Why go downtown at all? Presaging Urban Decline in St. Louis

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Reddit0Share on LinkedIn0Print this pageEmail this to someone

The hallowing out of urban St. Louis. We knew it was coming half a century ago. Solutions to the challenge were proposed. St. Louis knew it was competing with other cities, including Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Baltimore. While grand ideas of remaking transportation in the historic American city and accommodating hundreds of thousands of new drivers, were proposed, the problem was being addressed by individual decisions and public policy. St. Louis sprawled.

“Why go downtown at all?” Was a question asked in 1965 St. Louis, and it many ways one that is still asked today. Whether people in this region of 2.8M residents go downtown drives public policy and planning around the Gateway Arch, new Mississippi River Bridge, and of course a possible new football stadium.

Fifty years on, was the premise presented in this video prophetic, or has it been proven false to a large degree? The city lost more than 60% of its residents, and likely not a dissimilar percent of its businesses and jobs. The region has plodded along. Many of the area’s suburbs are economically successful.

We continue to talk about rapid transit expansion (a new MetroLink line), and urban transit in the form of streetcars and buses. We continue to preach the necessity of a strong urban core. We continue to complain about traffic and parking. What’s been learned, what’s changed in half a century?

Why are we still asking “Why go downtown at all”?

One radical solution to the problem of rush hour congestion and downtown parking was long ago thought of and acted upon by millions of Americans in big cities all across the nation.
“Who needs to go downtown at all?”

All around the periphery of St. Louis in the Missouri and Illinois counties served by the Bi-State Development Agency there is an ever-widening ring of business establishments and professional offices designed to meet the specifications of the automobile age, drive-in theaters drive-in restaurants, drive-in hotels, drive-in banks.

And dominating the suburban landscape throughout the drive-in belt around St. Louis are the great shopping centers that offer the suburbanite every variety of merchandise and professional service he might reasonably want. Plus acres and acres of free parking, all without having to drive more than two or three miles from home.

With all its convenience, and what’s more to the point, with all its free parking space available and the ever-widening suburban belt, the modern metropolitan area resident is constrained to repeat the question,

[Woman standing at her car]
“Why go downtown at all?”

On the surface at least, this question seems to suggest a realistic and sensible solution to the problem of all-day parking and rush hour traffic in the central business district of any big city. Why go downtown at all? Why, indeed.

Just the same, many of us will have the uneasy feeling that this solution is almost too easy, that there’s a hint of danger in it, the threat perhaps of some kind of social disorganization on an enormous scale.

The suburbs surround what we have long thought of as the central city, the core area, but what will happen to the surrounding belt of suburbs if this core simply disintegrates and then
vanishes? Could the suburban belt just go on expanding forever leaving a bigger and bigger circle of nothing much in the middle, a bigger and bigger hole in the doughnut?

In scores of American cities, including St. Louis, this is exactly what began happening with the coming of the great automobile age after World War I.

In the beginning it was just a matter of going out where the living was greener, a little more spacious, a matter of opening up new residential areas in the comparative peace and quiet of the suburbs, but as wealth moved out of the city, urban blight moved in, usually right downtown on the fringes of the core area business district because that’s where the oldest houses and tenements were, the buildings that traditionally produced the least in tax revenues and cost the most in tax supported services like police protection fire protection and public health service.

This spreading cancer of urban blight, this rot in the core of the city, accelerated the flight to the outlying residential areas, and this in turn generated the great commuting cycle of people having to travel greater and greater distances each day to get what they went to the suburbs for in the first place.


why go downtown

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Reddit0Share on LinkedIn0Print this pageEmail this to someone
  • George Campbell

    You have to turn the downtown into essentially an upscale suburb. That’s what Columbus Ohio did.

    • STLRainbow

      Congratulations, George… I can’t tell if this is serious or not. Well done!

  • Cody

    People who graduate from Wash U should actually stay in the city afterwards… do USC grads flee LA? No. But there isn’t anything for young, talented people in St Louis.

