Gentrification May Not Mean What You Think It Means in a City Like St. Louis

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Most research on revitalizing neighborhoods views them as instances of “gentrification,” the movement of young, often single, professionals into low-income, heavily minority, neighborhoods near urban employment centers. The dominant view in the literature is that low-income and minority residents are pushed out by gentrification as the local culture and consumption patterns are taken over by upwardly mobile professionals.

Most of the research on gentrification has been conducted in strong market metros, like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. Hank Webber (Washington University) and I recently conducted research on upwardly trending neighborhoods in the St. Louis metropolitan area. What we found does not fit the gentrification model.

We began by identifying all of the older parts of the region that were built up by 1950 – what the Census Bureau calls the “urbanized area” (basically all census tracts with a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile in 1950). We then developed a Neighborhood Vitality Index with three components: 1)Economic (per capita income); 2) Social (poverty rate); and 3) Physical (vacancy rate). We classified any tract as a “rebound” tract if it increased at least a decile (10 percentage points) in its ranking on the index for 1990-2000 or 2000-2010 (throwing out any census tracts that were not in the bottom 50 percent at any time in the period 1970-2010). Below is a map of the urbanized area as of 1950 in St. Louis; areas in red are “rebound” census tracts.

We found that rebound neighborhoods in St. Louis come in many different types and no neighborhood fits the classic gentrification model well. For example, some rebound neighborhoods are in inner–ring suburbs. The suburb of Maplewood, for example, has modest brick-frame housing stock but it has revitalized by creating a funky pedestrian friendly retail street with a local brew pub as an anchor.

{the inner ring suburb of Maplewood, Missouri}

Another rebound neighborhood is Botanical Heights which has the world-famous Missouri Botanical Gardens as its anchor. One of the keys to revitalization here was the creation by activist parents of a public charter Montessori School. St. Louis City Schools have a generally poor reputation but families are moving into Botanical Heights just to get their children into the Montessori school.

There are even a few rebound neighborhoods in the overwhelmingly African American North Side which has suffered from extensive housing vacancy and abandonment. In the Mark Twain neighborhood the anchor is historic cemetery which has created a foundation to fund housing rehabilitation.

Perhaps most surprising to us was the Central West End (CWE) which is widely considered the most successful rebound neighborhood in St. Louis. CWE does fit some aspects of the gentrification model. It is located near a major center of professional employment, Barnes Jewish Hospital and Washington University Medical School and the percentage of young people ages 18-34 increased dramatically from 26 percent to 44 percent between 1970 and 2010. But what is striking is that the area is still remarkably diverse both racially and economically – with large numbers of African Americans, Asians and poor people still living in the area.

In legacy cities housing markets tend to be “loose” and that may mean that displacement pressures are less severe in so-called gentrifying neighborhoods and that economic and racial diversity may be an asset for neighborhoods rather than a problem.

More good news — young people are more open to diversity. The Center for American Progress and PolicyLink joined with the Rockefeller Foundation and Latino Decisions to assess how Americans view issues of rising diversity based on survey of 3,000 individuals. Their 160-point composite openness index measures the degree to which people are open to racial and ethnic diversity. The youngest age group—Americans ages 18 to 29—reported a mean score of 92, compared to the oldest age group—Americans ages 65 or older—which scored an average of 80 on the index.

Our research does not mean that we no longer have to worry about racial and economic segregation. Racial segregation is still high in St. Louis and concentrated poverty has spread. But it does mean, we think, that there are many more possibilities for rebound neighborhoods than the rigid concept of gentrification suggests – especially for legacy cities.

*this post first appeared at Legacy Cities, a site dedicated to “Rethinking, Revitalizing and Rewriting the Future of American Legacy Cities”

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  • Ryan

    Very interesting article! We are curious to know what you have to say to the comments on this site.

