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University of Iowa News Release


May 7, 2008

'Mapping Decline' maps out urban decay and depopulation of Saint Louis

Sixty years ago St. Louis was a thriving city with a population of almost a million. These days fewer than 300,000 people call The Gateway City home.

With decrepit Victorian homes and boarded-up factories in abundance, some would say it's a pathetic picture of decay and abandonment. Even the post office moved to the 'burbs. So what happened?

Colin Gordon, a history professor in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, addresses that question in his new book, "Mapping Decline," published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. He argues that discriminatory housing policies, a collapse of the city's tax base, and shortsighted urban renewal policies are behind the decline.

"Other cities found ways to reinvent themselves throughout the years, but St. Louis remains a very old-fashioned, river-bound industrial city," Gordon said. "When those industries started to decline early in the 20th century, St. Louis ran into trouble. Chicago transitioned from the meat-packing capital to a major trade and finance center. But imagine Chicago without the developed downtown -- if all it had was the old packing plants. And that's St. Louis."

The city's problems date back to the early 20th century when restrictive deed covenants -- which prohibited homeowners from selling, leasing, renting or allowing property to be occupied by "negroes" -- came into play, Gordon said.

During World War II, thousands of African Americans moved to the city for industrial jobs. But with the deed restrictions in place, they were forced to live in a small north-side neighborhood not covered by the restrictions, creating tremendous stress on that area's housing stock. The covenants were used systematically until 1948, when the Supreme Court declared them illegal.

As the strained city neighborhoods went downhill, whites fled to suburbs. During the "white flight" -- which began in the 1950s and picked up steam in the '60s and '70s -- each suburb developed its own zoning code, typically providing for only single-family houses on large lots and prohibiting industrial, commercial, multifamily housing or small-lot development.

"Those codes guaranteed that people who lived in the suburbs were of a certain income. They barred poor and working-class people in the central city from ever moving to the suburbs. So the city got a larger share of the area's poor, while the county got all the wealth," Gordon said. "The demands on the city in terms of fighting crime, maintaining infrastructure and schools and providing public housing steadily increased, but its ability to earn money through property taxes collapsed."

Each suburb existed as its own little fiefdom, setting its own taxes and running its own schools, Gordon said. Since St. Louis is an independent city in its own county, there's no regional government or other system for sharing tax revenues across the metro area to even things out.

"So cheek by jowl, you see dismally poor schools where 95 percent of kids get free lunches and ridiculously wealthy schools building football stadiums pro teams could play in," he said.

All the while, St. Louis attempted to reinvent itself. As neighborhoods disintegrated they were cleared in the name of "urban renewal." This not only displaced many residents, but also took enormous chunks of land off the tax rolls for 30 or more years at a time, further eroding the city's income.

People residing in tenement housing were pushed ahead of the bulldozer into other areas of the city, shifting the strain to different neighborhoods. That sparked a period of "black flight" in the 1970s (continuing to the present day) as African Americans moved to the inner suburbs.

"African Americans leave the city for the very same reasons whites did -- because it has become an awful place to live -- and because there are virtually no housing options within the city," Gordon said.

St. Louis' urban renewal projects included two baseball stadiums, hotels, a convention center, the Jefferson Memorial and casinos. But with old rail beds scarring the city, a dismal view of the struggling East St. Louis across the river and most of the riverfront remaining unsightly industrial land, St. Louis never got over the hump to stand out against other cities. And, unfortunately, the efforts didn't generate long-term stability or decent jobs, Gordon said.

"The city puts too much energy into trying to make itself attractive to visitors and not enough attention on making it attractive to people who would want to live there and sustain it in the long term," Gordon said. "In the process, it spends a lot of public money on these projects and displaces a lot of people, while the redeveloped property is taken off the tax rolls for decades to come."

Gordon decided to investigate St. Louis' decline after traveling to one of its suburbs for a conference and being shocked by the city's condition. He was also drawn to the city because several landmark Supreme Court decisions on racial discrimination in housing originated there and because a rich collection of the area's urban planning records exist at Washington University.

His research for the book involved poring through those files, along with legal documents and census data. Using geographic information system (GIS) technology, he developed layered maps to illustrate movement of the city's demographic groups and which areas were cut from city's the tax rolls for redevelopment. A selection of the book's maps is available at

"In St. Louis, it wasn't a matter of individual people and families making choices -- 'Well, I want to live in a bigger house so I think I'll move here,'" Gordon said. "The ability to move was sharply constrained by public policy. If there had been no racial restrictions dictating who could live where, the movement of people from the city to the suburbs would have been very different. The city's downward spiral may have never happened."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Nicole Riehl, 319-384-0070,