    The problem with St. Louis isn’t that downtown isn’t trendy; if surburbia were itself a harbinger of decline then cities like San Antonio shouldn’t be having all the success they are. The problem with St Louis is that highly educated people are locationally independent in 2016. So more and more people choose to go where the activity is and employers follow them rather than the other way round.

    So St. Louis is competing not just with Chicago but with San Francisco and Los Angeles and Seattle.

    Believe it or not, St Louis has something it can offer if it comes to its senses pretty quickly here, and that’s affordable quality of life. It’s the same thing that KCMO is offering.

    Currently, however, the St Louis government is mired in horrible early 20th century thinking. They believe they can enact many regulations that don’t protect any consumers but just enrich city contractors and favored firms while lining their pocket books, and they believe they can continually raise fees and taxes,.. without consequence.

    The performance of the region and the city is evidence against that. There is no logical reason for St. Louis to be performing so much more poorly than are KCMO, Omaha, or Memphis. It’s just that the city of St Louis makes it so damned difficult to work or do business in the city.

    I hope that sometime soon St Louis enters into receivership and the state forces them to pull their head out of their a–. The city is too beautiful and culturally important to be further destroyed.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I don’t really buy the “brain drain” theory. Every city I’ve travelled to laments each and every college graduate who leaves. Do WUSTL grads leave at a greater rate than graduates of other top-tier universities in other cities? At what rate is WUSLT a net importer of college educated residents? Is St. Louis performing worse than KCMO, Omaha, or Memphis in retaining college graduates?

  • illusion87

    Follow Kansas City.
    Clean up downtown from crime and lower class.
    You can do this by creating somewhat expensive apartment buildings in the downtown core (so lower class cant afford it, get Larrys shelter out of there as well). Provide subsidies to companies to move to downtown so people will want to live near their work. Next thing you know you have young people living and working in downtown. Everything else like markets and shops will come naturally as they are demanded by a working population.

  • mres

    You can’t have a downtown without housing and schools and remain viable. I live near NYC. I have lived in Boston. San Francisco is the same. You need good schools, supermarkets and doctors/dentists. People will never keep a downtown fully alive without people living there. And people don’t live and by people I mean families, in places that are largely giant work and entertainment areas. I can’t see why this isn’t obvious. maybe no one has ever lived in a large city? I don’t know.
    Business isn’t enough, shopping centers aren’t enough, restaurants/bars/music/theater isn’t enough.

    • moorlander

      I think downtown St. Louis has made significant strides in in this regard over the last 15 or so years. Around year 2000 our downtown population was almost zero. Now it’s somewhere in the 10k-15k range (depending oh what boundaries are used) I think we need to see that figure triple to be where most of us want it to be.

  • Matt B

    I feel like as more and more of these T-Rex start-ups really begin to become successful, they won’t forget their roots and choose to expand within downtown. Most of the big companies we have now started downtown or near and as the 50’s hit I feel like they ran to the burbs to be with their employees and have since sprawled there. It’s not very easy for them to just up and move to downtown but at the same time they should remember where they came from and help revitalize their city. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next couple decades.

  • Nate Briggs

    Yep. Our last trip into St Louis to see the Cardinals, we stayed in the Central West End — which at least I consider to be “downtown” St Louis. The last time we stayed close to the river, we could not find table-service breakfast on a weekday, and the entire business of the metro area — every single street corner — seemed to be ticket scalping. The Central West End has what the area near the river desperately needs: people living there. A Metro area cannot be viable using imported people.

    • rgbose


    • Chicagoan

      Downtown is completely lacking in amenities like bars, restaurants, shopping, but I still like walking around in the area.

      You guys have one of Louis Sullivan’s masterpieces! I mean, Sullivan lived/worked here and we have what I think is Adler/Sullivan’s greatest work (Auditorium Building), but we don’t have anything with the exterior ornament of the Wainwright Building. We had the Chicago Stock Exchange Building and Garrick Theater, but we knocked them down because we’re morons (It happened everywhere, Urban Renewal was a ghastly undertaking).

