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White Flight, Urban Renewal & Population Loss

May 7, 2012 Featured, Planning & Design 19 Comments

It’s true that some of St. Louis’ population loss can be attributed to “white flight” which is defined as:

the departure of whites from places (as urban neighborhoods or schools) increasingly or predominantly populated by minorities (Merriam-Webster)

But we mustn’t forget other factors that contributed to population loss  and that reasons for loss from 1950-1960 are different than those from 2000-2010.

The 1939 World’s Fair in New York is a good glimpse on the views of what 1960 could become, part one sets up the vision as detailed in General Motors’ Futurama exhibit:


Part two looks at the rebuilt city of 1960:


By 1947 St. Louis Comprehensive Plan detailed how this could become a reality here by 1970. From the introduction:

ABOVE: Plate 12 (Substandard dwelling units) from the 1947 Comprehensive Plan, click image for list of plates

 The Plan Commission confidently predicts that by 1970 barely a generation hence-the city proper can have 900,000 population. This would be an increase of only slightly more than 10 per cent since the 1940 census, but such a growth of 84,000 calls for making proper room for the new roofs, adequate traffic ways for the added automobiles, economical plans for all the additional public and semi-public facilities to be required. Furthermore, there must be a catching-up with all the improvements perforce neglected during the long war period.

With this mindset to rebuild the city to accommodate the expected 900,000 population by 1970 they proceeded to build vast highway networks and clear many dense neighborhoods.  Thousands of residents, businesses, churches, etc were taken by eminent domain to “improve” the city. For many who were displaced it was often easier to but a home in a suburb than to try to find a house in the city.

In 1950 many city residences were overcrowded. Floor boards were placed over dirt floors to create basement living quarters and others squeezed into flats. Yet thousands of housing units were razed to rebuild entire neighborhoods and highways. Even if your house remained your business might have been taken from you. With no where else to turn, those who could afford to do so left.

The population in 1970 was 622,236, down 234,560 from the 1950 peak of 856,796 just twenty years earlier. A far cry from the 900,000 they expected to occupy the rebuilt city by 1970!

Urban renewal forced many outside the city limits. By 1990, the year I moved to St. Louis, the population was down to 396,685. In the two decades from 1970-1990 the drop was 225,551, greater than the 1950-1970 drop and a much high percentage. But the reasons were different. The massive urban renewal projects were no more but the damage they caused lasting. You had white & black flight — the middle class got the hell out.

The drop from 1990-2010 was less in total numbers and percentages.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    I’m not quite sure what your point(s) may be.  This is a good presentation of both history and statistics, but what should we conclude, other than the fact that the assumptions / conclusions of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan were seriously flawed (with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight)?  Are we to assume that every comprehensive plan will be equally as flawed?!

    The one point I would add is that St. Louis’s decision (much like Denver’s) to become a city and county, and to essentially lock themselves into some arbitrary boundaries, proved to be a negative.  Many other cities were able to annex suburban areas as they developed and to compensate for the depopulation and he de-densification of their cores in the middle of the 20th century.  Instead of being hamstrung, they were able to react to changing demographics.

    You state that “Urban renewal forced many outside the city limits. . . . You had white & black flight — the middle class got the hell out.”  I would argue that much of this was by choice, and not by “force”.  Given the choice, many people will choose their own private vehicle over public transit, and many people will choose a single-family home in a subdivision over an urban loft, condo or apartment.  Starting with the Model T, our transportation choices expanded exponentially, and many of our parents and grandparents CHOSE to “abandon” the core city.  Place whatever value judgements you want on these choices, but no one was placed in hand cuffs and hauled out to Pleasantville!  It was simply easier to build new than to try and “fix” the old.

    • My point was to set the record straight on population loss, many falsely think our loss is entirely due to racist whites that fled. Partly true, of course but it’s far more complex.

      The middle class was forced out at first then later they left by choice.

      • Msrdls says:

        Poor adjective, Steve. “Racist” is inaccurate. MY choice to spend MY earnings to live in a neighborhood in the county in which criminal activity is a 100-yr event does not make me or those like me a racist. Are you racist because you chose to live on what some may call upscale “fashionable Locust Avenue” vs in a lovely condo near Penrose Park? I personally wouldn’t accuse you of being a racist, but someone stuck in a lovely condo across from Penrose Park just might!  Why don’t you just move right into the AA community, Steve, and show all of St. louis that you can put your money where your mouth is!   We ALL  make decisions that we hope will benefit our families, and those decisions are not always rooted in racism, necesssarily, just because they don’t satisfy your urban utopian fantasies! You subtle jabs speak  loudly.

        • I think it’s fair to say some of the earliest residents that fled the city after the Supreme Court ruled the state couldn’t enforce restrictive covenants were in fact racists.

        • Douglas Duckworth says:

          Bold statements from someone who claims to have never been in Saint Louis’ most wonderful neighborhoods.

          • Msrdls says:

            Note to self:  after reading Duckworth’s comment, remind him that all “knowledge” is not empirical.

            Be reminded.

  2. drsasaf says:

    I think it fair to say that both  Msrdls and  JZ71 make you look silly by their comments. First, have a point when you talk or post a thought.  Second, why are you such a racist that you would not move into Penrose Park?

