“The city will change, but in ways different than before. The next time the city changes, remember Pruitt-Igoe."– The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Be it by design, accident or benign neglect, the fuse that led to the explosion in Ferguson was lit in St. Louis more than 60 years ago. At that time, city planners were wrestling with several pressing racial and economic issues. Starting in 1947, whites started migrating outside city limits. City leaders wanted to develop downtown’s business district to draw in more major businesses and increase tax revenue.
There was a problem: Impoverished blacks had occupied the downtown slum properties since the beginning of the 19th Century. Instead of investing in and restoring homes, businesses and schools in the historic areas, city officials developed while relying on restrictive, racial housing codes to contain the poor. In the proceeding decades, Blacks found themselves bouncing from poor city neighborhoods to county neighborhoods that-due to “white flight”-were destined to become poor as well.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many African Americans migrating northward to escape southern oppression settled in St. Louis. This passage set off race riots in the North. Most were sparked by media-based fears of black people and whites who thought blacks were coming to steal their jobs.
To keep blacks confined in certain areas of the city, voters overwhelmingly passed a zoning ordinance in 1916 barring black people from buying homes in any block "with more than 75 percent white" residents. The ordinance was struck down in the courts but segregated, restrictive housing covenants and real estate redlining continued for almost 40 more years.
|Mill Creek Valley|
Newly arriving blacks and those already in St. Louis were confined to certain areas of the city, including the Greater Ville Neighborhood and Mill Creek Valley (from Union Station to Saint Louis University), where some 20,000 blacks would eventually call “home.”
With a plan to revitalize downtown in the early 1950s, City leaders proceeded to build large public housing complexes for low-income residents. Passage of the National Housing ACT in the late 1940s and the creation of the Missouri Urban Redevelopment Corporation made federal and state dollars available for new housing developments. What planners didn't predict was the damaging impact government money would have in enticing white city residents to new affordable homes in the suburbs.
Suburban housing developments began at a time when St. Louis had reached its peak population of 850,000. Between 1950 and 1970, almost 60 percent of St. Louis’ white population fled to the suburbs.
After the Pruitt-Igoe high rises opened in 1954, Mill Creek Valley with its 800 neighborhood businesses was razed for new development. The Pruitt-Igoe “experiment” came to an explosive end in 1972 with the demolition of the 33 concrete high-rises. Former residents of Mill Creek Valley and Pruitt-Igoe then migrated northward to the Greater Ville neighborhood and other inner-city low-income areas north of Delmar Blvd.
In 1975, the City commissioned the “Team Four Plan," which basically discouraged development in so-called "depletion areas" until the city "determined that redevelopment can and should begin.” It was no coincidence that these areas constituted much of North St. Louis. The plan of was never officially adopted, but, to this day, critics swear the silent agenda of “benign neglect” in North St. Louis was enforced for more than 30 years.
According to the 1980 census, mass depopulation in the city accelerated, falling from 622,230 to 452,800. Between 1970 and 1980, large numbers of African Americans crossed the “suburban color line,” moving into municipalities like Wellston, Normandy, Jennings, Ferguson and Bellefontaine Neighbors.
By the year 2000, St. Louis’ population had dropped to 348,189 and hovers around 317,000 today. For almost 60 years, blacks have been moved or shoved out of the city into suburban locales where they weren't necessarily welcomed or wanted. As the county became more diverse, more whites moved even further north towards St. Charles County.
Although blacks are the majority population in many suburban communities, power (economic, educational, institutional and law enforcement) remains in the hands of whites. This may explain why the annual budgets of so many St. Louis County municipalities are heavily dependent on revenues collected from black traffic offenders.
St, Louis has a proud history of redeveloping and sparking economic growth in city areas such as Tower Grove, Lafayette Square, Skinker-DeBaliviere, Old North and the Central West End. Unfortunately, for decades, city leaders have maintained a “hands-off” approach to developing North St. Louis…until recently. And the big question concerning St. Louis County developer Paul McKee’s proposed multi-billion dollar North side project is will it be a boon for the current population or a stepping stone to depopulation?
The fuse that led to Ferguson burns hot in St. Louis city and county. We can only uproot, deny, demean and psychologically, physically and monetarily abuse people for so long. I maintain that another explosion can be avoided if we choose a different more inclusive route. Economic and community empowerment is possible if we change courses, attempt to rectify past mistakes and tried really, really hard to… “Remember Pruitt-Igoe.”