Built St. Louis

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.

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4 thoughts on “Built St. Louis

  1. I have been saying for years that one way humanity can hope to endure beyond our ever rapidly approaching demise is to grow up, not out. When we look at futuristic ideals portayed in media we find towering cities mingling with the clouds. It stands to reason that our cultural prophets understand what so many of us fail to see. A vertical growth would conserve space, preserving nature, cutting down on fossil fuel consumption from transportation, among other environmental benefits. Then there are the societal benefits, which are admittedly more arguable. Communities Will re-emerge, proximity leading way to more social contact. Neighbors, public transit commuters, leisure seekers in and out of the city. It’s easy to speculate that this could lead to more crime, as it exists now in more urban and populated areas, however its just as easy to argue that the community could band together and fight against that sort of behavior. More eyes mean less goes unseen. And those that wanted to leave the city for the weekend or vacations would have so much to look forward to. Not that this life would work for everyone, there would be hold outs, but it would be an answer for many, and perhaps for our species as a whole. Plus old buildings have character and thus are cool.

  2. Hi Conan! I think you make some great points here. Vertical growth and higher density living would indeed, “conserve space, preserve nature, cut down on fossil fuel consumption, among other environmental benefits.” That is a strong case for less sprawl or at least smarter sprawl! The other aspects are more controversial.

    While we can point to things like highway access, white flight, deindustrialization, etc. as reasons for sprawl, many individuals simply prefer more serene surroundings and lower density living. Not everyone has central-city tendencies or preferences for bustling city life, so it’s difficult to ever say one is “better” than the other.

    I believe that under central-city development there would be more intimate social contact with others and stronger community bonds that could potentially reduce crime and other ills. I would argue the high inner-city crime rates observed today are largely the product of social isolation and economic desperation in disadvantaged ghetto environments.

    Portland, OR is one place you might look into! They instituted an “urban growth boundary” that protects farmland right outside of the central-city area. Developers are not allowed to build subdivisions outside the growth boundary and citizens are taxed heavily for moving to outlying areas. As a result, many observers argue that Portland has a thriving central-city area and one that should be emulated by other cities. Just some thoughts…

  3. I agree that the Sci Fi future I envision is primarily that, fiction, rather fantasy and boyish optimism in my part. If that future were to come to pass it would most likely be out of desperation not choice. Sadly it seems that most cultural and scientific breakthroughs require a situation dire enough that desperation is the only motivation left. That is why I’m not holding my breath for interplanetary, let alone interstellar travel in my or my kids lifetimes.

    It’s not a question as to what is better. There are nigh 7 billion people on this earth and while many of them bear similarities to others and as a species we are prone to ” mob mentality “, the truth is there are nigh 7 billion unique and individual brains. The question is whether or not enough of us are willing to put our personal preferences aside for the benefit of their children and future generations. It took 10,000+ years to reach 1 billion people, 123 years to reach 2 billion, 33 years to 3 billion, 15 to 4, 13 to 5, and we’re now averaging about a billion a decade. Does anyone else find this disturbing? I personally believe that the 4-5 billion people are the best but i may be biased. (I was #4,709,849,323)

    It’s true what you say about social isolation and economic desperation being responsible for high crime rates in “ghettos”, however the fact of higher population density skewing statistics in areas, and Americans inability to read into those nuances, leads me to believe that at the least a perception of higher crime would be prevalent in a vertical society.

    I have given much thought to Portland. Its culture intrigues me verily. People always try to dissuade me with meteorologic arguments i.e. “Its always raining” and “There’s like, no sun”. While I feel that the claims are one and the same, the observations seem accurate. Pedantic quibbles aside, I am nothing if not impressed with the populace and their steadfast adherence to values they deem absolute. It also bodes well that those values rank highly in my book as well. If you haven’t already I urge you to check out an IFC program by the name of Portlandia. It’s a rather inane sketch comedy show about the city of, you guessed it, Portland. Starring the brilliantly strange Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney fame. You should open you tube in a new tab and watch “The Dream of the 90’s is Alive in Portland” right now. If you’re anything like me I imagine you’ll begin preparations to relocate immediately.

  4. Portlandia is truly amazing! Unfortunately, I don’t get the IFC Channel so I’ve only seen YouTube sketches. I will watch “The Dream of the 90’s is Alive in Portland” and report back.

    We are the same page on everything else. I had no idea you were such an urbanist! I agree the “perception” of crime could be more in high-density, vertical arrangements, but I could maybe even see perceptions being dissuaded from mythology. I think the perceptions are driven more my media imagery than “real world” statistics or anything.

    For instance, as we speak, a place like St. Louis has tons of sprawl, and the media is constantly covering inner-city crime (oftentimes with a racialized frame), and the perception of crime is quite high. The media drives their perception of “others”, not real-world experience. Maybe if those suburbanites actually lived in the inner-city they would be exposed to different things and have a greater understanding of issues like crime or poverty? Wishful thinking for sure, but at least we are thinking!

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