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Opinion: Housing Discrimination Remains An Issue

May 2, 2018 Featured, Politics/Policy Comments Off on Opinion: Housing Discrimination Remains An Issue

Twenty years before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was the 1948 Supreme Court decision involving deed restrictions  — a St. Louis property was at the center,

This house at 4600 Labadie was at the center of the case Shelley v Kraemer. The house next door, on the left, has been torn down since this photo was taken in 2010. Click image to view map.

This modest, two-story masonry residence built in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906 is associated with an African American family’s struggle for justice that had a profound effect on American society. Because the J. D. Shelley family decided to fight for the right to live in the home of their choosing, the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of restrictive racial covenants in housing in the landmark 1948 case of Shelley v. Kraemer.

In 1930, J. D. Shelley, his wife, and their six children migrated to St. Louis from Mississippi to escape the pervasive racial oppression of the South. For a number of years they lived with relatives and then in rental properties. In looking to buy a home, they found that many buildings in St. Louis were covered by racially restrictive covenants by which the building owners agreed not to sell to anyone other than a Caucasian. The Shelleys directly challenged this discriminatory practice by purchasing such a building at 4600 Labadie Avenue from an owner who agreed not to enforce the racial covenant. Louis D. Kraemer, owner of another property on Labadie covered by restrictive covenants, sued in the St. Louis Circuit (State) Court to enforce the restrictive covenant and prevent the Shelleys from acquiring title to the building. The trial court ruled in the Shelleys’ favor in November of 1945, but when Kraemer appealed, the Missouri Supreme Court, on December 9, 1946, reversed the trial court’s decision and ordered that the racial covenant be enforced. The Shelleys then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

On May 3, 1948, the United States Supreme Court rendered its landmark decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, holding, by a vote of 6 to 0 (with three judges not sitting), that racially restrictive covenants cannot be enforced by courts since this would constitute state action denying due process of law in violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Although the case did not outlaw covenants (only a state’s enforcement of the practice), in Shelley v. Kraemer the Supreme Court reinforced strongly the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws, which includes rights to acquire, enjoy, own, and dispose of property. The Shelley case was a heartening signal for African Americans that positive social change could be achieved through law and the courts.(National Park Service)

The home was 24 years old when they bought it, like buying a house built in 1994 today. .

Decades of deed restrictions, steering, blockbusting and federal redlining severally damaged St. Louis and other cities with non-white populations. Generations of families continue to be negatively impacted by housing discrimination.

Housing values in American cities still break sharply along racial lines, showing the lingering impact of federal “redlining” in the 1930s, which devalued homes in African-American neighborhoods. The practice was outlawed decades ago, but its effects are still evident. In fact, according to a study published last week by real estate website Zillow, the disparity has grown even worse over the past two decades.

More than 80 years ago, the government determined which neighborhoods it considered risky for federal mortgage loans, outlining the “riskiest” neighborhoods in red. The determining factor was largely race, regardless of the economic status of the residents.

By 1997, homes in formerly redlined areas were worth less than half the value of homes in neighborhoods that had been deemed the “best” for mortgage lending. Over the last two decades that gap has actually widened, according to analysis of home values across the nation. (Governing)

Enforcement of the Fair Housing Act has been weak under administrations of both major parties, though it has varied.

The Fair Housing Act received new life three years ago when the Supreme Court endorsed the doctrine known as disparate impact, ruling that housing discrimination did not have to be intentional to be illegal. The court reminded the country that the statute does indeed bar governments from spending federal money in a way that perpetuates segregation.

Soon after, the Obama administration issued a long-awaited rule that required state and local governments to affirmatively further fair housing goals by making efforts to address the cumulative results of the discrimination that historically shut African-Americans out of many communities.

