Salvaging St. Louis, Part III: Biodiversity in Repopulation

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DSCF6769In the previous section of this three-part article, I began exploring some of the affordable housing initiatives of St. Louis that have helped it, to some extent, stem its precipitous decline, particularly in comparison to Detroit, its peer city in terms of population loss. If this survey (you could almost call it “home tour”) seemed a bit facile, well, it is. To some extent, that’s the point: St. Louis—in contrast with Detroit—has transcended much of its dire population freefall over the years by repopulating its vacant land with sensitively designed affordable and mixed-income housing. The city is still losing population, but its 8.3% loss from 2000 to 2010 is a pittance compared to the staggering 25% that rocked Detroit during the same time frame.

My home show takes on an even more subjective angle because it has exclusively focused on the portfolio of the St. Louis-based developer, McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc (MBS). I confess that I received an information packet guiding through different developments within the city limits through MBS’s public relations coordinator. But this analysis should rise above the level of a promotional campaign for one of the nation’s largest affordable housing developers. Looking at a particularly successful developer serves as a bellwether for what might prevent other attempts to restore the city’s housing stock from yielding transformative results.

The previous section looked primarily at MBS’s portfolio in the northern half of St. Louis, which has long been the most impoverished part of the city, with some neighborhoods losing over 80% of their population over the years. The near north side was home to the notorious Pruitt Igoe, 32 high-rise public housing structures whose near immediate failure to accommodate its population safely resulted in its ultimate demolition, a mere 16 years after its completion. Most of the former site of Pruitt-Igoe remains a vacant, weed-strewn lot. However, some of McCormack Baron Salazar’s most effective low-income housing efforts sit directly across the street from the old monstrosity, such as the Murphy Park development to the north featured in Part II.

For this section, the housing survey will travel southward, into some of the near- Westside neighborhoods of St. Louis—an area framed by downtown to the east, Forest Park to the west, Delmar Boulevard to the north, and I-44 to the south. Most of the neighborhoods around here are transitional: some are still in decline, but many have stemmed the population loss and are recovering to form a reasonably racially and economically integrated district, with much of the original building stock still intact. MBS has contributed several creative projects to this area, and, due to the broader array of incomes represented in the neighborhood, these new developments tend to cater to tenants in multiple economic strata.

The northernmost of the developments featured in Part III, Renaissance Place at Grand Apartments straddles what most would consider the line between the north side of St. Louis and the west side. Although just barely north of the common divider Delmar Boulevard, the expansive project still sits directly west of the northern edge of downtown. My apologies once again for some of the lower quality photos—dusk was setting in, and I often did not have the time to get out of the vehicle to take pictures.

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After completion in 1968, the Arthur Blumeyer public housing development housed over 1,100 families across four high-rise and 42 low-rise apartment buildings, with an emphasis on support for the elderly. Though the development lasted considerably longer than Pruitt-Igoe, it fell under the same scrutiny as most other public housing thanks to the Federal Omnibus Consolidated Reconciliation Act of 1996, which mandates that public housing of 300 or more units with a vacancy rate of 10% or higher must undergo routine viability assessments. According to these housing audits, if the maintenance of the buildings exceeds the cost of vouchers and a revitalization plan will not confidently return them to long-term viability, local housing authorities must remove the structures from the housing supply within five years.

By 1999, most of the housing in Arthur Blumeyer did not pass the test, so St. Louis Housing Authority partnered with MBS to replace the development with Renaissance Place at Grand. Using $35 million of HUD’s HOPE VI grant funds, the developer created a 512-unit community, which under HOPE VI stipulations must accommodate a mix of income levels while adhering to architectural standards that respect the surroundings.

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I’ll confess that I’ve seen HOPE VI developments in other cities that come closer to imitating the existing vernacular; it would be hard for anyone with above-average vision to mistake this for historic St. Louis housing. (And it doesn’t help that 80% of the trees are barely more than saplings.) Still, the individual buildings orient themselves to the street and recall the brick duplexes still commonplace in other St. Louis neighborhoods.

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We’d be hard-pressed to find apartment buildings that look like these in the newer suburbs. Also noteworthy is the high density of solar panels that line the roofs of many buildings at Renaissance. The sustainable features and pedestrian scaled design helped the entire project earn a certification from US Green Building Council as a LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) community.

