ST. LOUIS • The city's population has dropped to a level not seen since the late 19th century, with some neighborhoods in the north losing more than 20 percent of their residents.
In all, the city lost 8 percent of its population from 2000, about 29,000 people.
St. Louis County also saw its population drop, by 1.7 percent, to below 1 million people. Meanwhile, the rest of the Missouri counties in the St. Louis region grew, based on new population numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Illinois numbers released last week showed that seven of the eight counties in the Metro East grew, giving the metropolitan area 4.2 percent growth.
The population loss in both the city and the county came from substantial drops in their white populations. Unlike towns in the Metro East, such as Belleville, the gain of blacks and other minorities in St. Louis County was not enough to offset the loss of whites. St. Louis County lost 10 percent of its white population, or 78,882 people. The black population increased 21 percent, or 39,723.
The city lost both whites and blacks, 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively. The overall population loss was a stunner for city leaders, who had aggressively fought the Census Bureau for the better part of the last decade on annual population estimates. The last estimate showed the city at 356,587, an increase of nearly 8,400 people from the 2000 Census. The 2010 number came in at 319,294, nearly 29,000 less than a decade ago.
City leaders did little to sugarcoat the latest census news.
"This is absolutely bad news," Mayor Francis Slay said on his blog immediately after the numbers were made public. "We had thought, given many of the other positive trends, that 50 years of population losses had finally reversed direction."
The city's population peak was 856,796 in 1950, and it has dropped steadily since then. It is now just slightly above its post-Civil War population.
Slay said the new numbers for the city and St. Louis County "will require an urgent and thorough rethinking of how we do almost everything. ... If this doesn't jump-start regional thinking, nothing will."
Merging with the county is something Slay has talked of for years. St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley stuck with his position this week, saying such a decision should be made by a vote of the people. After the census numbers came out Thursday, Dooley remained positive, despite the population decline.
"The things we are doing must be working, because last year, the population estimate was 993,000," Dooley said. The census counted 998,954.
"At the end of the day, we still have a million people and St. Louis County is still the jobs destination of the entire region, hands down," he said.
Dooley predicted that such county developments as the massive NorthPark enterprise zone, east of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, would reverse the trend.
He touched on the issue of white flight from north St. Louis County school districts, but could offer no reason for the migration. The Hazelwood School District has had a 30 percent drop in white students from 2000, as has Normandy. Ferguson-Florissant schools saw a 32 percent drop.
"I really don't focus on ethnicity; I focus on quality of life. And North County is a great place to live, work and shop," Dooley said.
While the largest loss of population in the county was in the northern communities, mid-county cities immediately to the west of St. Louis also experienced decline, including Maplewood and Richmond Heights. Clayton, however, jumped by 24 percent, to 15,939.
Clayton Mayor Linda Goldstein speculated that the growth there came from people downsizing their homes and moving to her city to be closer to their jobs and public transit.
Maplewood Mayor James White attributed his city's loss of 13 percent of its population to the housing torn down to make way for commercial development east of Hanley Road, including a Walmart, Sam's Club and Lowe's store.
For the rest of the St. Louis region, it was good news. St. Charles County grew by 27 percent. Its largest city, O'Fallon, shot up by nearly 72 percent. It is now the seventh largest city in the state. Even with that impressive growth, it's a slowdown from a nearly 147 percent jump a decade before, when the city moved to 13th from 28th.
O'Fallon Mayor Bill Hennessy celebrated by sending out a press release.
"The growth that this city has experienced over the last decade is truly remarkable," Hennessy said. "It is a testament to the wonderful residents and businesses who help to keep this city such a great place to live."
St. Charles County, with 360,485 residents, surpasses the city of St. Louis. Lincoln County also grew, by 35 percent. Jefferson County is now the fifth largest county in the state, with 218,733 people, a 10.4 percent increase from 2000.
On the other side of the state, Kansas City saw its population increase by 4.1 percent, taking its population to 459,787. Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, grew by 2.9 percent. But it still is ranked second behind St. Louis County.
The Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit grew 29.2 percent. Columbia grew by 28.4 percent, to 108,500 people. Springfield, Missouri's third largest city, grew by 5.2 percent, to 159,498.
In St. Louis, city leaders crunched the numbers again and again, looking for what caused the dramatic loss. Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, said that the city lost about 6,700 adults and more than 22,000 people 17 and younger. Those numbers, he said, show it's clear that St. Louisans left for better public schools.
"For the city to thrive, people have to feel comfortable raising their kids here," Rainford said.
He said the recession probably forced some parents to move their children from private city schools to suburban public schools.
Rainford said the city had not yet decided whether to appeal the population count to the Census Bureau. But the city is already finding a discrepancy that could have led to an undercount, he said.
The Census Bureau counted 176,000 housing units, while the city has 181,800 on record, using information it received from the U.S. Postal Service based on the first quarter of 2010. The census forms asked residents to list the address they were living at on April 1, 2010.
Don Roe, acting director of planning and urban design for the city, said the successful challenges to population estimates were based on a formula provided by the Census Bureau.
Once new construction is added to the total and demolished units are subtracted, the city is to estimate 2.6 people for each new single-family unit and 1.9 people for those living in multi-family units.
"It's not like we're spitting in the wind," Roe said.
Rainford said that if there was a silver lining, it was that not all parts of the city saw their population drop. Downtown and midtown wards saw growth. But north St. Louis was hit hard. The Hyde Park neighborhood saw a loss of 28 percent of its population. The Ville lost 26 percent. At least seven wards in north St. Louis had double-digit losses.
Rainford said the city had done a decent job attracting empty nesters, young people and gays and lesbians. But it has been unable to hold on to the families that are now presumably moving to the suburbs.
"We have to do something different," Rainford said. "That's the good, the bad, the ugly."
Mark Schlinkmann of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.