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What are St. Louis’ ‘middle neighborhoods’ and how can they be stopped from falling into distress?

Alan Mallach, Henry Webber and Reginald Scott discussed the concept of "middle neighborhoods" on St. Louis on the Air on April 27.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Alan Mallach, Henry Webber and Reginald Scott discussed the concept of "middle neighborhoods" on St. Louis on the Air on April 27.

There are neighborhoods in St. Louis that are thriving and those that are very much struggling, but what about neighborhoods that fall somewhere in the middle? On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the idea of "middle neighborhoods," which comes from a recent research study called "On the Edge: America's Middle Neighborhoods," published by American Assembly.

“When we’re talking about a middle neighborhood, we’re talking about areas that historically in the cities housed the middle class and solid working class,” said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow with the Center for Community Progress and contributor to ‘On the Edge.’ “These were areas that had a lot of homeownership and families. Those areas are losing ground.”

There’s a smaller middle class than there used to be and, on top of that, fewer families are raising kids than they used to. That means that the effort to keep people buying homes, populating these neighborhoods, is becoming more difficult. Middle neighborhoods could fall into distress (areas with high poverty and declining real estate values) or they could turn into thriving neighborhoods … but that takes policy heft.

In St. Louis four out of ten neighborhoods and municipalities in the region are considered “middle neighborhoods.” That’s normal for most cities in the United States, with exception to cities like San Francisco, which have seen middle class neighborhoods all but disappear.

Examples of "middle neighborhoods" in the St. Louis area.
Examples of "middle neighborhoods" in the St. Louis area.

“The challenge in St. Louis is that more neighborhoods are trending downward,” said Henry Webber, professor of practice and executive vice chancellor for administration at Washington University (also a contributor to ‘On the Edge’). “Some, in the central corridor, are doing okay. But there are challenges for neighborhoods like Dogtown, or some on the north side that one could see trending upward, but we’ll have to work harder.”

A map of example “middle neighborhoods” can be viewed to the left, but examples include Clayton-Tamm (Dogtown), Bevo Mill and North Pointe in the city as well as Maplewood and Pasadena Hills in the County.

“Lemay is a middle-class neighborhood that has not experienced severe distress conditions but it is in transition,” said Reginald Scott, the executive director of Lemay Housing Partnership, Inc. “It needs some coordinated and planned intervention strategies.”

Those strategies include having jobs available in the region and even near the neighborhood that can support a middle class lifestyle. Likewise, the neighborhood itself must figure out who it attracts to the neighborhood and why people are living there. Likewise, how can the neighborhood work to improve quality of life and market the neighborhood to others who might move there?

“One thing that clearly has to be part of that is building neighborhood pride, connections,” said Mallach. “Little things matter. Farmers market matter. Community picnics matter. Really good parks where people can gather matter. It is a matter of thinking hard and doing very targeted things. Focus on problem properties and negative land.”

If so-called middle neighborhoods do not do this type of work, they could fall into the category of distressed neighborhood, which is a problem because families begin to lose the value of their assets which, in turn, leads to losing quality of life.

“Most people don't have financial assets, they have their house,” Mallach said. “When you see housing values decline, you see a massive amount of middle and working class people seeing their retirement go away.”  

Related Event

What: Community Builders Network, Washington University in St. Louis, Creating Whole Communities (UMSL and MU Extension), and The American Assembly Present "Middle Neighborhoods: St. Louis"
When: Thursday, April 27 from 4-5:45 p.m.
Where: Brown Hall Second Floor Lounge, Washington University
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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