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Though only about a mile away from the North St. Louis developments featured in Part II, Renaissance enjoys intrinsic advantages for stretching within walking distance of the Grand Boulevard theater district, a still impoverished but steadily gentrifying area. Unlike Murphy Park and Brewery Apartments (but comparable to Westminster Place), Renaissance’s proximity to desirable land near Grand Boulevard results in broader appeal for a mixture of incomes and races. Thus, this development most likely had to dilute some of the distinguishing architecture features to attract a bigger market.

Just a few blocks to the south stands the headquarters of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, in the heart of Grand Center, part of the art and theater district that boasts the Fox Theatre and Powell Hall (home of the St. Louis Symphony) as its hub. Formerly a Woolworth Building, it sat vacant for many years after the store closed in 1993.

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Today, it hosts the well-known nonprofits regional headquarters, with additional space for art studios, offices, and other foundations. The restored 46,000 square foot Art Deco building (Big Brothers Big Sisters uses half the leasable space) was a milestone for McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc: the firm’s first non-residential development, completed in June 2008, taking advantage of a mixture of new market and historic tax credits. The area itself, thanks to the abundance of surviving pre-World War II architecture, is re-emerging as an arts and restaurant district, thanks in part to its close proximity to St. Louis University (SLU) to the south. The photo below shows a pocket park (Strauss Park) at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and North Grand Boulevard, just a block away from the Big Brothers Big Sisters building:

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Viewing the park from another angle, the majestic Fox Theatre is patently visible.

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Here it is, through a streetscape view standing in front of the old Woolworth.

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The cluster of older skyscrapers at this prominent point two miles west of downtown St. Louis asserts its importance as a sub-node, a reviving office and entertainment district comparable to many cities’ Midtowns.

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At the same time, the neighborhood of 11,000 poses formidable challenges. The defining characteristic of the average household is an unmarried woman with children, and barely 20% of adults have at least a high school diploma. With a population nearly three-quarters African-American, over one-third of these households make less than $10,000 annually. The remaining 27% of the population consists of a diverse array of relative newcomers: young professionals, college students, some immigrants, artists—virtually all of which have higher incomes than the median and which inevitably have driven the neighborhood’s escalating reputation as a destination for fashionable (and not necessarily low-cost) urban entertainment. Keeping in mind the polarizing demographic forces operating in Grand Center, the old Woolworth Building seems like a shrewd location for this type of redevelopment: the tenant mix can directly engage with the neighborhood’s neediest residents while fostering a blend of the (clichéd label) “eclectic” that helps sustain the often fragile balance in areas those host a widely mixed array of incomes. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, an office/administrative hub for the St. Louis metro and beyond, tries to emphasize inclusivity through partnerships with other neighborhood businesses. The near-future prospects for Grand Center suggest further gentrification, but this also expedites the end of the segregation and concentration of poverty that characterized the area for decades prior.

Less than a mile from the Big Brothers Big Sisters, and just to the west of SLU’s main campus, sits 6North, a fashionable loft-style building featuring 80 units, with approximately 55% at market rates.

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Although the surrounding neighborhood shows clear evidence of gentrification after decades of economic decline over the years, the majority of the building stock remains intact. At this same intersection of Laclede Avenue and North Sarah Street, only one other corner is vacant. Here are the structures at the other two corners:

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Situated on the site of a former farmer’s market (whose original shell remains), the new construction (completed in 2006) demonstrates a conscious effort to blend with the surrounding vernacular as urban infill. 6 North’s proudest accomplishment (earning it multiple development and design awards) is its incorporation into every unit the fundamentals of universal design, which organizes the space so that virtually any individual can maximize his or her usage of the space, including those with any variety of physical challenges (wheelchairs, blindness, severe arthritis). With the help of disability advocates at the Starkloff Institute, MBS’ development team devised wider hallways, more accessible light switches, changing floor textures to serve as tactile cues, full-length mirrors, and open space under sinks. The building includes several work-live units on the ground floor, giving clients the option of a home office. It also features a community room and fitness center (again applying universal design principles), and ground-floor retail.

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The demand for developments such as 6 North is only like to increase over the next two decades, as throngs of Baby Boomers become septa- and octogenarians. No doubt many of them will prefer a home environment that allows “aging in place”—reducing the need to move into assisted living facilities later in life.

