During World War II, St. Louis, Missouri was a bustling place replete with factories that produced such necessities as ammunition, uniforms and footwear, K-rations, chemicals and medicines, and even aircraft. Soon after the war, in 1949, began an era of Democratic rule that continues in the city to this day. Indeed it has been 65 years since a Republican was elected as mayor of St. Louis. This entrenched Democratic dominance is reflected in the fact that in each of the past three U.S. presidential elections, voters in St. Louis cast between 80 and 84 percent of their ballots for the Democrat candidate.
Between 1940 and 1970, St. Louis was one of the major destinations for the millions of blacks who migrated away from the rural South to take advantage of newly opened job opportunities in Northern cities. During this 30-year period St. Louis’s black population nearly tripled, from approximately 108,000 to more than 317,000. By 1970 it was a majority-black city—a fact that, in light of the overwhelming degree to which African Americans identify as Democrats, would have immense political implications for the city and its future.
The start of St. Louis’s Democratic era, which began with the mayoralty of Joseph Darst, coincided with President Harry Truman’s signing of the American Housing Act of 1949. This legislation greatly expanded the role of federal funds in the construction of public housing, and kick-started the “urban redevelopment” (later known as “urban renewal”) programs that would would reshape so many American cities. Darst, like so many Democrats, was a strong proponent of such federal intervention in local affairs. By the end of his four-year term as mayor, approximately 700 public housing units had been completed citywide, with an additional 17,000 under construction and 4,000 in the planning stages.
Darst’s successor was Raymond Tucker, a longtime professor of mechanical engineering at Washington University, who went on to serve three terms as mayor from 1953-65. The early part of his tenure coincided with the passage of the Housing Act of 1954, which, under the authority of the Federal Housing Administration, was initially drafted to create 140,000 public housing units in cities across the U.S., including St. Louis. Like Darst before him, Tucker was a staunch advocate of urban renewal, a practice that, in the words of University of Illinois political science professor Dennis Judd, “was now the big game in town.” As political scientist Lana Stein writes in St. Louis Politics: The Triumph of Tradition, “Mayors during this period believed they would make their cities bloom again” with federal dollars.
Amid this wave of optimism, St. Louis in 1953 issued bonds to finance the completion of the St. Louis Gateway Mall and a number of high-rise housing projects. The most famous of these was the federally funded Pruitt-Igoe housing project which consisted of 33 eleven-story buildings with nearly 3,000 units in total. But showering the local population with federal cash—a longstanding Democrat tradition—proved not to be a recipe for lasting success. Indeed, just a few years after Pruitt-Igoe first opened its doors in 1956, it fell into disrepair and became a hotbed of crime and vandalism. As Alexander von Hoffman of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies writes: “Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe. In 1972, after spending more than $5 million in vain to cure the problems at Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis Housing Authority, in a highly publicized event, demolished three of the high-rise buildings. A year later, in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it declared Pruitt-Igoe unsalvageable and razed the remaining buildings.”
The Pruitt-Igoe experience was typical of urban renewal endeavors across the United States. By the time the urban renewal era officially ended in 1973, it was widely regarded as a colossal failure. All told, some 600,000 housing units were demolished in a manner similar to what occurred in St. Louis.
Such failures, however, did not dampen the spirits of true believers like the next St. Louis mayor, John Poelker (1973-77), who remained resolutely committed to the concept of federal funding for local initiatives in public housing and numerous other matters. Thus did he oversee the implementation of the St. Louis Development Program — funded mostly by Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) grants — that sought to achieve a host of lofty objectives such as: improving physical conditions within the city; eliminating and preventing the spread of blight; providing neighborhood facilities for education and recreation; increasing existing housing stock; removing deteriorating structures; strengthening the transportation system; renewing neighborhood commercial areas; improving the quality of public education; providing health services; and expanding access to social services. To manage the funneling of Block Grant money from Washington into local redevelopment projects, St. Louis leaders established a government body called the Community Development Agency.
During the 1950-70 postwar era which coincided with urban renewal as well as the Northward migration of so many Southern blacks, close to 60% of St. Louis’s white residents relocated to other towns and cities. According to University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon, who authored the 2008 book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, St. Louis during this period became “the poster child of white flight.”
