In recent years, the city of St. Louis has received a great deal of national publicity. Some of this attention has been positive, celebrating achievements including the success of Cortex and other endeavors that have fostered a fast-growing entrepreneurial community, the revitalization of the Arch grounds, and the excellence of our local sports teams and cultural institutions. We should proudly own these stories, but we must also own tragic stories of children dying by gun violence, racial segregation and deeply concentrated poverty.
St. Louis suffers from split personality disorder. One city, largely associated with the central corridor, is booming. The other city, mostly located north of Delmar, continues to suffer from decades of disinvestment. St. Louis can’t be economically successful without building on our strengths and challenging the status quo.
With a group of colleagues at Washington University, I studied demographic trends in St. Louis as well as a set of other major Midwestern regions and cities. What I have learned about the city of St. Louis is both positive and distressing.
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Between 2000 and 2016, the population declined by 9% from 348,000 to 316,000, while the nation’s population grew by 13%. But during the same time period, the city became much wealthier. While the U.S. experienced a 4.1% decline in per capita income adjusted for inflation from 2000 to 2016, the city’s grew by 9.6%. Kansas City, Nashville, Tenn., Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis all exhibited declines in per capita income over the same period.
Increasing per capita income is an important measure of economic success, but it masks the stark inequity underneath it. From 2000 to 2016, white (non-Hispanic) per capita income grew by 16.8% while African Americans’ declined by 6.8%.
Equally striking are the population and income disparities across the city. Between 2000 and 2016, population in the central corridor (downtown, downtown west, midtown, the Central West End, and Forest Park southeast) increased by 34% and the per capita income grew by 13%. Millennials and empty nesters are moving to the central corridor with white and African American populations equalized at nearly 22,000 each.
But St. Louis is experiencing another, even larger, demographic trend — depopulation and deepening poverty in north St. Louis, which is 95% African American. From 2000 to 2016, population in St. Louis neighborhoods situated mostly north of Page Avenue declined by 35% from 78,797 to 51,218 and per capita income declined from $17,600 to $14,750. At 50% of the national average, this income level is a significant barrier to upward mobility.
To make matters worse, life expectancy in many north city neighborhoods is as much as 18 years less than affluent parts of St. Louis County, and violent crime rates are at unacceptable levels. These trends are fueled by economic disparities, structural racism and a failure of public policy.
We should celebrate and support the success of the central corridor. After a tremendous post-World War II population collapse of nearly 63%, it is remarkable that the city is experiencing over $10 billion of redevelopment. However, we must recognize — and work to correct — the fact that the gains in the central corridor have not benefited many residents who live in north St. Louis.
The lessons of community development success in other cities suggest principles we should follow to redevelop north St. Louis. First, any development plan must be co-created by the residents, leaders of local organizations, government, the private sector and the civic community. Without resident ownership, positive change is not possible. Second, is to create economic and social opportunity to build wealth. Third, is to rebuild density in depopulated neighborhoods. Successful urban neighborhoods are dense neighborhoods. Fourth, we need to better connect residents to job opportunities. Finally, we must invest in creating regional amenities in north St. Louis that both improve residents’ lives and draw visitors.
The St. Louis region has seen what remarkable redevelopment of Forest Park has done for the central corridor. Imagine if Fairgrounds Park was an equal anchor for north St. Louis. The $1.75 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency project offers a great opportunity to execute on these principles.
If we work together for growth and equity, St. Louis can become one city of opportunity and inclusion where all of our children have hope for the future and live without fear.
Henry Webber is executive vice chancellor and chief administrative officer at Washington University in St. Louis.