The final development sits yet further south than its predecessors—the first one south of Interstate 64. McCormack House at Forest Park Southeast apartments place affordable assisted living all under one roof.

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For those who have read Part II, this development might bear more than a passing resemblance to the McCormack House at Westminster Place. It should. To the best of my knowledge, it’s more or less identical, thus explaining the shared namesake. I see no reason to fault standardization—quite naturally it reduces aggregate soft costs in terms of architect’s fees, and it probably cuts on some of the needed civil, mechanical and electrical engineering. One notable difference between this McCormack House and the one at Westminster is the surrounding environment. With Westminster Place, the assisted living sat on a primarily residential street, with other McCormack Baron Salazar developments abutting it. Here, it sits in relative isolation:

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The above photo offers a view across the street from Forest Park Southeast. At the junction of Manchester Avenue and Kingshighway Boulevard, the purlieus are hardly peaceful, and the street widths make them undesirable for pedestrian crossings. Fortunately a neighborhood of mostly intact housing and improving safety record stretches to the east of this facility.

While this concludes the housing tour, it barely scratches the surface of MBS projects in the St. Louis city limits. Their website reveals dozens more, ranging from adaptive reuse of historic structures, residential neighborhood construction, schools, shopping plazas, and solar retrofitting. And, of course, McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc. is just one of many developers aiming to repopulate some of the city’s most devastated neighborhoods through amenity-laden developments that cater to a wide variety of socioeconomic levels. Some are clearly more successful than others, but compare most of the St. Louis projects with these affordable apartments I encountered in a recent trip to Detroit:

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Taken through a raindrop-flecked windshield from a speeding bus, the pictures probably don’t do it justice. At the same time, they get the point across adequately: the buildings are oriented toward an interior parking lot or surrounded by off-street parking, with a perimeter fence. They intend to sequester the residents from their surroundings rather than integrate them. And they look completely indistinguishable from what one would expect to see in the suburbs.

I’m on the verge of creating a strawman here. It’s completely unfair for me to compare some of the most carefully thought-out housing in St. Louis with some obviously perfunctory developments in Detroit, when I’m sure Detroit has some superior replacement housing, and St. Louis certainly has other sub-par projects. But the numbers cannot lie: despite six decades of over 60% losses in either city, the decline shows some indication of flatlining in St. Louis, whereas the last 10 years for Detroit were worse than ever. No doubt a combination of exogenous and endogenous forces have come to shape why it appears Detroit has suffered so much more than St. Louis, and to delve into those would be worthy of yet another blog post that at this point I’m not well-informed enough to generate.

Simply put: empirical evidence supports the numbers. St. Louis has more effectively fended off the long accumulating stigma of living in the city limits. Even though, as I indicated in my first post in this series, St. Louis had to contend with a housing stock that had fallen more greatly out of favor than Detroit (particularly at the peak of the decline, from 1960 to 1980), it has enjoyed both a greater degree of renovated old housing as well as a replenishment of the supply in nearly depopulated neighborhoods. More than most major American cities, and certainly more than St. Louis, single-family owner-occupied detached housing dominates Detroit’s supply. Much of Detroit housing, especially in the northern neighborhoods close to the border at Eight Mile Road, looks like conventional “white picket fence” housing, yet people still abandoned it in droves, more rapidly in the last decade than even the previous lows of the 1970s. Though it may not have reversed the stigma, St. Louis holds greater promise, manifested in part by revitalized neighborhoods on the near south side, as well as the broad array of new construction across much of the previously deserted near north side.

I’ve deliberately suppressed the fundamental claim of this lengthy essay up to this point, though I have clearly hinted at it. This exploration of St. Louis’ evolving housing stock over the years (with tangential comparative references to Detroit) intends to call into question how much—if at all—shifting consumer tastes for housing have influenced the departure from American cities. While most older, industrialized cities in the country did begin to lose population in the middle of the 20th Century, some obviously suffered more than others: I have explored two that have endured among the steepest declines. But not every city has been able to align its housing construction with consumer tastes—tastes that time has proven to be quite persnickety, not just in regards to design/style of housing or the particular neighborhood/district, but the ultra-sensitive interplay between the two.