    • Msrdls says:

      My intention was not, nor would it ever be, to make someone look “silly”. But I’m tired of hearing people suggest that I might be racist because I live in an all-white neighborhood, located in the county, well away from any ghetto.  I don’t own a boat, or drive a Lexus, or wear an expensive watch and jewelry. We certainly don’t frequent clubs. My wife and I derive major satisfaction through watching our sons develop into intelligent, honest citizens and we thoroughly enjoy watching one or the other boys play h-s basketball, baseball and golf, and interacting with their friends, who are also very intelligent, contributing young boys and girls. My wife and I have made a conscious decision to invest heavily on our home and our sons’ educations and activities. And when I walk to the corner to mail a letter at 11:30 at night, I don’t want to worry about someone lurking in the shadows, ready to steal my simple $125.00 wedding band. There are tradeoffs we all make, and we shouldn’t be accused of being racists because we are making them.

      • Singdave says:

        You seem to be taking Steve’s observations personally, and you are missing the point. I think his point was that SOME of the people who left were racist whites that chose to leave to get away from blacks, but other people left for other reasons. I don’t understand why you felt you were lumped into the racist category.

  3. Wqcuncleden says:

    Something I always like to point out when we talk about St. Louis City population loss is this:
       In the late 40’s the city had a population of about 850,000.  And now we have 300 and some thousand.
       That sounds like a big loss and it IS, but not so much when you consider the fact that when it was up 
       850 IT WAS DAMN CROWDED!  People were “doubled up” all over the place.   With all the GI’s home
       from the war there was a major housing shortage.  I’ve heard of people that took four family flats and
       divided each apartment in half and they shared the bathrooms.    Aren’t we glad we don’t have to live    like that anymore.

    • Douglas Duckworth says:

      Intensification could have occurred, people could have lived in high rise condos and apartments (like in Toronto), and STL could have built subways. We went in the wrong direction. Our current reality was not inevitable due to density and housing stock. It happened due to the construction of highways and parking, which Bartholomew said was the ‘modern replacement for subways.’

  4. Wqcuncleden says:

    By the way, ARE there any luxury condos near Penrose Park?

    • Msrdls says:

      “Penrose Avenue” was the only street name I could quickly recall from that section of N-city…probably a bad choice!

  5. Moe says:

    What does it matter?  When my family moved out to Webster/Kirkwood in the early 60’s, it wasn’t because we were white and the inner city was black, it wasn’t crime, etc.  It was our parents getting us to the schools they thought were the best for us and it was the next economic step up for them.  People are allowed to live where they want.  And while I will be the first to complain about the Countians coming into Forest Park and complaining about parking or leaving their trash, I have no problem with them living where they want. It’s nice to be able to look back and guestimate on why people left, but unless  you have degrees in economics and many other sciences as well as take into account all the various social and financial forces in play at those times, one will never know.  Your choice…look backward or look forward?

  6. Brad Waldrop says:

    I like this post Steve. It at least gets people thinking.

    Our city schools suck. Private school costs. The economy is down. The highways did impact us, as well as other problems, and we haven’t healed from them.

    It’d be nice if everyone cared as much as those that have invested/lived in downtown, those of us that want a metropolis, a cosmopolitan city, not a place for the weekend warriors or criminals.

    I wouldn’t rip on you for choosing Wash AVE, after all you live next door to NLEC & we are dealing with guns and youth on a regular basis.

    Thanks for starting conversations.

    • JZ71 says:

      I don’t think most commenters were ripping Steve on his choice of where to live, they were responding to his assertions that the middle class were somehow forced out of the city.  Unlike the Japanese internment camps of World War II*, the vast majority of people who ended up in the bland, boring suburbs of the last half of the 20th century did so either out of personal choice or by birth (like both me and Steve).  While urban renewal and integration decisions in the city certainly caused a large number of people to move, there was little the government did (or did not do) that would have kept them from staying in the city IF they had wanted to stay.  Even the early residents of Pruitt-Igoe thought it was a big improvement, it just proved to be unsustainable, for a variety of reasons.

      There is no argument that both urban renewal and the interstate highway system have had a significant impact on the pre-war urban fabric.  Urbanists seem to think that this was some sort of giant government conspiracy to take the perfection of the 1920’s and 1930’s and screw it up.  I come from the perspective that most of us really love our private cars and trucks and that our built environment reflects that need to accomodate them – our government simply reflects those choices.  And have we made some serious mistakes and seen some significant physical changes because of our transportation choices?  Absolutely!  But these can be blamed more on the unholy alliance of private developers and tax-seeking governments than on any flawed comprehensive plans or racially-driven housing choices.  And the ONLY way this will change anytime soon around here is if the federal government takes away our “right” to buy any private vehicle that weighs more than 2800 or 3200 pounds (much like how we can’t buy certain police and military vehicles).


  7. ann wimsatt says:

    Good on you for treading back into the tragic past to try to find answers. There is great mystery in that there history.  

    To understand anything about modern American city development, every urbanist needs a century long series of Eric Fischer maps, showing racial settlement patterns every decade starting in 1900 (pre Great Migration), through 1990.  (Fischer has already produced 2000 and 2010).  If urbanists and historians could visualize the aggressive politics behind American urban settlement, urban planning and revitalization would be far smarter.  Without understanding how political power shaped urban planning decisions, urban theory is about as effective as kicking sand in the wind.

    Take a look at the 110 cities on these ERic Fischer maps.  Then, imagine the Great Migration settlement patterns of those cities prior to 2000.  There appear to be distinct historic economic patterns following historic settlement patterns.  


  8. Christian says:

    Okay, I didn’t read all of the comments, but I’d like to say that another factor is that families are much much smaller today. Also a family of 5 adults in 2012 living in the City would have to live in a three bedroom apartment/flat. These are hard to find. My mom grew up with her sister, mom and 2 grandparents in a 2 bedroom flat on Devonshire. This is not permitted today. I would have been raised in the City, but housing wasn’t available following WW2 and then when considering a move back from the county, there were 8 people in my family. Where to go? (My folks were Southwest Siders, not West Enders.)


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