St. Louis has wrestled with the consequences of property abandonment and disinvestment for a long time. Here's a quick history.
‘Broken and uneven city’
Long before interstate highways, before white flight, before redlining and before suburbs filled St. Louis County, the city had a problem with property abandonment and disinvestment.
Even when St. Louis was the nation's fourth-largest city — more than a century ago — people quit the grit and grime of decaying, older neighborhoods — if they could.
The least desirable areas of smoke-choked, industrial St. Louis were left to the poor, immigrants and the small but growing African-American population.
And while civic reformers bemoaned the sorry condition of St. Louis slums, signs of abandonment could be found elsewhere.
Isaac Lionberger, a civic leader who lived on a private street in the West End, complained about the city's decline in 1920.
“Whole districts are deserted, and a city full of empty buildings is ever building new ones,” he wrote in a memoir.
“The result of all these propensities is a broken and uneven city.”
‘Economic and social collapse’
The dangers of property abandonment were much on the mind of St. Louis city planner Harland Bartholomew in the 1930s. He worried about how it was draining the city's resources and threatening to engulf its “better residential districts.”
In a 1936 speech, he noted that the number of people living east of Jefferson Avenue had dropped by 100,000 in 30 years — and that this population shift was continuing.
Later that year, the City Plan Commission, where Bartholomew served as engineer, submitted a report on land-use policy to Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann (1933-1941), the reform-minded Democrat behind major public works projects, including the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
In language that could have been written in 2018, the report noted that “new growth now finds accommodation mostly outside city limits.”
And it warned that “if adequate measures are not taken” to check property abandonment, loss of population and decline of land values, “the city is faced with gradual economic and social collapse.”
Bartholomew, the city planner, called for a “good housekeeping” approach to handle hard-hit areas: repairing and rehabilitating better residences, demolishing the worst structures, and revising zoning laws to stabilize communities.
In areas still untouched by abandonment, he urged the formation of property owner associations, barring “multiple dwellings” and dividing the city into defined “neighborhoods,” where there'd be more local control.
Bartholomew’s recommendations conformed with the discriminatory practices of the time, some later critics would note. Local control and neighborhood associations emerged as potent tools used by whites to enforce segregated housing.
In 1939, the city began razing 37 blocks along the riverfront for the proposed Jefferson National Expansion Memorial — today's Gateway Arch National Park — removing a large swath of deteriorated properties.
But the heavy lifting of urban renewal would have to wait until World War II ended, and the federal government began pouring money into cities to pay for public housing, highways and other improvements.
There was a lot of work to do. A Post-Dispatch series of special reports, titled “Progress or Decay? — St. Louis Must Choose,” published in 1950, highlighted the “sordid housing story” of St. Louis.
More than one-third of the city could be described as either "slum districts" or "blighted areas," the newspaper reported, echoing the findings of a 1947 report by the City Plan Commission. Thousands of people suffered in overcrowded housing, were forced to use outside toilets and had to contend with rats and filth.
“A peculiar thing about slums and blight is that they are not always readily apparent to the unpracticed eye,” the Post-Dispatch said.
Mobilized, St. Louis civic and business leaders snapped into action.
The Mill Creek Valley neighborhood west of Union Station was bulldozed, displacing thousands of black families. A new Busch Stadium was built downtown and the Gateway Arch was completed, giving the city a new symbol in the 1960s. (Watch a KTVI documentary from that era here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=quKGgzdVLR0&feature=youtu.be)
The St. Louis region — the home to major international corporations — still exuded wealth and prosperity, but in large parts of the city, especially outside of downtown, decay was spreading.
Local leaders were proud they had avoided the riots that engulfed other urban centers during the 1960s. But while other cities burned, St. Louis faced its own disaster, albeit in slow motion.
Call it a quiet riot as more than 125,000 people — 17 percent of the population — quit the city during that tumultuous decade.
It was a massive loss of human capital — and it wasn't just white flight. A research report by Rand Corp., published in 1973, found, for the most part, “blacks and whites were leaving the city at the same rate during the 1960s.”
The exodus turned into a rout in the next decade — the population dropped by nearly 170,000, or 27 percent, in the 1970s.
Census records show the city lost people faster than housing units.
That meant hundreds of vacant buildings in some neighborhoods, especially on the city's predominantly African-American North Side.
In 1971, a report jointly produced by the National Urban League and Center for Community Change, found parts of St. Louis had become “an urban ghost town which stretches for blocks at a time.”
St. Louis, based on surveys of the city's West End and the “Model City” area of north St. Louis east of Grand, had the highest rate of housing abandonment of seven major cities examined. The city had about 2,000 vacant buildings that needed to be torn down, the report found — a large number at the time, but just a fraction of the ones that would be demolished in the following decades.