The truth is, the McCormack Baron Salazar developments featured in this article have, by and large, forged a shrewd compromise in capitalizing on a mostly urban housing typology in parts of the city where demand for housing diminished to virtually nothing. In order to substantiate this, it’s necessary to briefly revisit a project like Murphy Park from Part II of this essay:

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Obviously these buildings bear little relation to the turn-of-the-century brick architecture that survives resplendently throughout St. Louis neighborhoods south of Delmar Avenue. But it also does not look like a conventional suburban apartment complex in terms of the urban form: buildings front the conventional gridded street with minimal setbacks. Residents of these areas will still navigate their apartment complex in much the same way they would if this were a historic neighborhood: walking along sidewalks that parallel the streets while crossing at intersections, as opposed to walking through sidewalks in grassy yards to reach large parking lots. It’s a pedestrian scaled typology in a city that flourished in an area before automobile.

Compare the Murphy Park housing above to the photo below:

With prominent driveways leading to two-car garages, it’s hard to imagine these houses (not by McCormack Baron Salazar) might sit along century-old streets in a St. Louis neighborhood just a mile from downtown. They look like 1980s suburbia. But they do sit squarely in St. Louis, just a few blocks away from MBS’s Murphy Park development. The juxtaposition of these radically different attempts to redevelop housing in depopulated north St. Louis neighborhoods begs the question: which one do people want more? Obviously any attempt to gauge demand empirically as I have is based purely on speculation, but it’s relatively easy to substantiate it within a larger context. Truthfully, most of the low income African American families who left north St. Louis pursued the same American Dream as their white counterparts had thirty years prior: they sought larger, detached, flexible suburban housing with garages and bigger yards. But when a developer tries to replicate that model in the city of St. Louis, replete with its failing schools, strained public services, and lamentably high crime rates, why should families with any wherewithal choose the exact same housing product in the city that they can find easily in the ‘burbs but with much greater piece of mind? Much of this newish suburban housing in St. Louis seems to be unraveling already:

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Meanwhile, Murphy Park remains in impeccable shape.

Again, the comparison here isn’t entirely fair, since I deliberately pinpointed the worst examples of the suburban-style housing (some of it looks fine). And it is possible that the suburban housing is owner-occupied and heavily subsidized, while Murphy Park is renter-occupied and thus falls under strict property management. But demand will still drive everything, and it is highly possible that an extremely low-income family may still seek affordable housing with a “traditional” urban form that MBS offers, as long as it provides amenities. Meanwhile, the market-rate buyers who voluntarily move to the city despite its crime and failing schools will almost definitely seek housing that promotes urbanism and walkability. Though I don’t see yuppies moving to this side of St. Louis any time soon, they are far more likely to show interest in the market rate portion of an MBS development such as Murphy Park or the meticulously renovated Brewery Apartments—

—than they would for a conventional suburban house like the ones near Murphy Park, which they could easily afford in a suburb with much better schools.

Thus, a savvy developer must know not only when it’s the right time to rebuild in the always-risky depopulating central city, but which neighborhoods/districts are right to build, and which architecture or urban design principles are suitable for that particular neighborhood. St. Louis’s most promising investments for the short-term may sit in a semicircle shape two miles around the downtown to the north, west, and south. In the north, the best option is new construction using moderately urban standards but with the contemporary amenities (walk-in closets, ample kitchen/cabinet space, single-tap faucets) that virtually everyone expects these days. To the west and the south, developers can focus more on strategic infill or restoration, since a considerably greater portion of the original housing stock survives, with a newly invigorated demand for both brick and attached duplexes.

Elsewhere in the St. Louis city limits—outside of that two-mile “fertile crescent”—it may be hard to stimulate much more demand for housing restoration or replenishment, particularly in the north and west. Many of those neighborhoods are still losing population. And the demand for the conventional St. Louis brick house does not extend so broadly that new arrivals are willing to try their luck in neighborhoods that hold no prospect for turning trendy in the next decade.

The conventional St. Louis brick house is still a niche product. The fate of housing in these outlier districts is cloudy: while the city seeks buyers to claim vacant homes at very low costs, quite a few others will face demolition. Optimally, the City will forge contracts with developers to purchase and rehab a broad swathe of them, based on the instinct that revitalizing an entire district, while evidently costlier and difficult to implement, is far more likely to result in sustained revitalization than merely renovating a single structure in an area otherwise surrounded by blight.

