and you have negligible immigration. Likewise, the pro-growth regime has done a spectacular job of failing neighborhoods outside of the ever-expanding footprint of Downtown. Instead of acknowledging the possibility of local communities, regional leaders would rather coordinate relationships with the global community. You have crumbling infrastructure or infrastructure no one uses, you have a political milieu clearly out of ideas, and you have a culture which would rather tout its greatness than solve actual problems. If we continue trying to attract a bunch of 20 somethings with graphic design skills, who is going to run the barbershop, fix the pipes, wire the houses? Are we just tacitly expecting this to be the responsibility of low-income communities? Are we waiting for the black swan? See the problem here? We are making decisions today that will undermine the potential for strong local economies and neighborhoods.

    Look, I honestly believe St. Louis can be a great city – just not with the majority of instruments or aspirations at its current disposal. So sue me. The rest of this damn country has been in decline since the 1970s, St. Louis was one of the first to experience the breadth of American failings, it could have acted at any point to reconsider itself. It hasn’t. The rest of the nation is in the toilet – I don’t want a recovery, I want a reinvention. People claim the best and brightest have left the region, I believe that’s because our definitions of skill, talent, intelligence and creativity are so conservative as to be utterly worthless. There’s enough imagination and rectitude left that we can still do this together. Whether the bulk of readers or leaders like it or not, I intend to return to St Louis with a commitment to justice, boldness and daring. Plenty of neighborhoods are healthy, but there’s absolutely no reason not to craft new ways of being for the entire city. This means getting embedded in our communities, running community-businesses, supporting local stabilization, building new institutions, and promoting a functional deliberative democracy. In short, it’s about letting the need for a better city dominate our lives, it’s about becoming a member of the Contributing Class.

    The trolls of the STL world will surely defame me, but I know a lot of people who want to return to St. Louis, kick ass and take names.

    • Guest

      Hell YES!  Very great comment.  I currently live in KC for school and can’t wait to move back, and kick some ass.  There are lots of trolls in St. Louis (as there are in suburban KC) but I like to believe there are more people who want to see STL succeed.  Most of them are just outside West County.