  • moe
    • moe

      “San Francisco may be held up on a global pedestal as a friendly, supportive place for gays and lesbians, but the city is at risk of abandoning the men and women who built that structure and who are now heading into old age, according to a report released Tuesday”

  • Maggie

    Being a South City girl (and a geography M.A.) I’m curious about my Southampton neighborhood and the influx of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian residents. There are many articles about the 1990s and new immigration but other than those groups coming into the neighborhood, but have since moved to South County. For the most part, my childhood stopping grounds were full of families that had been there for generations — parents and grandparents who had attended the same surrounding Catholic schools, solid German, Italian, Lebanese and Irish neighborhoods. There seemed to be no economic decline that I’m aware of but yet my grade school and others had to close because of lack of attendance. When I left for college the neighborhood seemed a little sad. Now I feel it’s on an upturn. Young couples with little children and twenty-somethings filing in. We are still missing diversity for the most part, except along major streets/corridors (Chippewa, Kingshighway). In other words, I guess South City is one of the unique areas of the city that doesn’t follow traditional patterns of “revitalization.” Decent article.

    Unrelated question: When talking about inner suburbs, St. Louis is unique for having them correct? Being one of two major cities in the U.S. that is not part of any county creates these just-outside-city-limits spaces, yes? Or does it have an effect at all?

    • kjohnson04

      Technically, there are three. Baltimore is not part of it’s county (Baltimore County) either. Although, Baltimore’s inner ring “suburbs” aren’t incorporated like ours either. Good question. New York City has them to an extent, too (the Westchester County border, Nassau County, etc.) They aren’t particular to St. Louis, it’s just most of ours hemmed the city in on three sides (South County being an exception).

  • Darrell

    Great article overall but poor fact checking and half assed presentation piss me off. The Botanical Garden is not in Botanical Heights so not technically the anchor of that neighborhood. Talk of Botanical Heights which are the new homes already falling apart without mention of the older portion of the neighborhood MoOrestown which is actually still suffering horribly. You can be a resident of one of SEVERAL Garden District neighborhoods not just BH and get have your child go to CGMS. Makes me question the rest of the content.

    • Alex Ihnen

      It’s a bit of shorthand for sure, but not incorrect. The Botanical Garden is the anchor of the Botanical Heights neighborhood – as much as there is one anyway. The Garden has invested heavily in the area, purchasing and holding property, and now selling to a developer selling $300K+ single family homes. Certainly its investment is now leading to private investment in Botanical Heights. The Garden has been there for a long time and clearly hasn’t kept the surrounding neighborhoods from slipping into economic decline – hence the gentrification today. Of course other neighborhoods should be included – Shaw and Forest Park Southeast are both showed as gentrifying, and they are in the City Garden Montessori catchment area. The corner of the Southwest Garden neighborhood nearest the Botanical Garden is shown as gentrifying as well.

  • Michael S

    There is too much focus on racial and economic diversity. Most of St. Louis has very little diversity, consisting mostly of blacks and whites. The primary goal should be an influx of capital, public safety, and significant improvements to dedicated ROW transportation options. In this day and age, why are we still judging investments by something as trivial as skin color? There are much better metrics.

    • John R

      IMO what we should seek is all of what you mentioned above while at the same time to the greatest extent possible keeping existing populations. These people deserve to benefit from the increased services and not be shunted aside to areas with less opportunity. The data appears to show instead that there is large migration of existing African-Americans out of these areas. That is far from trivial.

    • TheSharperWon

      Agreed, St. Louis does a “poor” job in addressing diversity issues. Addressing the “people” factor leaves a lot to be desired. It’s as if people, their wants, needs and desires do not exist! Perhaps that’s why an overabundance of people don’t exist in the city. Far too many in leadership positions operate in a bubble, from political officials, “some” to developers. Leadership talks at the citizenry vs with the citizenry, which would make for a great community. Time to embrace dialogue.

    • moe

      Possible. But I have to take issue with the 2012 census numbers as they show whites at 45.9% and blacks at 48.5 but yet we have the largest Bosnian population outside of Bosnia as well as a large percentage of Asian descendants.