Whatever the Missouri city’s recent successes, neither St. Louis nor Detroit has any room for complacency. The figureheads behind St. Louis’ revitalization face an uphill battle in the less trendy neighborhoods: what often appear to be solidly built brick homes will nonetheless continue to deteriorate when mothballed, not just due to climatic changes but also negative human intervention. Many abandoned properties, particularly in the most deserted areas (and, thus, the least supervised), face imminent collapse due to persistent brick theft from scavengers. Though I have not seen it, the film Brick by Chance and Fortune apparently explores St. Louis’ distinctive brick legacy in greater detail. Meanwhile, recent Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers incidentally suggest that the metro Detroit economy is faring better than St. Louis for the time being—though a single year’s reports on job growth don’t necessarily indicate much, St. Louis ranked dead last among major metros, according to a recent chart compiled by The Urbanophile. Metro Detroit fell somewhere more in the middle of the pack. The essence of urban depopulation (a process decades in the making) is a many-headed hydra, and our learning process is scarcely over, nor, for that matter is the depopulation era over for many, many cities. Tackling repopulation has proven just as difficult. The most talented market-rate and affordable developers understand niche sensitivity enough to generate a strong IRR, leaving on the less successful in the housing industry to trot the stale shibboleth “built it and they will come”. In the wounded American city, it just ain’t that simple.

Again, I would like to thank Heather Milton for her support and input on St. Louis housing.

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*this piece is reposted with permission from American Dirt: Observations of Contemporary Landscapes – a site based in Indianapolis, but which ventures off to everywhere from New Jersey to Memphis to Philadelphia with regularity – click on the link above and check it out. First image by Mark Groth, all others by American Dirt.

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  • dempster holland

    On the question of how S St Louis retained much of its white population,
    the answer can be found by tracing the movement of the black population
    after World War II. This movement started from just north and west of down
    town and gradually moved north and west from there. By the 1970s, move-
    ment had reached the city limits and thus spilled over to the older suburbs
    north and west of the city. At his point, a significant change occured. Rather than neighborhoods turning totally from white to black, the movement was
    throughout north county and white flight was not as pervasive as previously
    For the growing middle class black family a suburban house in a somewhat
    integrated north county suburb was preferable to an urban house in a stilll
    somewhat hostile south st Louis. This black movement to nearby suburbs is
    not unusual–see the south suburbs of chicago, for example. More recently
    as north st Louis deteriorates more, there has been black movement to the
    older sections of south st Louis, but this has been more of a working class
    rather than a middle class movement.

  • guest

    Part of the frustration with this series is that the writer seems to be generally unaware of our “city of neighborhoods” makeup. McCormack Baron doesn’t much rebuild existing neighborhoods. McCormack Baron mostly builds new communities.

    So if St. Louis were a clean slate, then talking about how the MBS model might save St. Louis would make more sense. But it’s not. St. Louis is a messy amalgam of mostly older, built up areas. St. Louis’s challenge is not how to build new construction. Paul McKee and Northside Regeneration provides plenty of opportunity for that. St. Louis’s challenge is how to sustain the neighborhoods we have?

    Maybe the grist for another series?

    • Eric M (American Dirt)

      Author here. Most cities of reasonable size–or at least the pro-urban contingent within them–like the make a case that they are a “city of neighborhoods”, so I’m not sure if that is a way STL would distinguish itself. Some cities make a better case of their neighborhoods than others, and I’d assert that St. Louis has more to offer in that regard than Kansas City or Indianapolis.

      I’m more prone to defend MBS than it would seem many here are. Obviously I don’t follow their developments with the scrutiny of a local, so I’m probably far less attuned to their multifarious proposals and community reaction. But I am willing to forgive some of the less egregious compromises because it is extremely difficult to calibrate demand to return general, demand for a particular neighborhood or district, demand for the housing stock proffered, and the host of other factors (race, poverty, safety, public services) that inevitably muddy the brew.

      However, while none of St. Louis is a clean slate, it certainly has more swathes that have emerged as virtual slates when compared to most cities–but still far, far fewer than Detroit.

