Some Arch City Thoughts

St. Louis is something of an odd city. It’s a beautiful city with a unique brick vernacular ultimately derived from the Mid-Atlantic one; its core has tiny blocks and narrow streets that might have influenced Portland’s layout; and it sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri, and near that of the Mississippi and the Ohio, putting it right at the continent’s biggest natural trade nexus — a nexus so profound that the largest city ever built in the pre-Columbian eastern United States, Cahokia, sits just east of the present-day city. From an outside perspective, St. Louis seems ideally placed to be a sort of Midwestern Portland, with its distinctive historic urban architecture, easy access to the Ozarks and points in every direction, and economic strength that comes from being the main city in the lower Ohio and middle Mississippi regions.

But at the same time, St. Louis is kind of languishing. Nearly all of its Rust Belt peer cities — Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the like — are seen as more urban and welcoming, with reinvestments in their cores. In Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine only emerged as a destination in the last decade, and the Banks didn’t even exist yet. Cleveland has seen revitalization across a surprisingly broad swath of core neighborhoods, including Tremont, Ohio City, Detroit-Superior, and Little Italy, and much of its older downtown office stock is being repurposed to residential. And Pittsburgh — well, Pittsburgh has long touted itself as the Rust Belt’s greatest reinvention story (proving that branding and optics are more valuable than numerical data in the public consciousness). But what about St. Louis? Other than the Rams moving and the Ferguson protests … nada.

It isn’t like St. Louis doesn’t have the things it needs to succeed. The St. Louis metro remains Missouri’s most populous. The city is home to Washington University, something of a Midwestern Ivy ranked at the same level as the University of Chicago and Case Western Reserve University out in Cleveland. It’s chock full of small blocks, small investments are taking place throughout the outer neighborhoods, and it has tremendous assets like Forest Park. Yet the city continues to bleed population, and is subject to a tremendous perception gap. Almost all of the reinvestment in the core is in repurposing existing buildings; the only new construction in the last twenty years seems to have been parking garages.

Actually, I’d argue that the city and region are hobbled most of all by their politics and governance. While few (if any) American cities represent even a majority of their region’s populations, most large cities house between 20% and 40% of their region’s population. (For reference: New York City houses 40% of its metro, Philadelphia 25%, Chicago 27%, Denver 24%, Phoenix 35%, Houston 34%, Seattle 18%, and Los Angeles 30%.) But St. Louis houses just 10% of its metropolitan population, housing even less of its metro than even famously politically-fractured Boston (14%) or San Francisco (18%). And unlike either of those two, St. Louis failed to retain its position among its elite.

Break it further down and the absurdity of St. Louis’ fragmentation becomes clear. St. Louis County — home to a million people, a third of St. Louis’ population — has 90 distinct municipalities (as well as “unincorporated areas”), meaning that the average St. Louis County municipality governs 11,000 people — less than half a percent (0.4%) of the metropolitan population. This fragmentation leads to hyperlocalized land use policy, zoning designed to keep “those people” out (and in the city), simply by driving up the price points new construction can sell at.

Of course, this doesn’t really work. The North County is rapidly downfiltering, leading to both an expansion of necessary services and a decrease in income, in turn leading to more unorthodox means of collecting municipal revenue, creating the conditions for protests like Ferguson to flare up. Keep in mind here that St. Louis’ North County is not the only postwar suburban region undergoing downfiltering; it is, however, in all likelihood the most municipally fragmented. But — it did appear to work for a time. Without an urban elite to buoy it, St. Louis city became a concentration of poverty, poor people walled off from suburban communities by layer after layer of increasingly strict zoning inflating land values and preventing income mixing. Offices and industry left; Clayton is now, for all intents and purposes, the center of the St. Louis metro, while the city’s old core is mainly inhabited by government, law, and financial services workers.

The future doesn’t really look good for the St. Louis region. The constellation of hyper-small municipalities means that — just as in Ferguson — when a municipality loses its tax base, it’ll flip from being “good” to being “bad” in a hurry. Philadelphia has a few examples of hyperlocal working-class communities. We call them the “Balkan Burbs” and they’re the biggest sewers of festering corruption this side of Mos Eisley, making even City Hall look like roses by comparison. And while the “great inversion” will almost certainly solidify the city’s middle class, corruption and racial problems will continue to animate the North County a generation from now. The only way this will be resolved will be by dissolving small bankrupt municipalities, but the larger ones will be just as bankrupt.

Worse still, the northward migration of St. Louis’ black middle class will lead to a racial concentration of poverty in the natural peninsula bounded by the Mississippi and Missouri rivers . Where in most other metros, African-Americans will finally achieve some semblance of physical integration simply due to the increasing fractalization between “black” and “white” areas in the inner suburbs (that is, as the population disperses, a “ghetto” becomes a “band” becomes droplets in the matrix), the St. Louis region’s geography pens them in, and gives the region’s middle class a large ghetto to deny funds to.

This is a pretty bleak note to end things on. I guess a positive would be that, as poverty in the St. Louis region migrates to the North County, urban development and the city core will look more attractive for redevelopment efforts again. But that subtly misses the point, somehow. I just can’t shake this foreboding feeling that St. Louis is going to get screwed over harder — not revitalize the way its peer cities are.

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