The common-sense rule rightly breaks with the laissez-faire approach of the past, making it clear that compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws means abandoning the strategy of dumping affordable housing in ghettos — and giving poor residents access to areas that offer greater opportunity. To that end, communities that receive HUD money are being asked to consider data on segregation and concentrations of poverty when making affordable housing decisions. (NY Times)

The problems are getting worse under the Trump Administration:

As the Fair Housing Act turns 50, many experts say HUD’s recent actions, under the direction of Secretary Ben Carson, represent a new level of attempts to undo the legislation.

Under Carson and President Donald Trump, HUD has decisively pared back its role as the primary legal advocate for the Fair Housing Act. Carson instructed HUD officials to delete the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” from the agency’s website. HUD recently settled a case in Houston under terms that at least one former official says does nothing to end residential discrimination in the city. And the agency terminated an investigation into Facebook for alleged discriminatory housing advertising practices. Carson has also delayed a requirement, established under the Obama administration, that local governments must create detailed plans to integrate racially divided neighborhoods. And HUD has put an indefinite hold on secretary-initiated housing cases, which historically have been seen as a critical tool in fighting systemic housing discrimination. (Governing)

Results from the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll:

Q: Agree or disagree: 50 years after the Fair Housing Act discrimination in housing has largely been eradicated.

  • Strongly agree 2 [9.09%]
  • Agree 2 [9.09%]
  • Somewhat agree 2 [9.09%]
  • Neither agree or disagree 3 [13.64%]
  • Somewhat disagree 4 [18.18%]
  • Disagree 3 [13.64%]
  • Strongly disagree 6 [27.27%]
  • Unsure/No Answer 0 [0%]

Thankfully a majority of those who voted understand discrimination hasn’t been eradicated.

— Steve Patterson


Confederate Memorial in Forest Park Built During A period of High Racial Tensions in St. Louis

May 29, 2017 Featured, History/Preservation, Parks, Politics/Policy Comments Off on Confederate Memorial in Forest Park Built During A period of High Racial Tensions in St. Louis
ABOThis house at 4600 Labadie was at the center of the case Shelley v Kraemer

As I mentioned on Thursday, a bill was introduced at the Board of Aldermen on Friday the 12th regarding confederate monuments. flags, etc. I’m in the minority view the revisionist history moment in Forest Park should remain. Why, you ask?

St. Louis and Missouri has an ugly history regarding race — before and after the Civil War. The region has ever fully come to accept the many wrongs committed in the past…and present. If I could I’d build more in Forest Park to help explain the full picture — good & bad.  I can’t do that, but I can do so here.

Slavery was a central fact of life in this region — even some early missionary priests owned slaves. When young Auguste Chouteau directed land clearing for the village in 1764, slaves probably were in his workforce. The first baptisms here included children of Indian slave women.

Chouteau, who became the town’s richest man, owned more than 30 slaves. He used his considerable influence to preserve the institution. (Post-Dispatch)

Chouteau Ave is named for St. Louis’ pro-slavery founder, Auguste Chouteau. The area South of downtown is called Chouteau’s Landing. Over the years there has been talk of recreating a lake where railroad tracks now exist — to be called — Chouteau’s Pond.  St. Louis really likes this proponent of slavey!

Life for slaves in urban areas was different than stereotypical life on plantations, and created a unique set of circumstances which, for some, enabled the possibility of escaping slavery in the various ways detailed in these lists.St. Louis was a cosmopolitan river town, and its port was the third busiest in the nation. A mix of whites, slaves, free persons of color, and immigrants filled St. Louis with diverse people and opinions. In 1850, when Dred and Harriet Scott were suing for their freedom, St. Louis was a rapidly-growing city of over 80,000 residents, including 2,656 slaves and 1,398 free persons of color. 

African Americans were a part of this St. Louis milieu from the time of its first European settlement in 1764. Several prominent early residents were free blacks who were landowners and craftsmen. When the United States assumed political control of St. Louis in 1804, life changed for slaves who had lived under the French and Spanish systems. So-called “black laws” were written which added far more restrictive regulations to slave life. The State of Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1821 amid controversy over the insistence of the St. Louis power elite that it would join the Union as a slave state; only the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which included the admission of the free state of Maine to maintain a balance of power in the U.S. Senate, averted a national crisis.