      Your downtown is still packed with tons of charming old buildings. You kind of missed the boat on innovative mid-century modern and other designs, but the downtown area is still a great asset and attractive to a tourist (I liked it anyway).

      • Alex Ihnen

        There are some gems that aren’t a century old… GenAm Building, American Zinc Building, Plaza Square complex, the brutalist Pet Milk Building, and that Arch thingy.

        I think most think that downtown has bars and restaurants enough – perhaps visitors see it differently. I guess they’re not all easy to find, and great places like Rooster sit at the corner of several dead streets.

        • Chicagoan

          Whoops, forgot about the Arch, which I think is probably one of the greatest example of Mid-Century Modernism, or whatever you’d like to call it.

    • moorlander

      here is your sit down breakfast place downtown: http://www.blondiesstl.com/

      I’m glad you enjoyed your time visiting STL but please don’t call the CWE “downtown.” 🙂

  • onecity

    Is that Dick Ford?

  • matimal

    Why not abandon St. Louis entirely? Why not move to Dallas? Why does St. Louis exist?

    • Alex Ihnen

      Does St. Louis City exist as a functioning urban core? Is the historic city becoming a suburb of the…suburbs? If the city is the suburbs, is the city any different than any other city? Why does someone chose to live here?

      • Luftmentsch

        Question #1. No. It is certainly not the urban core in any meaningful sense – apart from the fact that people who have lost everything will inevitably head downtown in order to get a warm cup of soup and a place to sleep. Ok, there are the symbolic gatherings under the Arch. That’s something, I suppose. Most people in the region seem to think of Clayton as the closest thing we have to a core business district. Even the hipsterconomy seems to be doing its incubating mostly elsewhere these days. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have seen far more of a concerted effort by “business elites” to keep their downtowns relevant.

      • matimal

        Every human creation has to have a reason for being. What is St. Louis’? It has a $130 billion annual GDP and a collection of universities, medical services and research, and manufacturers producing specialized drugs, chemicals, aerospace, engineering, and consumer products. St. Louis’ cultural life draws people from hundreds of miles around. How does this collection of activities justify its existence? What is it’s comparative advantage? The answers to these questions will explain St. Louis’ future.

  • baopuANDu
    • Andy

      Unfortunately, it appears that St. Louis is not eligible for this due to the city/county being separate entities. Even if the St. Louis MSA was united, it would put our population over the 850k threshold.

      “The challenge is open to medium-sized cities of between 200,000 and 850,000 people, that have a public transportation system of some sort. They should not be part of a larger metro region, so the proposal doesn’t have to work in conjunction with other cities.”

      • Alex Ihnen

        True. I do think, however, that St. Louis City may have a brighter future acting as a separate city. Its build environment allows it to develop as a walkable, livable place. IMO – the city should open streets, convert one-ways to two-ways, get rid of parking minimums and invest in urban transit. Build a place were people want to live, and we’ll have an economically vibrant and sustainable city.

        • Chicagoan


          St. Louis has the distinct advantage over larger cities like Atlanta and Dallas in that St. Louis was built to be, and is still capable of being, a walkable city.

          St. Louis has a strong grid shape, which has been done away with a little bit, but is still largely intact. The city just needs to undo all of the backward policies that tried to create a suburban environment in the city.

          If the city can do what Alex has said, St. Louis is well-positioned as a livable, walkable city.

          Places like Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, so on. They aren’t livable, they aren’t walkable, and they’re likely to fail.

          There’s a TED talk about the future of cities, and how those aforementioned cities are destined to fail because they cater to cars, not people. Phoenix, specifically, is an unsustainable city in an unsustainable environment. It will fail, just a matter of when.

          Cities will eventually be given back to the people. An automobile city like the ones I’ve mentioned before is destined for failure. St. Louis still has the framework of a walkable city and if it can be held onto, StL is set up for future success.

