This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Several months ago, James Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press visited St. Louis for two days. He attended a conference on “Saving the City,” hosted by the Saint Louis University Law School. Although Gallagher found some differences between St. Louis and Detroit, basically he called the Gateway City a mirror image of Motown.
A friend in Michigan forwarded his brief comparison to me, and I immediately took umbrage. Truth be told, I spent three decades in and around Detroit and have now lived in St. Louis for just over a quarter century. I am not a stranger to Detroit, and I still root for the Tigers. To me the differences between the cities are quite striking.
Gallagher makes two valid points: Both cities have experienced very significant population loss. And “both show distressing signs of vacancy and abandonment in the hardest-hit districts.”
However, Detroit — with about 150 square miles — has a great many more areas showing such signs. The grocery chains abandoned that central city years ago. Driving major thoroughfares, you see a plethora of liquor stores, bars and boarded up commercial sites. Its poverty rate hovers close to 50 percent. In a number of areas, neighborhoods have turned to pasture land because of abandonment and teardowns.
Gallagher does note that St. Louis kept far more of its historic buildings, thus aiding revitalization. In the past decade or so, Detroit has seen its midtown and downtown coming to life. Older office buildings are being restored as apartments and condos; and young people are migrating to this area. There are certainly more places to eat and more street traffic. St. Louis’ downtown loft district is a similar phenomenon.
However, when you leave the cities’ respective downtowns, there is a difference. Detroit does not have the neighborhoods that St. Louis has. It does not have integrated, stable areas; and it lacks the neighborhood commercial areas St. Louisans enjoy.
I once noted that there had never been a Central West End in Detroit -- and there certainly is not a Soulard, the Hill, or the evolving Old North St. Louis. Neighborhood identification is high here and so is participation in a variety of neighborhood organizations.
Until last year, Detroit always had at-large elections for nine city council seats. St. Louis’ wards strengthen the bond between elected representative and neighborhood. It’s not a perfect system but it does allow for greater neighborhood emphasis and development.
Neighborhoods bond together in various ways. One is through the arts. Various St. Louis neighborhoods sponsor outdoor concerts; the number of art fairs is growing. Alderman Antonio French successfully sponsored a public art ordinance in part to bring art projects to all city neighborhoods. There are distressed areas in St. Louis but there are also very alive, active, stabilizing and stable neighborhoods. A number of areas in St. Louis are competing for grant funds from the Kresge Foundation to do arts-based community building.
Gallagher apparently did not see the thriving areas of this city removed from downtown and based his impressions on driving in from the airport on Highway 70.
Many cities have distressed areas. That is part and parcel of deindustrialization, the flight to suburbia and institutional racism. The question is what you do with what’s left.
I hope Detroit can be a phoenix rising from the ashes and return to the prosperity, be it unequal, that I remember from the 1950s. It will be a very long and hard road.
St. Louis, too, has a ways to travel but it does not have to rise as far. A significant portion of the community is more than treading water, and dedicated neighbors and officials continue to fight for improvement.
I had heard the Detroit comparison a number of times before, but this time my anger piqued. To compare, you really have to look around. St. Louisans need to shed their own self-disparagement and show everyone that livability is a homegrown trait.