During this period the majority of Missouri’s slaves were agricultural workers who lived on farms located along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and did not reside in cities. Life for urban slaves was unique. It is hard to pigeon-hole the African-American experience in St. Louis, where some persons of color were enslaved, others were free, and a select few were among the wealthiest citizens of the city.  (National Park Service)

Today we think of St. Louis as a blue oasis on the edge of a red state, most were pro-slavery before statehood.

The great majority of white Missourians in 1819 favored the perpetuation of slavery. The few brace souls who dared to raise their voices in dissent invited the wreath of their neighbors. In one such case, Humphrey Smith of Franklin was forced to fee the territory to avoid prosecution for inciting slaves to rebellion. The devout Methodist leader had questioned publicly how a church member could be a slaveowner. In St. Louis, Thomas Hart Benton, the editor of the St. Louis Enquirer, took pains to reassure his readers following reports of a 5 June meeting at the home of Elisha Patterson in the St. Ferdinand township of St. Louis County. Patterson and his friends had adopted a resolution supporting the Tallmadge amendment and labeling the slave system a great evil, but Benton editorialized that no bona fide St. Louis citizens supported the congressional right to restrict slavery. According to him, all such talk came from newcomers not yet qualified to vote. Nobody thought to poll Missouri’s black residents on the subject. (The Genesis of Missouri, p294)

The Tallmadge amendment mentioned above:

This amendment was submitted on February 13, 1819, by James Tallmadge, Jr., a Democratic-Republican from New York, and Charles Baumgardner. In response to the debate in Congress regarding the admission of Missouri as a state and its effect on the existing even balance of slave and free states, Tallmadge, an opponent of slavery, sought to impose conditions on Missouri that would extinguish slavery within a generation.  (Wikipedia)

Before Missouri was a US state the territory was controlled by St Louis interests.

“September 18, 1820: The first session of the general assembly of the state of Missouri met in the Missouri Hotel in St. Louis to administer the affairs of a state still awaiting statehood. In March jubilant St. Louisans had received news that the Missouri State Bill had passed Congress, and, despite the fact that debate over the Missouri Compromise caused a delay of more than a year in its ratification.” (St. Louis Day by Day p178)

These St. Louis interests wanted Missouri to be a pro-slavery state.

In the years leading up to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, tensions began to rise between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions within the U.S. Congress and across the country. They reached a boiling point after Missouri’s 1819 request for admission to the Union as a slave state, which threatened to upset the delicate balance between slave states and free states. To keep the peace, Congress orchestrated a two-part compromise, granting Missouri’s request but also admitting Maine as a free state. It also passed an amendment that drew an imaginary line across the former Louisiana Territory, establishing a boundary between free and slave regions that remained the law of the land until it was negated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. (History.com)

The Missouri Compromise allowed Missouri to enter the union as a slave state.

Back to Missouri’s first US Senator,  Thomas Hart Benton, the man for Benton Park & the Benton Park neighborhood are named:

Around 1835 Benton slowly began to change his views. While he did not view slavery as wrong or wish to abolish it completely, he did not want to see it spread into the territories. 

In 1849 Benton traveled around Missouri delivering speeches on slavery. In Jefferson City, he declared, “My personal sentiments, then, are against the institution of slavery, and against its introduction into places in which it does not exist. If there was no slavery in Missouri today, I should oppose its coming in.” 

Benton spent his last session in Congress speaking against slavery. This change in position cost Benton much support, and he lost the 1851 senatorial election. (Historic Missourians)

By the start of the Civil War in 1861 there must have been more in St. Louis willing to speak against slavery:

Claiborne Jackson, Missouri’s segregationist governor, didn’t want the Unionist city controlling its own arsenal. (History buffs will recall that Missouri, while a slave state, never seceded.) (NPR)

Gov Jackson wanted Missouri to secede.