But this was not simply a case of racial phobia. Gordon also notes that whites were not alone in their eagerness to escape St. Louis’s crime-infested streets. “White flight in St. Louis was followed closely by black flight,” he explains, “leaving large tracts of the North Side virtually vacant and much of the ‘urban crisis’ now located in North County’s inner suburbs.” Between 1970 and 1980, as St. Louis’s overall population fell from about 622,000 to just 453,000, the city’s black population likewise declined from 317,000 to about 206,000.
From 1977-81, Mayor James Conway perpetuated the St. Louis Democrat tradition of looking to Washington, DC for help in funding his city’s local initiatives. Among other things, Conway was able to secure a $15 million federal grant for the construction of a May Department Stores Shopping Mall.
Conway’s successor, Mayor Vincent Schoemehl (1981-93), instituted, early in his first term, a project called Operation Brightside (now known as Brightside St. Louis), which relied heavily on federal dollars to bankroll local neighborhood-beautification endeavors such as removing trash from streets and parks, erasing gang-related graffiti from walls and building facades, and planting trees.
In 1993 St. Louis elected its first black mayor, Freeman Bosley Jr., whose lone four-year term in office was marked by a woefully ineffective approach to crime. Proceeding from the flawed premise that criminal activity was largely a result of societal deficiencies and inequities, Bosley, from the very start of his tenure, made painstaking efforts to arrange friendly meetings between himself and local gang members, urging them to stay in school and assuring them that “I’m committed to finding you jobs.” When he subsequently recounted the substance of some of those meetings, the mayor reported: “When I talk to young people and ask why do we have so much violence [and] drive-bys [and] gangbanging, they say: ‘We just don’t have anything to do.’ I’ve had young people tell me that violence is just another form of recreation.” To address this problem, Bosley convinced a number of corporate sponsors to offer 500 paying jobs to city students in the summer of 1994; he established eight community schools with recreation centers open until 10 p.m. each night, in an effort to help keep young people out of trouble; and city corporations bankrolled a Midnight Basketball League for similar purposes. Notwithstanding all these efforts, Bosley’s first year in office was the bloodiest in city history, with 267 homicides.
By the end of the Nineties, social and economic decay were evident throughout much of St. Louis, as evidenced by the following excerpt from the 1999 St. Louis City Plan:
“[A] visual survey of the neighborhood reveals a tree-lined block of stable, well-kept, two- and four-family homes followed by a block of overgrown board-ups on a one-to-one ratio with intact housing…. Two blocks later, a once commercial area of St. Louis Avenue is now totally empty with vacated lots and derelict buildings. This trend is not specific to St. Louis Avenue; the same can be said of Taylor, Greer, Labadie, and most other neighborhood streets. For businesses, the situation appears even worse. Signs of life are few and far between the corner store board-ups and chain-link-fence-covered storefronts.”
By the year 2000, the total population of St. Louis—which had peaked at about 857,000 in 1950—had fallen to a mere 348,000. Remarkably, this figure was smaller than that which had been recorded in the city’s census 120 years earlier. According to New Geography.com: “Among the world’s municipalities that have ever achieved 500,000 population, none have lost so much as the city of St. Louis.”
Francis Slay — who was highly supportive of, and was endorsed by, the infamously corrupt (and now defunct) community organization ACORN — has been the mayor of St. Louis since 2001. He has worked doggedly to maximize state help in funding his city’s public schools, and has put in place a publicly funded “Housing First” plan designed to reduce the number of homeless people in the city. All told, St. Louis currently receives approximately $11 million in federal HUD funds for homeless assistance each year. When the 2010 census showed that St. Louis had lost 8% of its population during the preceding decade, Mayor Slay, displaying his deep-seated inclination to depend on Washington to prop up his city’s languid economy, saw the census report as “absolutely bad news” because — with federal funding for many of the city’s programs tied to its population — “it will mean a significant loss in federal dollars over the next 10 years.” Such losses will be partially offset, however, by the $5 million that the city’s sales tax generates each year for “affordable housing.”
Notably, Slay’s administration has not been without corruption. In September 2013, two senior administration members who reported directly to Slay — St. Louis Parks Division deputy commissioner Joseph Vacca and St. Louis Park Rangers chief Thomas Stritzel — pled guilty to charges that they had defrauded the city of nearly half-a-million dollars by submitting false invoices for materials and services supplied to the Parks Division. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “Vacca and Stritzel set up a sham company called Dynamic Management and then funneled city funds received through the submission of false and sham invoices to Dynamic Management’s bank account. [They] then used those fraudulently obtained funds for their own personal use,” which included “lease payments on personal vehicles, fuel costs, the payment of personal credit card charges, and other personal living expenses.” Both defendants were ultimately sentenced to 3 years in prison and were ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $472,722.