  • John R

    Looking at some specific “resurgent” neighborhoods, it is pretty depressing with regards to the African-American population. CWE, Skinky-D, Benton Park, TGE, Shaw, FPSE all lost large amounts of African-Americans last decade but gained whites. Already gentrified Laf. Sq. and Soulard became even less diverse. Only Tower Grove South seemed to retain its relative balanced diversity, with about 30% African-American in both 2000 and 2010, although this was largely a result of fewer whites as well as blacks.
    Perhaps the only real difference b/w Saint Louis and some of the hotter coastal cities is that we just don’t draw large numbers of younger people to the region as a whole and thus our pace is slower. I suspect we’ll see less diversity in 2020 census as well.

    • Presbyterian

      I recall noticing that both black and white adult populations declined at similar rates between 2000 and 2010. (5% vs. 3.5% IIRC?) A factor in the overall drop in diversity that decade was the loss children … specifically African American children. That drop was sizable and was felt in the shrinkage of the public school system long before the census figures were released.

      • dempster holland

        African Americans with children moved to the suburbs for
        better housing and better schools. Just like whites have.

  • T-Leb

    I wonder what role different landlords, absentee landlords and/or new development property managed sites do to our neighborhoods with respect to low income and diversity residential patterns.

    • moe

      From experience, absentee landlords lead to decline of property values.

      • dempster holland

        Nearly every high class apartment building is owned by an
        absentee landlord What causes property value decline
        is tenants who can’t afford to pay rent sufficient to maintain
        buildings–that is an income inequality problem, not a housing

        • moe

          Very true dempster. I could have phrased it better… landlords with a small grouping usually are poor caretakers. From my experience, the landlords with 1 or 3 properties tend to be very good to their tenants and neighborhood because they get that that keeps a good income flow. Then there are those with a dozen or so properties that have the income flow to cover expenses and make a small profit, but see no need to keep re-investing. At least in my part of the City, these tend to be the slumlords.
          Then there are the high-class like you mention…those and bigger units tend to be professionally managed…that’s a different beast.
          Mind you, it’s not all landlords….but enough of the them that make all the landlords look bad.

        • T-Leb

          They usually have supervision, someone checks to see if the cleaning crew is actually doing their job ect. Respond to tenants requests for maintenance. In StL and Missouri there are almost no laws that protect renters.

  • John R

    It is true that there are still many African-Americans in the CWE, but it looks like from the Census comparisons that there were 21% fewer of them in 2010 than 2000…. that does seem to be a significant number. Also, Shaw and FPSE saw massive loss of African-Americans last decade while seeing a significant percentage increase in the white population… both nabes saw large overall population decline. Nice to see Downtown, Downtown West and Midtown gain significant numbers of both black and white populations.

    • dempster holland

      Its a little hard to tell from the map exactly what is being defined as central
      west end. Areas north of Washington and east of Boyle have always had
      significant numbers of african americans, but this does not make the
      other parts of the cwe “diverse” In the shaw neighborhood, if it includes
      what is now called Botanical Heights, the reduction in african americans
      would have come from a large increase in abandoned 2 to 6 families, which
      possibly one could argue is part of the gentrification process..

  • Ann Wimsatt

    This is great research and a great resource map. It’s also nice to know that Hank Webber/WUSTL sponsors and shares demographic data. An open and intellectual conversation about gentrification adds to the rising cosmopolitanism of Saint Louis.

    On the other hand, Swanstrom appears to be comparing cities on an identical timeline–Saint Louis 2014 versus Manhattan 2014 or San Francisco 2014. That comparison may lead to false insights.

