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Economy & Business

29,000 answers, one question: How do cities grow?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 3, 2011 - The newly built two-story house in the 5800 block of Clemens in St. Louis is a long way from the Town and Country neighborhood where Kenneth L. Murdock grew up as the son of a physician. Young Murdock is a gregarious WGNU radio talk show host who thinks nothing of inviting a visitor to pull up a chair and talk about city politics and the census. It's a spring-like Wednesday morning when sunshine bathes his street in the city's West End neighborhood, and a light breeze shakes music from a chime on his front porch. But the pleasant setting doesn't overshadow his worries about the city's future, its population loss, especially on the north side.

The numbers have brought into sharp focus a debate about the direction in which St. Louis is headed after losing about 29,000 people in a decade. In one camp, leaders like Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, argue that the numbers mean the city has dropped the ball, has focused too much on upscale housing to lure newcomers and too little on shoring up neighborhoods, particularly north side residents who never left the city.

Meanwhile, officials in the administration of Mayor Frances Slay try to put a positive spin on the numbers in spite of being shocked a few days earlier when the census figures contradicted its projection that the city's population would rise. The administration now says it has discovered a silver lining.

"We don't think the city is losing a huge number of adults," says Kara Bowlin, Slay's press secretary. "We had a population loss of 29,000, and about 22,000 of them were under the age of 18."

She says the results mean "a lot of adults, younger people, empty nesters, people with alternative lifestyles are moving into the city because they want to be in the urban core."

She says Slay is disappointed by the drop in school-aged children and hopes charter schools will eventually address that issue. She adds that the numbers show the city is moving toward a "smarter population, more educated population that's creating a good life in some of these neighborhoods." Still she concedes French's point: "We can't say every neighborhood has a better quality of life, but it's an interesting trend."

The trend shows that much of the flight during the decade was black rather than white. Notwithstanding the arrival of families like the Murdocks in the West End, the black population dropped by nearly 12 percent between 2000 and 2010. White flight stood at about 8 percent during the same period. Other key population developments are these:

  • The Latino or Hispanic population rose nearly 59 percent, to 11,130 by 2010 from about 7,000.
  • The Asian population jumped nearly 35 percent, to about 9,300 from 6,900.
  • People identifying themselves as biracial rose nearly 16 percent, to 7,500 from 6,500.

Although St. Louis continues to slide in population in relation to Kansas City, one trend was common to both locations. Black flight also occurred in Kansas City. The number of blacks there dipped slightly while the white population rose by nearly 4,400 people. 
Neighborhoods That Grew

In St. Louis, much of the increase in white population occurred downtown, where the numbers jumped to 3,721 in 2010 from 806 in 2000 -- an increase of 362 percent. In another part of downtown, the Downtown West neighborhood, the number rose by 79 percent to 3,900 from 2,200.

In other words, more than 4,600 hundred people, most of them white, have moved downtown since 2000. What's unclear is how many are newcomers and how many are moving from other parts of the city. The answer will determine whether the housing investments are drawing new residents or allowing people to move from one city neighborhood to another. Census data to be released later will show how many of these residents are newcomers.

Some urban planners argue the overall drop in population bodes well for the city.

"For one thing," argues John Posey, director of research for East West Gateway Council of Governments, "if there was a population decline, it was the smallest decline in about 60 years."

He adds that the population grew beyond downtown and popular south side neighborhoods, like Lafayette Square. (Both the 6th Ward, represented by Democratic Alderman Kacie Starr Triplett, and the 7th Ward, represented by Democratic Alderman Phyllis Young, were the city's population growth engines during the past decade.)

One example, Posey says, includes Census Tract 1266, which takes in Old North St. Louis. Sean Thomas, executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, says the area's population jump of 28 percent meant Old North "grew at a more robust rate than St. Charles County," which experienced a 27 percent in population growth.

New arrivals in Old North include couples such as Graham and Viveca Lane, who moved there just over a year ago from Kansas City, Kan. He's a metal sculptor and she's a Scott Air Force captain who pilots a KC135 refueling tanker. They moved here after she was transferred to Scott Air Force base. So why did they snub suburbia?