After decades of Democratic leadership, St. Louis today is a city facing severe economic challenges. It has a per capita income of just $22,551 (about 20% below the national average), a median household income of $34,384 (some 35% below the national median), and a poverty rate of 27% (nearly twice the national average).
Another serious problem plaguing St. Louis is crime. CQ Press annually publishes crime rankings that compare cities across the United States in terms of their respective incidences of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and motor vehicle theft. According to CQ, St. Louis was “America’s Most Dangerous City” in 2006 and 2010, while in other recent years it has ranked consistently near the top of that same list.
Closely examining St. Louis’s crime statistics can be a dispiriting experience. The city’s incidence (per 100,000 residents) of violent crime is more than 4.5 times higher than the national average—including 7.5 times the national average for murder, 5.8 times the national average for robberies, 2.2 times the national average for rapes, and 4.6 times the national average for assaults. It should be noted that the vast majority of St. Louis residents victimized by these crimes in any given year are African Americans. Indeed, blacks were victims in 502 of the 567 homicides that occurred in the city between 2008 and 2011. Virtually all of the killers, as well, were black.
In 2008, Charles Quincy Troupe, alderman of one crime-infested ward in North St. Louis, openly advised his constituents to arm themselves because criminality in the area had become so rampant that the police force would be unable to keep it in check. “The community has to be ready to defend itself,” Troupe said, “because it’s clear the economy is going to get worse, and criminals are getting more bold.” In a November 2013 story about life in St. Louis, The New York Times interviewed one longtime black resident who, fearful of the ubiquitous violence that surrounded him, avoided going outdoors after dark and regularly slept with a shotgun by his bed. “There’s a sense of hopelessness on behalf of a lot of people,” the man lamented. Another St. Louis resident told the Times: “It’s scary, man. Whoever tells you they ain’t scared of this life, they [sic] lying to you.”
St. Louis’s decay is evident also in its woeful public education system. Though the city’s Public School District annually spends over $15,000 per K-12 pupil—at least 40% more than the national average—the children (and the taxpayers) of St. Louis get very little in return. The high-school graduation rates of St. Louis students range between about 46% and 60% in any given year—a far cry from Missouri’s overall figure of approximately 85%.
According to Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which publishes an Annual Performance Report evaluating every school district in the state, the St. Louis Public Schools in 2013 scored a meager 24.6% on a scale of zero to 100%. Further, students in the vast majority of the city’s public schools performed poorly on Missouri Assessment Program tests designed to measure proficiency in English, math and science. For example:
Mirroring what has transpired in city after city where Democrats control the levers of political power, the Democrat-aligned St. Louis Teachers Union adamantly opposes the development of charter schools and voucher programs that might be able to offer poor students in these failing schools even a faint glimmer of hope.
Notably, there is a large racial achievement gap separating St. Louis’s white and black students. As of 2013, for example, nine of the twenty-eight public school districts in the city and its immediate vicinity were at least three-quarters white, and eight of those nine scored a perfect 14 on the state’s performance rating scale. By contrast, the six districts that were at least three-quarters black scored an average of only 7 on the same scale. Moreover, the students who attend St. Louis City’s public high schools, where enrollment is approximately 82% black, have a combined graduation rate of just 45.9%—a far cry from Missouri’s overall rate of 85%. The situation is especially dire for black males in St. Louis, of whom only one-third manage to earn a high-school diploma.
Academic failure and school dropout rates have been studied extensively for many years, and the evidence indicates that racial disparities in these areas can be traced chiefly to differences in family backgrounds rather than to any sort of societal racism. Most significantly, the lack of a two-parent family is by far the strongest predictor of a student’s scholastic failure—far stronger than either race or income. It just so happens that some 73% of black children today are born into single-parent families and then raised, for the most part, without a father’s presence in the home. This of course has enormous implications regarding their academic performance. For instance:
In St. Louis specifically, the proportion of children who live in single-parent homes is just over 60%. This statistic is heavily inflated by the fact that the city’s population consists of more blacks (49%) than whites (42%), and black families in St. Louis are about 3 times likelier than their white counterparts to be headed by a single parent.
This piece was posted in May 2014.