History raises painful issues regarding the city's economic struggles | St. Louis Public Radio

History raises painful issues regarding the city's economic struggles

Jan 26, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 26, 2011 - Historian Colin Gordon takes the long view when it comes to understanding how St. Louis has fared during the nation's recent economic downturn -- and his perspective isn't pretty.

While the Great Recession brought some cities -- think Detroit and the auto industry -- to the brink rather abruptly, Gordon argues that the St. Louis region's economic pain was deepened by the financial meltdown of 2008, but it has been festering here for decades, partly due to self-inflicted wounds.

Gordon, a professor of history at the University of Iowa, studied the Gateway to the West for his eye-opening book "Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City" (2008; University of Pennsylvania Press). He uses a telling series of maps to trace the patterns of "white flight" and the debilitating erosion of the city's core to early-20th-century real estate restrictions in the private sector that barred non-whites from buying homes in specified neighborhoods.

Gordon argues that even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned those covenants in 1948, the impact of segregation in St. Louis was deepened by decades of local and federal policies regarding planning, development -- and even urban renewal.

Here's his bottom line: One decade into a new millennium, St. Louis is still dealing with the economic consequences of its 20th-century legacy of segregation.

"Certainly St. Louis city leaders are not to blame for the ups and downs of the business cycle, and St. Louis has certainly not been spared in this recent recession," said Gordon, who will speak at the Missouri History Museum on Saturday. "But one of the remarkable and unfortunate things about a setting like St. Louis is that its economic troubles -- its experience with industrialization -- begin much earlier."

Gordon says that today's worries over the city's long-term economic future are not new. Such fears began after World War I as it became obvious that the city's river-based economy was rooted in the era of riverboats and wagon trains.

"Chicago becomes the rail hub and the more diverse economy; St. Louis establishes a bit of a 20th-century identity as a sort of trucking depot and has a love-hate relationship with the boom and bust of aerospace around Lambert Field," he said. "But this is an economy that is not growing dramatically over the course of the last half of the 20th century. The economic base is weaker here than it is in more diversified economies on the coasts and even in settings like Chicago and Minneapolis."

To that base, add a layer of what Gordon refers to as "geographic inequality" -- the way resources and people are distributed across the region. The current economic downturn then becomes far more complicated than a discussion of the day-to-day struggles of working- and middle-class St. Louisans and leads back to questions about race and segregation -- and how opportunity is structured in the metropolitan area.


"It's the $64,000 question in social science: What is the relationship between race and class? And it's particularly stark when you're looking locally at a metro region because you can see the way in which local public policies have structured opportunities in such a way as to harden that relationship, to cement it," Gordon said.

Because the structure of inequality in a city like St. Louis is largely based on ownership of private property -- and who lives where -- the effect of this economic downturn was magnified because it was spurred by a housing crisis, he said.

"We're now in a situation in a lot of settings -- most starkly Detroit but also in cities like St. Louis -- where land values in the central city have fallen off the abyss. There are properties you can't give away," he said. "But by the same token, some of the incentives for building out in a cornfield have been restrained both by the lack of credit and by the undermining of environmental costs. In some respects, when gas prices spiked a couple of years ago, that was at least a temporary wakeup call for the kind of sprawl that areas like this have experienced over the course of their history."

Gordon said he was inspired to write the book after he attended an academic conference in Clayton about five years ago and was surprised to find that he wasn't in St. Louis. Because it was a nice day, he decided to take a walk to see the city and was surprised when his path led him past swaths of empty lots and vacant buildings.

"It's a story that I began from a sense of absolute shock and awe," he said. "And it was astonishing to me, and particularly striking when you come from the central business district of Clayton, and it's so downtown-like and then you walk into what is really downtown."

He said that he was struck by the devastation across the north side, but also by the "meager" results of urban renewal visible in the downtown core where resources and political attention have been expended.

"What's remarkable is those results rest on a century of promises that this investment will reclaim downtown, whether it's Union Station or the Cervantes Center or even going back further to the Spanish Pavilion," he said. "And the most recent of those failures is the implicit promises that accompanied the new ballpark. And then there's nothing."

Here are more excerpts from the Beacon's recent interview with Gordon:

How have St. Louisans responded to your book during your previous appearances here?

Gordon: It's been a mixed response. What's been remarkable is the number of people -- black and white -- who came up to me and said, "This is the story of my life. I moved from here to here to here, or my family did." It gives me a sense of the larger patterns.

There is certainly some resentment on the part of particularly suburban white St. Louis residents who in some respects have misinterpreted the book in a way that places blame or accuses individuals of racial motivations. I tried very carefully to show that white flight was caused not by the motivations of racial animus of those who were leaving but by the role of developers, Realtors and urban planners in shaping opportunities across the metropolitan region.

The sociological work of the 1970s -- much of it done in St. Louis -- which plumbed the motives of families of ordinary means found that black and white families wanted exactly the same things. They wanted safer neighborhoods and better schools. But the policies opened those opportunities to white residents but not to black for what were the decisive decades, from the 1920s to the 1970s, in the shaping of the region.

