Urban sprawl and mass suburbanization have taken their toll on St. Louis City. The central-city in particular has been largely abandoned, and has been decaying physically, socially, and economically for decades. The population of St. Louis City reached a zenith in the early 1960s at approximately 900,000 residents. Today, approximately 300,000 individuals reside within city limits, representing a 66% population decline. That bears repeating. 66% fewer people reside within city borders today… 600,000 fewer people than just a few decades prior! The mass exodus has been staggering.
Similar dynamics of sprawl, depopulation, and central-city abandonment have taken place across the broader American landscape. While “metropolitan areas” continue to blossom, the population in central-city areas continues to decline, albeit at a much slower pace than in the 1970s and 80s. Many of our great Rustbelt cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, etc. have witnessed crippling population loss to outlying suburban and exurban areas. For instance, the “north-side” of St. Louis once was once bustling with social and commercial activity in areas like Gaslight Square. Here is what north St. Louis looks like today as a result of sprawl and abandonment.
A website called “Built St. Louis” (www.builtstlouis.net) meticulously documents the historic structures we have lost over the past few decades. You will literally weep at the inner-city degradation and callous disregard of palatial brick homes and historic landmarks. Built St. Louis demonstrates that we do not treasure “place” in America to the extent that other societies do, and it comes at our own peril. Get lost for hours as Built St. Louis documents the structural landmarks and thriving communities that have gone missing.
The causes of sprawl are varied and complex from increased highway and automobile access, to racial politics or “white flight”, to inadequacies of liberal city governments, but those causal concerns are not driving this blog post. In Robert Putnam’s seminal work entitled “Bowling Alone”, the author posits that suburbanization, characterized by isolated gated communities, automobile dependence, and lack of sidewalks has partially eroded our “social capital” and sense of oneness as a nation. We have chosen to bulldoze many historic city buildings in the name of sprawl, but have we lost something bigger like healthy social interaction and community bonding? Is sprawl ultimately detrimental to our sense of togetherness and social connectedness? Something to ponder next time you take the T.R. Hughes exit ramp.
We should care when majestic structures are razed to pave another parking lot, but we should also be cognizant of the larger societal forces at play, and continually endeavor to better understand the consequences of sprawl on our communities and environment.