          • Guest

            The way I see it, it’s a no brainer as to how urban centers work. The cities you mentioned have all passed St. Louis decades ago. But it was a time when the auto was king. I can remember when St. Louis was one of the top ten cities. Our civic leaders need to take an honest look at what makes a city desirable and where the failures are in St. Louis.
            A good way is to look at popular t.v. shows, movies and commercials. What’s in the background? You see a lot of what you see in the city of St. Louis, a built environment you don’t have in those “popular” cities. Those built environments are the types of houses and buildings that can’t be built today because they were built in an era when craftmanship was the norm, and not profit, as it is today. They were built at a time when many people walked, many took streetcars and public transportation.
            Young people today are aware of and appreciate this…they’re far more savvy about architecture and walkability, and they can’t be fooled. They want to live in cities where the built environment has preserved old structures which can’t be reproduced or replaced. They want a city that’s walkable, not one that tries to accommodate getting out of the city. The cities that don’t have these things or have torn them down and replaced them are the loosers, and likely will fail because they can’t be reproduced. We’ve lost so much, but we still have so much.

            Back in the early 90’s I was at a bar in Midtown. Got to talking to a fellow from Ireland who was here for a meeting at SLU. I asked him what he thought of St. Louis. He said it was very nice. Then I asked him what he REALLY thought of St. Louis. Wow, did he lay into me (lol…as if it were my fault). What he said, and quite irritated, was the unforgivable shame that the city was in such a poor condition. He said the architecture he’s seen in this city is so incredible and wonderful, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing it to fall into disrepair, and because we have allowed this we deserve failure.

            I always enjoyed going to bars and meeting out of towners and talking to them. I always ask what they think of St. Louis. I don’t let it rest there. I ask them to be honest and tell me what they really think. You learn a lot from these visitors doing that. Too many times I’ve heard what I don’t want to hear, because sadly I know it’s true . I got a more polite response from an architect from San Francisco who said essentially the same thing (this was during the Century Building fiasco).
            What I’ve learned of many visitors perception of St. Louis is that it’s wonderful and unique, but it’s obviously neglected by those who should know better. (When I’ve done this with many suburban St. Louisans, I’ve been shocked at the outdated ignorance. Why is that?) You can’t trash a wonderful city like St. Louis and come out smelling like a rose, you can’t fool people for whatever reason or how hard you try, yet this seems to be exactly what our (outdated? selfish?) civic leaders are trying to do and have accomplished locally as too many suburban St. Louisans negative perception of the city will show. .

          • Chicagoan

            A tourist’s view of a city is more often than not going to based off of their experience in the downtown area. It’s where a city’s cultural draws, hotels, museums, parks, and stadiums are likely to be. It’s also where the city’s most ambitious, eye-catching architecture likely exists.

            Downtown St. Louis is very nice, but as a tourist, it just felt like there wasn’t much to do. I wandered around the Jefferson National Memorial, I went up the Arch (pretty cool!), I saw a Cardinals game, I roamed Chesnut and Market (some of Olive and Pine too).

            That was the first time I visited. Eventually, I came to realize that St. Louis is better seen through its neighborhoods. Lafayette Square, Soulard, The Hill, and what not. The problem is, these fantastic neighborhoods aren’t easily accessible if you don’t have a car with you and they aren’t too well known to tourists.

            So, they stick to downtown and there, they’re likely to be somewhat disappointed.

          • rgbose

            I showed the Loop to a group of foreigners in town for a software conference being held downtown. They were happy to see an area with life

          • Chicagoan

            The Loop is great, though I rarely go there because it’s usually overrun with tourists. I’m a snobby local, so I prefer Chicago’s neighborhoods 🙂

            I still think St. Louis’ downtown has great potential. It’s a sleeping giant. The architecture is outstanding. City Hall, Peabody Opera House, Union Station (now a nice hotel), the Post Office, those courthouses, I love walking along Market Street.

            If they could better activate the Gateway Mall (That’s what you call it, right?) to go with the Arch grounds, it’s a great start.

            I know something along those lines is happening right now.

            I’m excited to see the progress when I visit next.

          • Adam

            I think the issue that people have with the lid is that it’s a bandage rather than a cure (i.e. replacing the depressed and elevated lanes with an at-grade boulevard).