St. Louisans who know their city's history shouldn't be too surprised by your book, but are they taken aback when they see it spelled out in such stark terms?

Gordon: It's an interesting point because when I have given talks in nonacademic settings, a common response from people is as if I have written a history of St. Louis and delivered only bad news. A lot of local history is written by people who are native to a region, and they have a certain attachment to it. Those kinds of books tend to be sprinkled with more colorful characters and stories. I'm not uninterested in that stuff, but it's just not what my book is about.

For the same reason, I don't devote a lot of time to pockets of the south side of the city that have done relatively well. My interest as an historian is in explaining why things fail. That's the useful thing that I can do.

Is this really so unique to St. Louis, or have other cities had similar experiences?

Gordon: We now see Detroit looking somewhat similar. It had similar symptoms for a long time and certainly an equally nasty history of racial restrictions on property. But that was relieved for a long time by the strength of the city's auto industry and the stable employment it provided. So you've had a fairly sudden collapse in Detroit that has gotten attention in terms of the devastation of neighborhoods and the complete collapse in value of individual properties. The same thing happened in St. Louis earlier and over a much longer period of time and in such a way that it is not really noticed as much.

History also tells us that the working class struggled in St. Louis, particularly in the early decades of the 20th century. At what point does race trump class?

Gordon: If you look at the manuscript census for 1930, 1920, 1910 for north St. Louis and run down the schedule to see where people worked, on an entire street every head of family is working at Wagner Electric, or move over and that becomes the GM plant at Wellston. These are such crucial economic anchors for the local economy and housing.

There are interesting documents in the archives on black employment at McDonnell Douglas because the employment opportunities opened up in north county, particularly around the airport, before the housing markets did. So there's a constant sort of anxiety: What if I get a job there? Where am I going to live? Nobody's showing me a house in Normandy or Black Jack. Even executives at McDonnell Douglas were worried about this. They have a labor force that they're interested in employing, but they can't find housing for their workers in the '50s and '60s. And those assymetries and mismatches really hurt the city socially and economically over time.

Much of this occurred at a time when a whole raft of public policies, including the GI Bill and the first mortgage insurance programs, were aimed at bringing blue-collar workers into the middle class -- because of what was seen as the larger social benefits of homeownership and that the schools could be supported by private property, residential subdivisions. But at that crucial moment when people made that move, it was an option available to white Americans and not to black.

One of the very common reactions to the book is yeah, OK, but that happened in the 1950s. Or, that happened in the 1960s. We don't discriminate on that basis anymore. But what's important is the way in which those inequalities persist. If you were able to buy a home in Richmond Heights as a white autoworker in 1954 with FHA or the GI Bill or some combination, the economic benefits of that to your family rippling through the generations are enormous. It's this discrepancy in opportunity that accounts for the yawing chasm between the net worth of white Americans and black Americans. You never got on that gravy train.

Do you have any hope for St. Louis?

Gordon: My first answer to such a question is always, "I don't know, I'm a historian. It's not my area of expertise."

There's hope, but I think public policies looking forward probably need to accept that the metro region is not going to grow, and if all you're talking about is a thinning out of the existing population further and further out into the suburbs, the net costs are tremendous -- social and environmental, you name them.

I think it calls for a set of policies for "smart decline." If your city's economic base and population base are either stagnant or shrinking, what should your public policies look like? Very few American cities have ever made this step, have ever admitted that they're not going to grow as fast as all the cities they're competing with. Then I think you end up with a very different set of policies.

The history of St. Louis would have been very different, even accepting a sort of baseline of racial animus, if it had been a single corporate entity. And there was no way in which the suburbs could poach the central city and fight with each other over economic development and who lives where.

While it sounds defeatist to plan for something other than growth, it is, I think, forward looking. It avoids the mistakes of city planners, which are often backward looking: They are trying to reclaim something that has been lost.

While much attention has been focused on westward sprawl, did you notice similarities on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River?

Gordon: It's a very fascinating setting because you have the core of the metropolitan area on the Missouri side, subject to Missouri policies and then East St. Louis. The east side is very much orphaned both from the rest of the metro region, and within the state of Illinois it didn't have much clout.

Many problems that the Missouri side of the river has experienced have played out in some respects in a more dramatic way on the other side. The collapse of the economy is more severe. And a number of industries in the middle years of the 20th century were organized in such a way that the dirty production is on the Illinois side and the corporate headquarters is on the Missouri side. In a number of those settings, like Monsanto and others, corporate headquarters last longer and the production shut down fairly early on the Illinois side of the river. But you still have some Fortune 500 headquarters on the Missouri side and a more diversified economy there.

But the maps show the same thing: very dense concentrations of both racial occupancy and poverty, sort of mirrored on the Illinois side of the river.

And Illinois is even more fragmented. In some respects, the Illinois side of the river looks like north county with postage-sized municipalities, none of which has much capacity to do anything. None of which has much claim for political attention from the state the way a big city like St. Louis does. So it's doubly disadvantaged in that way.