  • guest

    The conversation starts to get so academic that it’s hard to feel the ground. Why not apply some of these notions to specific neighborhoods rather than development projects? Considering the points made herein, what’s the takeaway for real, living, city neighborhoods? Places like Gravois Park, Bevo, Baden, and Walnut Park? Places where the redevelopment works of MBS have never visited?

  • guest

    The author sort of writes off about 70 percent of the city, saying outside of the 2 mile “fertile crescent” surrounding downtown, there’s basically no demand for housing in the city. Here’s the statement:

    “Elsewhere in the St. Louis city limits—outside of that two-mile “fertile crescent”—it may be hard to stimulate much more demand for housing restoration or replenishment, particularly in the north and west. Many of those neighborhoods are still losing population. And the demand for the conventional St. Louis brick house does not extend so broadly that new arrivals are willing to try their luck in neighborhoods that hold no prospect for turning trendy in the next decade.”

    Who is this writer (“American Dirt”)? And what qualifies him/her to make such sweeping statements?

    • Alex Ihnen

      I think some numbers would help bolster this assertion, but it rings true IMO. Neighborhoods that have lost 20%+ of their population each of the last two decades can be said to lack housing demand, especially for 1890-1920 St. Louis brick boxes.

    • Eric M (American Dirt)

      Author here. I’ve tried to be pretty careful to avoid the true “sweeping statement” cues such as “all”, “always” or “never”, which is why I tailored my observation with “many of those neighborhoods”. Thanks for reading, but if I scrutinized the other 70% of the city at this level, we wouldn’t have a three-part article. It would be a book.

      • guest

        I think you’ve already made the “sweepiest” of statements by titling this series, “Salvaging St. Louis”. St. Louis is a highly nuanced place. Some mega trends have been and remain very impactful here. Yet there is much to be learned at the fine grain of the parcel, block, and neighborhood levels. The case for abandonment could be made based on sprawl, lousy public education, perception of crime, yadayadayada. And looking at it another way, how has MBS succeeded in STL city when its residents must also survive the lousy education system foisted on the residents of St. Louis? Those folks are more willing to suffer the city schools than folks living in existing housing? Strange.

  • John R

    I think the strongest part of the series was the discussion here at the end on what type of housing may best attract repopulation. But I think the historical aspects were rather weak, in particular the failure to look at racial issues as a major reason for the depopulation of Detroit and North Saint Louis. Detroit is 83% black and 11% white while Saint Louis is 49% black and 44% white. Why is it that a substantial white population remained in South Saint Louis while the white exodus from Detroit was apparently citywide but for maybe a few neighborhoods? Perhaps housing stock had a role, but this interesting question wasn’t explored here at all. Also I think it is interesting that despite the enormous loss from Detroit last decade, the overall population density is virtually the same as ours. And, yes, we can’t be complacent indeed….. Cleveland experienced a decade of signs of population stability between 90 & 00 before its significant drop this past decade. Same can happen here if we’re not careful.

    • Eric M (American Dirt)

      Author here. Thanks for your observations. Cities that have experienced stark racial distinctions in their out-migration patterns will always merit another level of analysis. St. Louis may be stark, but it pales into comparison to the racial lines in Chicago, Louisville, Milwaukee, or (much to my surprise) Baton Rouge in the South. In my opinion, the influence of race could also be an entirely different report, and one that, because it has been done by urban observers far better informed than me, I chose to avoid.

      But have neighborhoods like The Hill remained as stable as we’d like to think from appearance? My suspicion is that The Hill’s census tract(s) also show persistent population loss over the years, though obviously to nowhere near as great of a degree as the typical North St. Louis neighborhoods. Even some of the most fashionable inner-ring suburban areas such as University City have persistently lost population over the decades–they are de-densifying even as their chic depends upon walkable density.

      Furthermore, while redlining and blockbusting may have influenced the survival of South STL at the expense of the North, using racism as the great scapegoat often shreds the reality that upwardly mobile blacks and whites BOTH sought to leave the city for modern housing in a more desirable setting. Was it racial prejudice or merely income that explain why the white exodus preceded that of the black exodus?

      • John R

        Eric, thanks for the reply. But your comment makes me even more frustrated. Part of why I’m critical is that the notion of housing stock playing a role in our population loss in comparison to other older, manufacturing-based cities is a delicious thought, yet I think you largely failed to convince.