Graham Lane says Old North is "like a small town in the country where everybody knows each other and if anybody has a problem, several neighbors will come over and help out. We could tell tht on our first visit to the neighborhood, so it was a good fit for us."

In addition, he says they were able to find a one-story warehouse in the neighborhood instead of in an industrial area with enough space for a home and to practice his craft.

Viveca Lane says, "We wanted a neighborhood that was quirky, urban and hip but at the same time family friendly, rich with diversity, historic, close enough to downtown for us to enjoy the amenities and small enough for us to know most of our neighbors."

New arrivals include couples, such as David and Veronica Holden. They plan to open La Mancha Coffeehouse at 2815 North 14th St. this spring. The couple have four children between the ages of 6 and 13.

"We chose to home school our children," Veronica Holden says. "But some others in the neighborhood have turned to private schools. We also have a charter school, Confluence Academy, where a lot of families enroll their children."

Despite these individual votes of confidence, many unanswered questions remain about the political implications of the city's population loss. What will it mean mean for federal assistance, which is based in part on population? How will the numbers affect citywide races, including the next mayoral election? What do the losses say about city leadership? And what can St. Louis learn from other cities that have weathered population losses and came back stronger and more stable?

Questioning the numbers

Most people sidestep such questions, preferring to talk about how the city is handicapped by being unable to extend its borders. Nobody seems to be looking beyond that issue and asking about a backup plan in the event the county spurns the city's overtures about mergers of services and programs.

Some aldermen question the accuracy of the census data. Alderman Sam Moore, D-4th Ward, recorded the second largest loss of residents, 3,078, behind the 3,354 population loss in the ward of Alderman Freeman Bosley, D-3rd Ward. But Moore says he doesn't believe the census numbers.

"I've been to every house, every nook and cranny in the ward. I've seen everything that moves and we haven't lost 20 people, let alone 26 percent," Moore says.

On the other hand, losses in some neighborhoods do seem off the mark. For example, the 8th Ward, represented by Stephen Conway, is quite active in redevelopment. His Shaw neighborhood has the lowest foreclosure rate in the city. It has little vacant property. And yet, census data says the ward lost 16 percent or 2,095 people in a decade. The Shaw neighborhood also was one of the few neighborhood where the population rose 10 years ago.

Part of that may stem from smaller familes and housing renovations that turn four-plexes into duplexes and duplexes into single-family homes.

Yet Conway, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, says he is surprised by the overall numbers. He takes issue with aldermen who complain that the numbers are down on the north side because the city hasn't invested enough. So does Alderman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward, and chair of the Housing and Urban Development Committee.

"There has been more housing development in north St. Louis in the last 10 years than in the previous 20 years," Wessels says. He too is surprised by the population drop and argues that it won't reverse until the city improves the schools.

Strong Neighborhoods, Strong Cities

The West End where the Murdock family lives is an area where the city has helped to spur redevelopment. Once defined by burned out buildings, crumbling sidewalks and weedy vacant lots, Murdock's street is now enjoying a comeback, with blacks and whites buying homes with asking prices in the $250,000 to $300,000 range.

Beyond the issue of using housing and other neighborhood amenities to lure people, says Tara Buckner, is the city's need to embrace people already there. Buckner who formerly headed the city's Enterprise Zone program, also has been a city planner in Detroit and Minneapolis. Though her children attend schools in the Kirkwood District, she says she's among city residents with a more positive image of city schools these days, thanks to the leadership of Superintendent Kevin Adams.

"Had the schools been in better shape when I moved here, we definitely would have enrolled our children in city schools," she says.

But Buckner says she senses something missing in St. Louis, notwithstanding the work by Slay, Adams and others -- too few functioning neighborhood organizations. She adds that Detroit has seen hard economic times, but she remains impressed by the sense of community there. No matter how bad things are, Detroit residents will stand up for their city.

"We need to foster more of that, getting people to come out of their houses to do stuff together."

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