Can St. Louis be saved?

There’s the arch!

This is a little more off the cuff than my usual posts. It involves a question that I think all St. Louisans have asked ourselves at one point or another: should I stay in St. Louis, or get out while I still can? Should I risk investing my time and money into a city with increasing crime and a diminishing population? Should I bet my fortunes on the St. Louis job market? Should I raise my children in the St. Louis school system?

This isn’t an easy question. The crime is horrendous and getting worse. Corporate headquarters are leaving in droves, taking with them administrative brain power and high paying jobs. The school system seems to be on an upward trend at least, but it’s hard to be confident after the last 15 years of decline. Property values are peaking, but let’s not fool ourselves. A recession is coming.

These problems might seem insurmountable, but they really stem from just one issue: population loss. In order for a city to be successful, it needs a stable population of motivated families and individuals to maintain it. The gold standard of any city is a high occupancy rate of intelligent people. When you start losing them, a whole host of problems will occur. Property values decrease and vacancy rate goes up. Vacant houses are a breeding ground for crime. Crime pushes people out of neighborhoods, and makes the problem even worse. As more people leave, the labor pool becomes less dynamic. Businesses, in today’s highly mobile world, easily relocate to areas with a more skilled workforce. When they leave, the executive class leaves with them. It’s a brain drain of administrative know-how; our leadership becomes less capable. These losses compound into further population loss. This leads to a loss of tax revenue. Taxes must be raised in order to maintain infrastructure and basic services.

Does this sound familiar?

How did we get here? And how to we get back to that gold standard?

Wikipedia contains a fairly complete version of St. Louis History. The city was originally founded due to its location on the Mississippi river. Directly upstream from New Orleans, a major American port, St. Louis benefited greatly from this strategic position. It grew exponentially throughout the early 1800s as a staging area for settlers moving out west. Seated on top of large clay deposits, the city became a major brick exporter, further establishing itself as a major US city. Here’s a great documentary detailing this particular aspect of St. Louis History. However, by the early 1900s, technology and macroeconomic changes made the city’s position on the Mississippi river less valuable. It began to decline from its status as the 4th largest city in the United States, never to return.

In the 40s, 50s, and onward, thanks to the 1949 Housing Act, it became very affordable for middle class families to apply for an FHA loan and move out to the suburbs. This was a nationwide trend. Why live in the crowded, dirty city when you could have a big home with a lawn and backyard for the same cost? Unfortunately for St. Louis, the Great Divorce between city and county meant that moving to the suburbs was the same as moving to another city. It led to a wholesale loss of intelligent and motivated people along with the tax revenue derived from them. As the mostly white middle class moved west, the people they left behind were increasingly poor and black. Racist zoning laws had concentrated the black community into a few north city neighborhoods. You can see this visually mapped out here.

Crime is a complex issue with many causes. You see a lot of scorn heaped upon black people due to their overwhelming representation as victims and perpetrators of crime. The desire to link blackness with criminality goes back generations. I think this scorn is counter-productive and ignorant of history.

The link between crime and poverty is obvious. Not so obvious is the multi-generational dismantling of many poor black families. In the documentary, “The Pruitt Igoe Myth”, Joyce Ladner (a former Washington University Sociology Student) describes how fathers were systematically removed from the Pruitt Igoe public housing complex, forced to leave behind their wives and children. “The Welfare Department had a rule that no able bodied man could be in the house if a woman received aid for dependent children.” They continue to be removed from the home through mass incarceration. Without positive male role models, many young black boys are shaped by the environment in which they are raised. And that environment is unfortunately a violent one.

Our overworked police force and their dwindling resources are unable or unwilling to enforce the law in some of our most dangerous neighborhoods. There has been a breakdown in police-civilian relationships. Without cooperation from the residents, it’s harder to catch criminals, and this tends to incentivize crime. Black-on-black violent crimes often go unsolved. It is common knowledge in these neighborhoods that the police can’t help you, and you shouldn’t help them. You have to take care of yourself, and often it’s the person willing to go to the furthest extremes who will win. Certain areas of this city have become pits of despair. Self-perpetuating cycles of poverty and criminality which the police department and city are struggling to interrupt.

That being said, there’s a lot to be hopeful for in St. Louis. Despite our dangerous neighborhoods, which truly are extraordinarily dangerous, we also have very safe and stable neighborhoods. We have many thriving communities in south city and in the adjacent counties of Maplewood, University City, Richmond Heights, and Clayton. We have a world class institution in Washington University which draws some of the brightest minds in the country into St. Louis. We have the makings of an innovation district, Cortex STL, which holds some promise. We have a fantastic park system which is being maintained through a regional effort along with our very rich philanthropists. We have a multitude of church communities doing their best to help the poor. We have plenty to offer, but these institutions are being overshadowed by the crime.

I plan to stay and invest. I’m optimistic about the future, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be spending my time writing these long-winded posts. Our population loss isn’t insurmountable. In fact, if we somehow woke up tomorrow with 100% occupancy of our real estate stock, assuming modern average family size, we would only have to add 79k new people.

For those of us who are going to stay in St. Louis and invest, as opposed to leaving for Chicago or St. Charles, what steps should we be taking?

Finding an answer to that question is the reason I’ve been writing these posts.

It’s silly to expect people to relocate to our city if they are afraid for their safety. That’s why crime has to be the first domino to fall. This starts with a fully staffed, funded, and trained police force. Unfortunately, it seems the only way we’re getting that is with yet another tax hike. I know that many people believe that we cannot police our way out of this situation. I’m aware that social services are necessary, and that St. Louis contributes only a tiny amount of its budget towards social services. I’m also aware that there is a legitimate fear of over-policing, racial bias, and police brutality. But considering our limited resources, and after a fair amount of research, I think that adequate policing can take the edge off of the current crime uptick and open the door to further improvements down the road with minimal negative effects. Of course there’s more to it than money. But there’s no getting around the fact that our police force cannot do the job in its current state. I will reluctantly vote for the tax increase. I take that back. I don’t know how I’ll vote.

The next step has to be some sort of re-unification with the county. I’m not sure exactly how that will look (this will be my next topic of research), but it’s time to concentrate our regional tax revenues and start competing in the marketplace as a unified front rather than a group of tiny municipalities. The county will fight us tooth and nail because they see the city as full of criminals and naïve progressives. In order for any sort of re-unification to happen, 2018 crime rates will need to look similar to 2013 rates rather than 2014-2017 rates. I think most people would prefer to live in walkable neighborhoods rather than a mish-mash of subdivisions separated by giant highways. The city will continue to be attractive to those people, as long as they’re not afraid of being robbed and murdered. Once these two tasks are accomplished, a lower crime rate and unified city/county, I think the rest of our wishes will be very achievable. A fully funded social health department, more businesses and jobs, further reductions in crime, and an influx of potential future leaders.

In the land of provel cheese, anything is possible!