Saint Louis’ Decline: The result of ill-planned policies

Sixty years ago, St. Louis was a thriving city with a population of 856,796, but the population has been declining ever since. The 2010 Census shows that the population has dropped to 319,294.

“I have never seen a downtown so deserted, with some parts almost look like a wasteland,” said Eileen Baker, a St. Louis resident and a frequent traveler.

She regards the St. Louis downtown as an eyesore of the otherwise serene and beautiful Greater St. Louis. Block after block of boarded buildings scatter across the abandoned lands and deteriorating streets.

St. Louis has not always been like this.

For more than a hundred years, St. Louis was the heart of commerce and manufacturing of America, according to a historical research on the city’s official website. Locating next to the Mississippi River, many goods are transported from Gulf of Mexico, and delivered across United States

This is Laclede Ave, St. Louis, in the 1950s, a period of economic transformation. (Photo courtesy of St. Louis University)

Thriving business attracted people and big companies from all over the country, and made St. Louis the fourth largest U.S. city in 1870, 1900 and 1910.

The Economic Decline and more?

After the 1950s, however, many industrial cities experienced a huge economic and population decline. St. Louis was the most affected one, about 61% residents left the Saint Louis city, a number more than Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cleveland, according to Wendell Cox, a three term member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) .

The number hinted that there are more underlying problems, such as public policies and local government structure that contributed to the downfall of downtown St. Louis:

Housing Policies:

  • Discriminatory Housing Policies

Between 1916 to 1948, there were multiple realtors agreements and deed covenants  made to prohibit homeowners from selling, leasing or renting by African Americans, wrote Colin Gordon, a history professor in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in his book Mapping Decline.

With the deed restrictions, the African Americans were forced to concentrate in a small north-side neighborhood not covered by the restrictions, straining the neighborhood. Subsequently, many middle-class Caucasian Americans moved into suburban countries in the 1940s to 1950s.

The middle class’s outward migration created a significant demographic change in the city by concentrating all the lower class in St. Louis city, said Dr. Daniel Monti, a professor of Public Policy Studies in Saint Louis University, specialized in Urban Community, Culture and Redevelopment.

  • The Home Mortgage Deduction:

The National Housing Act of 1934, which created the Federal Housing Administration, made housing and home mortgage more affordable after the Great Depression.

Many St. Louis residents moved to the suburbs to acquire houses that are more spacious and affordable, said Dr Scott Cumming, the professor of Public Policy Studies and the director of Midwest Center for Policy Research and Evaluation.

  • Housing Act of 1949:

The Housing Act of 1949 provided federal financing for slum clearance programs across the country. Its first title “authorizes the Housing and Home Finance Administrator to make loans and grants to localities to assist locally initiated, locally planned, and locally managed slum-clearance and urban redevelopment understakings.”

Consequentially, the St. Louis government cleared many neighborhoods and redeveloped between 1953 and 1986, said Dr Robert Cropf, the chair of the Department of Public Policy Studies in Saint Louis University.

Dr Robert Cropf, the Department Chair of Public Policy studies, explains the decline of downtown St. Louis. (Photo by Peony Lee)

The Busch Stadium, for instance, was built after a Chinese community was cleared, wrote Steve Patterson in Urban Review STL.

“Though the intention was to create a better environment, the policy destroyed the social fabric, broke the thriving communities apart, and drove people away,” Cropf added.

  • Ill-planned Housing Projects

After destroying the slums, St. Louis government relocated the residents in public housing projects, including the Pruitt-Igoe.

The condensed poverty turned Pruitt-Igoe project into crime-infested neighborhood, harboring gang violence, domestic abuse, and all the other problems that came with poverty, according to Dr Scott Cumming.

Flawed Government Structure

  • The Fragmented Government

The St. Louis is known for having a fragmented government structure. There are 91 municipalities, not counting St. Louis. The duplicated services and divided government made St. Louis failed to plan their future economy as a collective region, according to Monti.

This not only made coordinating services delivery very difficult, it is also wasting valuable tax dollars that could otherwise be spent for redevelopments, Cummings added.

  • The Split of the City and the County

In 1876, St. Louis City became independent from St. Louis County because the voters did not want to spend its tax dollars on infrastructures on the sparsely populated county, according to Aimee Levitt from Riverfront Times.

Monti pointed out that the short-sighted decision had a lasting effect on the city of Saint Louis by separating it from the resources in the suburbs.

Since the middle-class outward migrations in 1940s to 1950s, the city has a larger share of the area’s poor, while the county retains all the tax revenue.

“The demands on the city in terms of fighting crime, maintaining infrastructure and schools and providing public housing steadily increased, but its ability to earn money through property taxes collapsed.” Gordon commented in an interview.

Despite the decline in economy and population, the St. Louis government continues to redevelop the downtown, one step at a time. The construction workers are paving the roads on Olive Street, St. Louis. (Photo by Peony Lee)

“The government has backed away from dealing with all these urban issues because of the deficit.” Monti said.

The downfall of downtown St. Louis is not only the result of a nation-wide economic shift, but a series of ill-planned public policies and a decentralized government.

“There is too much to fix all at once, but there is not enough money to fix,” said Cummings.


The Pruitt-Igoe project is shown in the upper left corner of this e bird’s-eye view of downtown St. Louis in 1950s. (Photo courtesy of St. Louis University)

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