          • Guest

            You pose some thought worthy statements, but I think they’re not really pertinent with what I’m trying to say, so let me clarify myself (maybe I should have in my post…my apologies for not doing so). The people I talked to and got opinions from to draw my conclusions aren’t toursists. They have been people who were here for educational or professional reasons. I know because I’d always ask first what brings them to St. Louis. (I’ve not done this much at all for the last 15 or so years…just don’t get out much any more).

            I never did think tourists would be a good source for this kind of conversation because they’re here to enjoy themselves and I’d venture to say they don’t want to get into such discussions, and I wouldn’t think of burdening them with talking about what’s wrong or what’s right with St. Louis. Tourists? When I encounter them, a smile and wishing them a good time is what’s important.

            Ummm…downtown is a neighborhood, too…is it not? A rose is still a rose by any other name, but even if we want to exclude it from being considered a neighborhood does that lesson it’s importance? By your own testimony, it’s boring. It shouldn’t be, but I agree, it is and that sorely needs to be fixed.
            You said in a response farther down that downtown St. Louis is a potential sleeping giant. I couldn’t agree more. It’s our “leadership” who seem to have absolutely no clue as to what makes a city great. I can’t even imagine why they seem completely oblivious to what makes a city great. That’s inexcusable with the tons of information that can be found on the net and shows they have no interest in making St. Louis a great city (as it once was).. Lol…either they’re just greedy and are somehow profiting from the status quo or really actually are just out and out incredibly ignorant.

          • Adam

            Awesome comment. Well stated.

      • matimal

        According to the census, St. Louis’ MSA is close to 2.9 million.

        • Andy

          The City itself is around 320k. When including the entire metropolitan statistical area, St. Louis is in the top 20 in the US.

          • matimal

            Exactly, It’s MSAs that matter. That is what employers/investors consider when investing. When they invest in an MSA they are calculating their access to the employment, housing, infrastructure, etc. of the MSA, not the municipality they happen to be in.

          • Chicagoan

            MSA’s definitely carry more weight than just the city population, but I think there are instances where employers/investors will only look at the numbers of a city.

            For example, a tech company that’s looking to open downtown/close to downtown might not concern itself much with MSA numbers. Especially if they’re looking to position itself in a city to fit their particular style. If true to the current form, they’ll want to know about transit options in the area, if the community/surrounding communities have the population base they’re looking for (young working professionals).

            In this situation, they’re likely looking for people who live in the city or want to live in the city. They might not care about the MSA’s numbers, just the city’s.

          • Alex Ihnen

            There are cases when the city numbers hurt St. Louis. Indianapolis goes around touting itself as the 14th largest city in the nation (or whatever it is today) to sell conventions, etc. Kansas City boasts that it’s the largest city in Missouri…

          • Chicagoan

            Indianapolis and Kansas City will never have the urban design that St. Louis has, which is eventually going to come in handy.

            Plus, Indianapolis is just awful. I’d rather be in St. Louis, any day.

          • Alex Ihnen

            Of course, but those places still use our political boundaries against us.

          • matimal

            Yes, we can’t expect that St. Louis’ competitors wouldn’t use whatever they can against us. But what do investors and businesses use to decide where to invest?

          • Alex Ihnen

            Either marketing and language has an impact or it doesn’t. I think it does.

          • matimal

            But, doesn’t it have a different impact on different audiences? Won’t some care much more about the complicated municipal boundaries and politics of St. Louis than others?

          • HamTech87

            Seems like Indy is making some strides in the right direction:


          • Chicagoan

            Indianapolis just seems completely lacking in culture. I’m not talking about having a bunch of fancy molecular gastronomy restaurants, or something, but just a defining culture. Indianapolis is just, well, boring. I like coming to St. Louis because it’s a short train ride from Chicago, but it has a distinct culture and it feels completely different. Indianapolis doesn’t offer that. I think, anyways.