The association of crime with vacant buildings only heightened the concern.
In 1970, for example, two boys were lured into a building in the 2200 block of Montgomery Street and beaten. One of them, a 6-year-old, died. Frustrated, nearby residents demanded that City Hall move quickly to raze derelict buildings. The administration of Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes (1965-1973) said it didn’t have enough money — and even if it did, it couldn’t take down more than 800 buildings a year because there weren’t enough wrecking contractors.
The city turned to Washington, and with federal money, it picked up the pace of demolition — knocking down an average of 4,000 units each year between 1970 and 1976, the Post-Dispatch reported. Even then, it couldn't get ahead of the problem — and there was increasing resistance from preservationists.
New approaches were needed, and in 1977 the city adopted a “board and secure” policy to protect abandoned buildings that still could be salvaged.
Strategies to combat urban disinvestment were evolving in the 1970s, and though it was never acknowledged, policy decisions were made that prioritized some neighborhoods over others.
In 1975, the Post-Dispatch broke a story outlining the recommendations of a study by a planning group named Team Four Inc. that seemed to signal a shift in development policy — one that basically said the city needed to focus its limited resources on protecting viable neighborhoods, not shoring up “transition areas” — neighborhoods on their way to abandonment.
Mayor John Poelker (1973-1977) refused to release the taxpayer-funded report to the newspaper — and it wasn’t clear to what extent its recommendations were actually adopted.
But some critics saw the report as evidence that city development policies favored some neighborhoods over others. Some residents could count on rigorous code enforcement to contain blight. Others could not. It all depended on where they lived.
The Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), created in 1971 as a land bank to take control of abandoned property, came under withering criticism for failing to maintain properties or get them back into productive use.
City administrations struggled to find answers, often in response to community pressure.
One hardy perennial, proposed by politicians like then-Alderman Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. and housing activists, urged the city to launch a homestead program, selling LRA properties for $1 to would-be homeowners who agreed to make improvements.
Mayor James F. Conway (1977-1981) attempted such a program in 1978. Then, when Schoemehl became mayor (1981-1993), ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) pushed for a similar $1 homesteading program — and Schoemehl complied in 1983.
Too little, too late.
By 1978, St. Louis had the highest vacancy rate of all central cities, as historian Colin Gordon noted in his 2009 book “Mapping Decline.”
The “ghost town” warning was becoming reality in more St. Louis neighborhoods. The New York Times weighed in, in 1981, saying the city faced a bleak future unless it could stem the loss of people and businesses.
Typically, some St. Louis leaders argued the narrative was too negative. Heavily subsidized downtown projects — including St. Louis Centre and the Union Station "Festival Marketplace," both opened in 1985 — suggested a new vibrancy in the Central Business District. And some neighborhoods — principally the Central West End — were seeing new life.
Using state laws that gave redevelopment corporations tax incentives and eminent domain power, Washington University Medical Center, St. Louis University and Ralston Purina shored up neighborhoods near their city property holdings.
North of Delmar Boulevard, it was a very different story.
City’s biggest slumlord
In a series of reports in 1991, the Post-Dispatch reported what many in St. Louis already knew: the biggest owner of abandoned land in the city was LRA, and most of that land was in north St. Louis. At the time, the newspaper reported, LRA's holdings had swollen to a record 6,007 parcels.
“The largest slum landlord in the city is the city,” Martin Walsh, then city building commissioner, told the newspaper.
“The North Side of the city is becoming increasingly desolate, and there’s just going to be half a city left,” warned Richard D. Baron, co-founder of McCormack Baron Salazar, a leading urban real-estate development company.
The downward spiral would continue, Baron added, “unless civic leaders come to grips with this issue, which they haven't done for 30 years.”
Today, nearly 30 years later, LRA’s inventory exceeds 12,000 parcels.
Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who lost the primary by less than 900 votes, called for a citywide plan developed with community input.
“Let’s plot it all out as if money is no object and figure out what we want to see," Jones told the Post-Dispatch. "From there, we can identify what resources we have and then find money to do the things we want to do.”
Other candidates said the city should focus its efforts on a handful of blighted neighborhoods. More money for demolitions. More targeted tax incentives. More city workers to help at LRA.
It may have been Jimmie Matthews, a perennial candidate, whose rhetoric best reflected the scope of the problem.
Given the extent of devastation north of Delmar, Matthews said St. Louis needed a "Marshall Plan" — the kind of help the United States gave postwar Europe, when we helped former enemies and allies rebuild.
Matthews came in seventh in a field of seven Democrats. — Roland Klose, St. Louis Post-Dispatch