Monday, September 22, 2014

The Long Fuse to Ferguson: How the City of St. Louis Sparked the Explosion

“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.

Before the credits rolled in the 2011 locally-made documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, viewers were asked to think about the failed housing complex as the city develops further. The whole region is now under government and international media scrutiny spurred by the killing of an 18-year-old black teen by a white police officer. Almost everything is under the microscope-poverty, police abuse and municipalities that profit off the poor. What has not received much attention, however, is the role St. Louis City played in creating the conditions that led to the August 2014 volatile, racial eruption.    

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.

Much of this “flight” was due to the 1980 court-ordered school desegregation plan. The courts ruled that St. Louis public schools were still segregated and unequal long after the 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” Supreme Court ruling. Court-ordered busing-blacks students to the county and white students to the city-was the judicial remedy. As a result, more white families moved out of the city and the majority of kids bused were black. With billions in school dollars flowing to the county and very little investment in city schools, black parents also followed the buses to the suburbs.

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.”


Glenn said...

I've heard some of the "myth" or "legend" of the redlining of St. Louis, with the line drawn down Delmar. I haven't seen much in terms of documentation but it has anecdotal value in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

In regard to documentation, I heard first hand from the author of the benign neglect strategy who also happened to be one of the authors of the "urban renewal" legislation, say unequivocally, that "benign neglect" a officially sanctioned strategy designed to depopulate north St. Louis. The goal was to repopulate it with working class and middle-class whites. "Benign neglect" is not a myth. It is deliberate "pernicious neglect" that has left the city of St. Louis in the position of having more than half of it human and physical capital as nonperforming assets on the region's balance sheet. There is no question that the continuation of of this failure to invest in its assets has brought the region to the brink of irreversible ruin. #4Real

Sharon Tyus said...

The Post Dispatch did some pretty good articles on Redlinning and the misuse and sometimes illegal use of the Block Grant money by the City of St. Louis. The money should have been used to rebulid North St. Louis but was used for gentrification and displacement of African American in the Central Corrodor and Downtown. The Post documented their articles with data. It is pretty black and white. (Pun intended on multiple layers)

The articles were from 1991-1993 and covered a prior 10 year period. The data would be even more daming if we go back and cover 1991-2011. Which by the way I am working on. I just recently provided the syllabus of those articles to Aldermen French and Carter in the City and will email you a copy Sylvester.

With the syllabus you can go online to the Public Library with your library card and download for free all of the articles listed. I am also downloading the articles to a zip drive and will soon be able to share the information that way. Unfortunately the pictures that accompany the articles can only be seen if you go to the library and copy them from microfiche. I have most of the original articles so I can have my secretary make copies.

I am also looking for my copy of the Team Four Plan that although NOT OFFICIALLY ADOPTED, has been used effectively against North St. Louis. (In one of the Post articles former Mayor Schomechl states, you do not have to adopt a plan to carry it out.) When one puruses the Team Four Plan all will be clear as to the plight of North St. Louis, and the implementation of the Plan that has never been FORMALLY ADOPTED.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. said...

I have mad respect for you, Sharon. always admired your analytic mind. Looking forward to receiving the info you mentioned. - Respectfully, Sylvester

cynthia banks said...

Reading your article just reminded me of what I have been saying for years as to the treatment of Black people in the city of St. Louis. The history we were taught is not our history even though we helped shape it.

We as a people need to take control of our destiny and rise above all of the nay-sayers. It is sad that it has taken this long for people to understand the underlying cause for what our youth today are going through. My son left St. Louis for this very reason. He never felt that he would make it to his 25th birthday.

We still need to promote education as a means to an end and re-establish respect for self and our elders. Let us turn this negative into a positive in all ways.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. said...

Thank you for your comments, Cynthia. I agree on all fronts. The only addition I;d add is that, along with education, we have to do the necessary work to build businesses and opportunities within these communities that we've long-neglected. Thanks again.