          • Jim

            As someone living in Indy having grown up in a city that I think has a culture like what you’re referring to (Milwaukee), I agree. However, Indy is cool because you get to come in and make it what you want it to be. It’s not going to tell you how to be.

          • Jim

            Indy’s downtown is fantastic for being walkable. The rest of the city is mostly car-centric and crumbling.

          • matimal

            I think that KC actually has some semblance of urbanity in certain places that Indy does not anywhere at all.

          • Jim

            I am actually doing a series of blog posts about the combined city/county government and land area that Indianapolis calls Unigov [1]. I am still in the middle of researching the history and the current effects of this merger, but my current opinion is that it may have produced a few good things such as being able to tout it as the 14th largest city, but that it’s mostly done a lot of harm to the area as a whole. Other than downtown, the entire city’s infrastructure is the worst I’ve seen. It’s stuck in the 1950s and is so woefully unmaintained and funded. This is largely to do with the fact that one department of public works (DPW) entity has over 400 sq miles of infrastructure to maintain. Also, most of the combined city/county is very sparsely populated and therefore woefully underfunded. There’s also 4000+ lane miles of roads to maintain, again under one department. These numbers just can’t scale. Sure it’s made things “efficient” by removing redundancies, but that’s in concept only. The results speak for themselves: Indy’s public infrastructure has been one of the major victims of Unigov. By the way, I live in downtown Indy.

            [1] http://www.littleurbanexperiments.com/blog/2015/12/3/a-preview-of-the-unigov-series

          • Brandon

            Please compare your findings to other similar cities that haven’t merged. is Indianapolis worse off that say Cleveland, Detroit or other fractured Midwest cities.

          • Jim

            I definitely intend to even if that comparison will be quite tricky to make given that there are so many variables. I can speak to Indy the best because I have an intuitive grasp of it being a noticing local resident for the last 13 years.

          • Alex Ihnen

            I look forward to reading what you find. As a Hoosier, I’m very familiar with Indy. UniGov merged municipalities in 1970 and has certainly had many diverse impacts.

            The Abell Foundation has looked at UniGov 40 years after passage (2010): http://www.abell.org/publications/40-years-after-unigov

            More interesting reading from a Butler U. thesis: http://digitalcommons.butler.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1257&context=grtheses

          • rgbose

            Plenty of cities of equal or greater land area.

            Taking on a lot of low-productivity land uses served by expensive infrastructure is definitely a concern when contemplating mergers. Building out that sapped a lot of wealth from traditionally built places. It’d be a double injustice to nail them out when it starts falling apart.

            We’re already on the hook for sotrmwater. About 1/2 the miles of the system serve 1/4 of the people and there’s currently no funding source to maintain it. If MSD gets a property tax that’s equal across the district to cover it, that implies productive areas will subsidize the low-productivity areas.

          • Jim

            Yes you are exactly right. This is true in Indianapolis. There are about 5-10 main areas/neighborhoods that subsidize the rest of the city areas that have a lot of infrastructure for very sparsely populated residential land uses. Unless our massively spread out cities in this country, like Indy, get sudden surges of population infilling the abandoned parts, I don’t see how our cities can avoid bankruptcy and basically irrelevance.

          • Alex Ihnen

            This is why I believe St. Louis City may be much better off financially in 50yrs (or fewer) if it remains independent from St. Louis County.

          • Nick Lemen

            This has occurred to me as well—in that maybe we should stop worrying about consolidating the city and county, because we might just come full circle in a few years. All those endless subdivisions (still building new ones) in far West County and St. Charles County are only sustainable if they keep raking in new tax dollars and feeding off expansion. What happens when they stop building or when all the shiny new things start to look old… or when the economy turns its back on these communities built around glorified strip malls? The city’s denser infrastructure will have a huge advantage over sprawling suburbs when it comes to the cost of maintenance.

          • rgbose
          • Jim

            Yes nor does Fishers or really most of the suburbs of Indy help. Almost all track homes with vinyl siding. Indy’s suburbs are going to look horrible after a decade or two.

          • matimal

            In the economic decisions of private capital MSAs are everything.