After Lincoln’s election, Jackson, despite having presented himself during the campaign as a supporter of the Union, immediately pushed for secession. In his inaugural speech as governor, he made clear his determination to support the South. 

A majority of Missouri’s voters rejected secession, however, and elected to a state convention only delegates who favored remaining in the Union. This result surprised Jackson and others supporting secession. Up to this point, February 18, 1861, state legislators had been willing to arm and prepare for war. (Historic Missourians)

The Civil War ended in 1865, but life for African-Americans in St. Louis remained highly segregated.

In 1878, grain executive and former Confederate cavalryman Charles Slayback called a meeting of local business and civic leaders. His intention was to form a secret society that would blend the pomp and ritual of a New Orleans Mardi Gras with the symbolism used by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. From Moore’s poetry, Slayback and the St. Louis elite created the myth of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, a mystic traveller who inexplicably decided to make St. Louis his base of operations.


Perhaps more fundamentally though, the VP activities were a response to growing labor unrest in the city, much of it involving cooperation between white and black workers. A year before the founding of the Order of the Veiled Prophet was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, in which railroad workers across the country brought cars to halt in protest of abominable pay and working conditions. In St. Louis, nearly 1,500 striking workers, both black and white, brought all rail freight to a standstill for an entire week. The involvement of the St. Louis Workingman’s Party eventually expanded the demands of the protest to include things like a ban on child labor and an eight-hour workday. Of course, this was untenable to the municipal and national powers. The strike ended when 5,000 recently deputized “special police” aided federal troops in forcing the strikers to disperse. Eighteen strikers were killed.  The strike ended nationally within 45 days.

According to historian Thomas Spencer in The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power On Parade 1877-1995, the primary goal of the VP events was to take back the public stage from populist demands for social and economic justice. More than just a series of gaudy floats traversing the city streets, the parade and all its pomp was meant to reinforce the values of the elite on the working class of the city. The symbol of a mystical, benevolent figure whose identity is a mystery—only two Veiled Prophets have ever had their identity revealed—was meant to serve as a sort of empty shell that contained the accumulated privilege and power of the status quo. (The Atlantic)

The Confederate monument in Forest Park was erected in 1914 — during a period of continued racial tensions in St. Louis and in other cities. The next year a young Harland Bartholomew was convinced by Luther Ely Smith to move to St, Louis and become its first planner.

At the same time, a case in Louisville would impact St. Louis:

The city of Louisville had an ordinance that forbade any black individuals to own or occupy any buildings in an area in which a greater number of white persons resided and vice versa. In 1915, William Warley, a prospective black buyer, made an offer to Charles H. Buchanan for his property in a predominately white neighborhood.

He based his offer on the following condition:

“It is understood that I am purchasing the above property for the purpose of having erected thereon a house which I propose to make my residence, and it is a distinct part of this agreement that I shall not be required to accept a deed to the above property or to pay for said property unless I have the right under the laws of the State of Kentucky and the City of Louisville to occupy said property as a residence.”

Buchanan accepted the offer. When Warley did not complete the transaction, Buchanan brought an action in the Chancery Court of Louisville to force him to complete the purchase. Warley argued that Louisville’s ordinance prevented him from occupying the property. Buchanan sued on the grounds that the ordinance was unconstitutional. (Wikipedia)

Buchanan v.Warley was heard by the US Supreme Court in April 1916 — St. Louis was busy with efforts to remain segregated.

In 1916, St. Louisans voted on a “reform” ordinance that would prevent anyone from buying a home in a neighborhood more than 75 percent occupied by another race. Civic leaders opposed the initiative, but it passed with a two-thirds majority and became the first referendum in the nation to impose racial segregation on housing. After a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Buchanan v. Warley, made the ordinance illegal the following year, some St. Louisans reverted to racial covenants, asking every family on a block or in a subdivision to sign a legal document promising to never sell to an African-American. Not until 1948 were such covenants made illegal, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Shelley v. Kraemer, a case originating in St. Louis. (St. Louis Magazine)

The Confederate monument in Forest Park was built during this period, a time when many rural/Southern blacks were moving to Northern cities looking for work. The civil rights era was still decades away.

