Commentary: Castling your way out of census blues | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Castling your way out of census blues

Mar 3, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 3, 2011 - Castling is the only maneuver in chess that allows a player to re-position two pieces with one move. Each player may castle only once per game and then only under specified circumstances, which I won't bother to detail because enthusiasts already know the rules and non-players don't care.

Suffice it to say that castling is a unique opportunity to dramatically improve your circumstances at one fell swoop. Like bankruptcy, it can afford the distressed a second chance. Again like bankruptcy, if the player repeats earlier mistakes, the tactic will only serve to prolong the inevitable.

Last week's release of the 2010 census data has renewed calls from civic leaders for some sort of castling maneuver of their own to improve the statistical profile of the metro area without making any substantive improvements to the daily lives of the people who actually live here. Two basic plans have been advanced.

The first would merge the city and county into "mega-St. Louis." This freshly reformulated metropolis would provide a windfall of biblical proportions for urban statisticians. St. Louis would be immediately elevated into the upper tier of American municipalities with a population of about 1.3 million souls. Of course, all of these people already live here, but now conscripted suburbanites would be counted as city residents.

This intellectual legerdemain would also relieve St. Louis of its distinction as the most dangerous major city in the United States. By incorporating tranquil suburbs into the mix, it would suddenly become a much safer place in which to live. Unfortunately, the gunfire in crime-ridden neighborhoods would probably be as noisy as it was before the transformation.

The second would have the city join the county as its 92nd -- and largest -- municipality. This plan lacks the statistical glamour of the first because the city would still suffer a declining population and its crime rate would be completely unaffected. However, proponents claim it would eliminate unnecessary "duplication of services." That sounds good at first blush, but further analysis reveals those reputed savings to be largely illusionary.

City criminals would still have to be tried in circuit courts, births, deaths and deeds would still need to be recorded, taxes assessed and collected, the health department would remain in operation. The difference here is that the responsibility -- and expense -- for those services would be transferred from downtown to the county seat in Clayton, where they may not be warmly received.

If the census data are to be believed, a lot of the people who live in the suburbs moved there to get away from the problems of the city. Just as ex-spouses rarely decide to live together; it's unlikely in the extreme that county residents will welcome back their jilted lovers with open arms.

Rather than pursuing a cosmetic quick fix for the status quo, perhaps we should examine the census findings to see what they tell us about the situation.

Vanishing Citizens

In otherwise stable neighborhoods, people seem to be evaporating. South Hampton lost 11 percent of its population; adjacent St. Louis Hills declined by 2 percent, yet there are virtually no vacant properties in either of these middle class enclaves. What gives?

The history of my home in St. Louis Hills may help to solve that mystery. My house used to be occupied by an older couple and their son. The son took a job out of state and the couple ultimately passed away. I bought the place before it hit the market -- much to the chagrin of a neighbor who had designs on it herself.

Though the property was continuously occupied and generated constant real estate tax revenue throughout the decade, for census purposes, "3" became "1." Had a young family moved in, the population would have increased but it's difficult to attract that demographic given the sorry state of the local effort at public education. If you know how to fix the St. Louis school system, please contact someone at City Hall as soon as possible.

Crime Rules

There is an inverse relationship between crime and population. More crime = fewer residents. The neighborhoods with the highest crime rates experienced the most dramatic population losses. And this phenomenon can no longer be attributed to so-called "white flight." While the city lost 8 percent of its white inhabitants since the last census, 12 percent of its black residents moved elsewhere.

Density Is Not Necessarily Destiny

Statistics can be misleading. Sometimes, more can equal less. Back in the '70s, the houses around Lafayette Park had a higher occupant per unit ratio than they do today. That's because many of these grand old dwellings had been converted into flophouses. Any census-taker with the stomach for the task could find a bounty of souls to count within them.

Today, these homes have been beautifully restored into single-family residences, and the area is again flourishing.

Public Works Can Work

The downtown population has increased by 359 percent. Yet, that remarkable figure only translates into 3,701 full-time residents. About 18 times that number flock downtown every time the Rams play a home game. Oft criticized public investments in stadia for the Blues, Cardinals and Rams have provided anchors for the area that reliably attract large crowds of law-abiding people with money to spend.

Similarly, a Clinton-era initiative called the Hope-VI Project sought to transform the Darst-Webbe housing projects into a community of market-rate townhomes. When proposed, critics -- such as your present correspondent -- scoffed at the notion. More wasted federal money. Today, cynics can tour the site before dining on a luncheon of crow.

Games People Play

There has been obvious progress made in the city over the last 10 years. There are just as obviously daunting problems that remain. If we were playing chess, we might be able to castle our way out of a tough situation. But chess is a board game, while trying to redefine reality to obscure the truth is a game of which I'm growing bored.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.