        I think it would have been helpful to have first tested your theory locally. Why have some neighborhoods in the city fared better than others? Why the stark differences between population trends in north and south City? Can we infer from housing stock that there is a correlation between this and population retention? Why did Soulard, the Central West End, and Lafayette Park begin their impressive restorations at the height of population loss elsewhere in the city? What is going on in Old North Saint Louis that accounted for population gain while other neighborhoods in north city continue to see population loss at levels similar to Detroit?

        Again, I found the series interesting and thought you did a good job of advancing what type of housing might hold promise for larger-scale repopulation, but I found it lacking on the historical reasons for the loss in the first place.

        • Eric M (American Dirt)

          Thanks again for the response. You no doubt recognize that many of the observations you’ve included in your second paragraph could apply in almost any city. In my home town of Indianapolis, Lockerbie Square just east of downtown began revitalizing in the 1980s, when you could throw a football on downtown streets after 5 pm or on the weekends. Nearly all cities have a “bad” side of town and its contrasting “good” side, with the difference being that the good side merely elegantly/quietly relieved some of its dense pressures while the “bad” side hemorrhaged. Was housing stock always better quality in south St. Louis to justify its survival? Was it always whiter? If so, could it have more effectively organized itself and prevented encroachment through redlining strategies, or to maintain the property values? Probably yes to all of these, but to me, those are broad sweeping observations are less provocative and interesting because the cut such a broad swath. I was trying to find an explanation that might be more exclusive to St. Louis.

          If I had my druthers, I would have explored the city neighborhood by neighborhood with greater thoroughness, no doubt harvesting data and empirical evidence to both substantiate and challenge my fundamental claims on housing obsolescence. But it wouldn’t have made a blog article. I deliberately chose a banal, micro-level method of exploring the city’s population shifts because 1) the macro influences (social policy, racism, highway construction) have been done to death and become the fundamentals for first-year urban studies classes; 2) micro- influences are harder to create as a basis for generalization and manifest themselves very differently in city-to-city, or even block-to-block; and 3) I managed to get a PR packet from McCormack Baron Salazar that helped organize my own city tour over the course of 4 hours. (Not my first visit to STL, but the first in a very long time.) Bear in mind, what it boils down to in my original comparison to Detroit is that St. Louis’ housing proved less desirable over the short term but more versatile over the long-term, no doubt helping to explain why the city enjoys many more stable neighborhoods and a vastly superior image than Detroit, despite equally formidable population losses within the historic boundaries.

          Population change both large and small is infinitely complicated. I wanted to go out on a limb by looking at it from an unconventional angle. If I’ve frustrated you by raising more questions than I’ve answered, then I’d say my claim hasn’t failed. Most of the criticisms here seem to be about what I did NOT include, rather than what I explicitly wrote. I appreciate your rebuttal and absolutely believe that it’s valid too.

  • guest

    While overall, this series is very informative, this statement:

    “Optimally, the City will forge contracts with developers to purchase and rehab a broad swathe of them, based on the instinct that revitalizing an entire district, while evidently costlier and difficult to implement, is far more likely to result in sustained revitalization than merely renovating a single structure in an area otherwise surrounded by blight.”

    …reveals a great lack of understanding regarding development in St. Louis and its required resources. If only money were no object and real estate deals were like a walk down a garden path….

    • Alex Ihnen

      The problem here is that the statement only really applies to parts of the city that have nearly bottomed out, those where vacancy is pervasive and smaller projects are difficult to finance and market. If looking at what might keep someone from leaving, say, the Shaw neighborhood, or O’Fallon (both quite intact), the answer wouldn’t be large scale redevelopment. Looking at the city as a whole, one can take the view that only a revitalized north side will stabilize and bring back residents, but it should be made clear, what other challenges exist across the city.

    • Eric M (American Dirt)

      Author here. Thanks for your observation. I’ll admit that part of this statement was based on a conclusion drawn from interviews with locals, but STL faces this same dilemma as many other cities with hugely vacant blocks. I use “dilemma” deliberately because it is dual natured: limited capital only often allows for piecemeal redevelopment, and yet such incrementalism is rarely adequate to regenerate housing demand in a district that previously lacked it completely. And, of course, as I always try to measure my language, I begin the statement with the great weasel word “optimally”.