In 1917, East St. Louis was crowded with factories. Jobs were abundant. But as World War I halted the flow of immigration from Eastern Europe, factory recruiters started looking toward the American South for black workers. Thousands came, and as competition for jobs increased, a labor issue became a racial one.

East St. Louis’ angry white workers found sympathy from the leaders of the local Democratic party, who feared that the influx of black, mostly Republican voters threatened their electoral dominance. In one particularly striking parallel to today’s political landscape, local newspapers warned of voter fraud, alleging that black voters were moving between northern cities to swing local elections as part of a far-reaching conspiracy called “colonization,” according to the documentary series Living in St. Louis.

That May, a local aluminum plant brought in black workers to replace striking white ones. Soon, crowds of whites gathered downtown, at first protesting the migration, then beating blacks and destroying property. On July 1, a group of white men drove through a black neighborhood, firing a gun out their car window. (The perpetrators were never caught.) A few hours later, another car drove through the neighborhood. Black residents fired at it, killing two police officers.

On July 2, as news of the killings got out, white residents went tearing through black neighborhoods, beating and killing blacks and burning some 300 houses as National Guard troops either failed to respond or fled the scene. The official toll counted 39 black and eight white people dead, but others speculated that more than a hundred people died in what is still considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in twentieth-century America. Afraid for their lives, more than six thousand blacks left the city after the riot. (Mother Jones)

The monument was, in part at least, about reinforcing segregation and discouraging rural blacks from relocating to St. Louis. This message was dressed in history to be slightly less offensive. Restrictive covenants were also being used during this period. It would be decades before these were undone:

In 1945, an African-American family by the name of Shelley purchased a house in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time of purchase, they were unaware that a restrictive covenant had been in place on the property since 1911. The restrictive covenant prevented “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race” from occupying the property. Louis Kraemer, who lived ten blocks away, sued to prevent the Shelleys from gaining possession of the property. The Supreme Court of Missouri held that the covenant was enforceable against the purchasers because the covenant was a purely-private agreement between its original parties. As such, it “ran with the land” and was enforceable against subsequent owners. Moreover, since it ran in favor of an estate rather than merely a person, it could be enforced against a third party. A materially-similar scenario occurred in the companion case McGhee v. Sipes from Detroit, Michigan, where the McGhees purchased land that was subject to a similar restrictive covenant. The Supreme Court consolidated both cases for oral arguments and considered two questions:

  1. Are racially based restrictive covenants legal under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution?
  2. Can they be enforced by a court of law? (Wikipedia)

To the first question the Supreme Court said yes, they were legal. But, in #2 they ruled the courts couldn’t enforce them 00 doing so would be unconstitutional. There’s so much more, but frankly I’m tired of writing about it..for now.

St. Louis has never accepted the ugly past so we can’t move forward. Removing part of the history it needs to understand and accept is the wrong direction to go — so it’ll likely happen. People will be congratulated, Future generations won’t know the truth.

— Steve Patterson


Then & Now: Racial Segregation

A century ago whites went to great lengths to keep out non-whites, including deed restrictions:

On February 16, 1911, thirty out of a total of thirty-nine owners of property fronting both sides of Labadie Avenue between Taylor Avenue and Cora Avenue in the city of St. Louis, signed an agreement, which was subsequently recorded, providing in part:

‘* * * the said property is hereby restricted to the use and occupancy for the term of Fifty (50) years from this date, so that it shall be a condition all the time and whether recited and referred to as ( sic) not in subsequent conveyances and shall attach to the land, as a condition precedent to the sale of the same, that hereafter no part of said property or any [334 U.S. 1 , 5] portion thereof shall be, for said term of Fifty-years, occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race, it being intended hereby to restrict the use of said property for said period of time against the occupancy as owners or tenants of any portion of said property for resident or other purpose by people of the Negro or Mongolian Race.’