    Based on a recent stay in the East Village, the 2014 CWE is far more economically and racially diverse than the 2014 East Village. Keep in mind that in 1980, the East Village was incredibly (and wonderfully) diverse. Thirty years later, the tenement buildings are the same but the racial, generational and economic diversity has vanished. It’s gone. Nearly everyone in the East Village is the same (millennial) generation and the same two races. English is the dominant language on the streets. The expensive restaurants are full. The inexpensive diners are quarter full. Manhattan is in the late stages of gentrification. Meanwhile, Saint Louis is in the early, more diverse, phase.

    Gentrification is part and parcel of a powerful, churning process of modernization. I’ve looked at cities across the globe and modernization has the same meaning and consequence for every city. Saint Louis in 2014 is perhaps more similar to Manhattan in 1980, SF in 1985 or Brooklyn in 2000. Whether or not the rising urban trend will completely gentrify Saint Louis is still a question. Millennials on the coast seem to think that Saint Louis is simply a decade (or two?) behind a trend that has already transformed cities on the East and West Coast. If those coastal punters are right, the diversity in Saint Louis will disappear with the rising gentrification and by 2044, Saint Louis non-diversity will look like the non-diverse East Village circa 2014.

    • Nat76

      St. Louis might be more similar in its current state to Manhattan in 1980 or Brooklyn in 2000, but assuming STL is following the same path ignores regional economic differences. Cities like NYC, BOS, SF, LA, DC, etc have tremendous levels of human and financial capital accumulation, economic differentiation, size, density, and logistical concerns with respect to commuting to their respective CBDs.
      Gentrification and associated dislocation is much more intense in areas with a) strong incentive to relocate closer to the city center for purposes of commute time reduction and b) tremendous wage disparities. St. Louis doesn’t have enough high income jobs in the region to produce this degree of change, regardless of the timeframe. In coastal cities listed above, households earning 100K+ outnumber households earning less than 30K, sometimes by factors higher than 3 to 1. In St. Louis, the low income households outnumber the high income households.
      Gentrification will lead to some degree of dislocation but I think it’s far from a forgone conclusion that significant swaths of the city in 2044 (or whenever) will resemble current day East Village/insert “boutiqued out, hip” neighborhood here.

      • Ann Wimsatt

        Firstly, this is an attempt to predict the city’s future. It is educated speculation, at best, on all sides.

        Secondly, I respectfully disagree with the idea that regional economic differences or driving times are driving the current wave of urbanization. Those factors drove the Boomers to build huge swaths of suburbs (and millions of McMansions) but different factors appear to be at work for the millennial generation.

        The main differences are generational and I offer Manhattan 1980 as a possible guide to what’s happening in STL for a couple of reasons. One, the yuppies who moved to Manhattan in 1980 were not the majority. They were a creative bunch who yearned for the experience of the city–and they were willing to live in cramped quarters in sometimes high risk areas. In 2014, the yuppies moving to inner urban areas across the US are part of the majority. Tremendous numbers of recent college grads are moving into inner urban areas marking a major shift in lifestyle preferences. In fact, low density Saint Louis is drawing a higher number of these grads than its nearest competitors.

        St Louis will never have the density of Manhattan but the trajectory of the gentrification may be similar to the gentrification of Manhattan –or San Francisco. Likewise, St Louis may be able to glean pertinent lessons from the current gentrification in Brooklyn. In terms of density and fabric, Saint Louis has a lot in common with Brooklyn–and Queens.

        Gentrification is simply the name for the phenomena of wealthier residents moving into an area where the majority of the residents are poorer than them. It is not a matter of worrying, it is simply a matter of recognizing gentrification and speculating about the possible meaning it may hold for the future of the city.

        Substantial gentrification is happening in the center and on the South Side of Saint Louis.

  • TheSharperWon

    Unfortunately, fortunately, glass half full, glass half empty….there are many neighborhoods that have FEW individuals living there, black or white, young or old. Perhaps this is why gentrification offers no threat! Good report!

    • T-Leb

      Interesting thought.

    • Presbyterian

      The 2010 census found 34,000 vacant housing units … about one in five.