The new census figures came as quite a shock to many city dwellers.  The figures are also quite a disappointment to city officials and proponents of city living in general.  But this notion of the St. Louis area “hollowing out” is not necessarily true if the figures are examined more closely with regard to certain neighborhoods and wards.  In other ways the problem is more extreme than many know.

According to this article in the St. Louis Beacon the 6th and 7th wards saw growth.  These wards comprise the Lafayette Square, Gate District, Soulard, Benton Park, Downtown and a few lesser known neighborhoods Like Kosciousko, Downtown West, Fox Park, Tower Grove East and Compton Heights.  The map of wards showing growth and decline shows a clear pattern of growth along the central corridor from Downtown along Hwy’s 40 and 44 out to the west side of city.  This makes sense from a convenience and transportation standpoint for neighborhood residents.  These neighborhoods are convenient for residents to make their commutes to the business centers of the area in Downtown and Clayton.

St. Louis Beacon Census Article

The other interesting aspect of this is that these neighborhoods feature some of the best architecture and historic properties in the St. Louis area.  Rehab and restoration has been a regular occurrence in the 6th and 7th wards for 30+ years now.  Housing density has been decreasing and more owner occupants have moved in.  4-Families are being converted into 2 fee simple townhomes.  2-Families are being converted to large single family dwellings.  Despite this decrease in the density of units the population in these areas have gone up.  Fewer buildings are vacant or abandoned.  The development and growth of these neighborhoods has been organic since the late 60’s.  Enclaves of residences in sparsely populated areas have gradually grown back into thriving neighborhoods since the populations bottomed out in the 60’s and 70’s.  People have moved in and supported local businesses and restaurants.  The renaissance in the Soulard, Lafayette Square, and Benton Park have occurred gradually and very naturally after a long period of decline.  There was actually a written city plan in place during the early 60’s that involved demolishing almost every building in all 3 of these neighborhoods because the area south of Downtown was so blighted at the time.  So many people had moved to the neighborhoods on the west side of the city and inner ring suburbs of the St. Louis County that these areas were filled with abandoned buildings, boarding houses, and extremely poor permanent residents.  It took a long, long time to change that.

Unfortunately, there are parts of St. Louis that are still in the midst of a similar decline.  The areas where this is happening are much larger than the area south of Downtown that became a problem in the 60’s.  Much of North St. Louis, which is huge area, is undergoing a similar decline.  Some neighborhoods are further along than others.  For example, the near north side neighborhoods of Old North St. Louis, St. Louis Place, and Hyde Park are extremely abandoned right now.  Many blocks have only 2 or 3 structures still standing and the blocks that have more have many abandoned buildings on them.  Old North is on its way back with much rehabbing going on and the multi-million dollar project in the 14th Street Mall across from Crown Candy ongoing.  St. Louis Place and Hyde Park are years behind.   These neighborhoods all sit east of Jefferson close to Downtown.  The neighborhoods on the west side of Jefferson out to the west side of city and up to the northern tip of Baden may never experience this level of abandonment but they aren’t any healthier.  People are leaving these north side neighborhoods in droves for the county.  The population of the northside neighborhoods combined has dropped by nearly 30% from the last census.  Make no mistake, this is where St. Louis’ biggest problem lies.  The exodus isn’t complete by any means and by the time it is the entire north side of the city could be a ghost town.  Read Michael Allen’s blogs dedicated to the abandonment on the north side.  They are eye opening to say the least.

We hope for a resurrection of these once bustling northside neighborhoods and Old North is something that can give us hope.  The rest of these neighborhoods can’t begin the process until there is a strong foundation of dedicated individuals who have a vested interest in whether or not the neighborhood succeeds.  For the greatest success this will have to be a grass roots movement that takes hold gradually like the examples in Soulard, Lafayette Square, and Benton Park.

Personally, I believe that this will happen at some point but it will take many, many decades because of the huge area in question.  A huge abandoned area in the center of a metro area of several million can’t exist permanently.  It will take creative local government who support the proper infill real estate development; both residential and commercial.  These areas won’t be able to point to their historic building stock like the near southside neighborhoods did.  In most of the northside it is either no longer intact or never existed in the first place as you get further from Downtown.

For the city’s part the entire school district needs to be reexamined and a major change made.  The city loses far too many young couples as soon as children are school aged.  These are people who make good money and pay taxes that the city is incapable of hanging on to because the school district isn’t even an option.

Also, these figures make it impossible for city officials or the public to bury their heads in the sand about what is taking place in large swaths of the city.  We can take pride in the successes of Downtown and the entire central corridor because they have come a long way and are great places to live.  But other parts of the city are literally dying.  Some are already gone and need to be completely rebuilt from scratch.