The entire district described in the agreement included fifty-seven parcels of lamd. The thirty owners who signed the agreement held title to forty-seven parcels, including the particular parcel involved in this case. At the time the agreement was signed, five of the parcels in the district were owned by Negroes. One of those had been occupied by Negro families since 1882, nearly thirty years before the restrictive agreement was executed. The trial court found that owners of seven out of nine homes on the south side of Labadie Avenue, within the restrit ed district and ‘in the immediate vicinity’ of the premises in question, had failed to sign the restrictive agreement in 1911. At the time this action was brought, four of the premises were occupied by Negroes, and had been so occupied for periods ranging from twenty-three to sixty-three years. A fifth parcel had been occupied by Negroes until a year before this suit was instituted. (Source)

The above was part of the majority decision of the US Supreme Court on May 3, 1948 when they ruled it was unconstitutional for the state to enforce such deed restrictions.

ABOVE: This house at 4600 Labadie was at the center of the case Shelley v Kraemer. Click for map.

Today the situation is reversed, some African-Americans are trying hard to keep whites out of north St. Louis.

In March the BBC did a video report on the dividing line:

Delmar Boulevard, which spans the city from east to west, features million-dollar mansions directly to the south, and poverty-stricken areas to its north. What separates rich and poor is sometimes just one street block. (BBC)

I was recently told that whites shouldn’t be involved north of Delmar because it’s not their community. Whites that move north of Delmar are gentrifiers. North St. Louis is sparsely populated and and incomes are substantially less than south of Delmar.  Clearly more people with higher incomes are needed in north St. Louis to reduce this disparity.

When I was in real estate I had a middle-class African-American family looking to move from St. Louis County to the city but they made it clear to me — they didn’t want to live in the ghetto. I represented them in the purchase as  a fully renovated home in McKinley Heights. We did look at property in north St. Louis, but only for rental purposes, not for them.

Some see whites as a threat, gentrifiers that will cause rents and sale prices to go up.  Maybe, but more people with greater income will mean more jobs as businesses spring up. Some of the new entrepreneurs  could be current African-Americans.

My interest in St. Louis doesn’t stop at Delmar. My interest in the region doesn’t stop at the city limits. If a white person wants to live north of Delmar then go for it.  It was wrong last century for whites to attempt to exclude nonwhites and it’s wrong today for African-Americans to attempt to exclude whites from the same area.

I didn’t like being told to butt out of areas north of Delmar.

– Steve Patterson


Supreme Court Ruled on Restrictive Covenants 63 Years Ago Today

This house at 4600 Labadie was at the center of the case Shelley v Kraemer

The modest house located at 4600 Labadie was at the center of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling 63 years ago today:

In 1930, J. D. Shelley, his wife, and their six children migrated to St. Louis from Mississippi to escape the pervasive racial oppression of the South. For a number of years they lived with relatives and then in rental properties. In looking to buy a home, they found that many buildings in St. Louis were covered by racially restrictive covenants by which the building owners agreed not to sell to anyone other than a Caucasian. The Shelleys directly challenged this discriminatory practice by purchasing such a building at 4600 Labadie Avenue from an owner who agreed not to enforce the racial covenant. Louis D. Kraemer, owner of another property on Labadie covered by restrictive covenants, sued in the St. Louis Circuit (State) Court to enforce the restrictive covenant and prevent the Shelleys from acquiring title to the building. The trial court ruled in the Shelleys’ favor in November of 1945, but when Kraemer appealed, the Missouri Supreme Court, on December 9, 1946, reversed the trial court’s decision and ordered that the racial covenant be enforced. The Shelleys then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

On May 3, 1948, the United States Supreme Court rendered its landmark decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, holding, by a vote of 6 to 0 (with three judges not sitting), that racially restrictive covenants cannot be enforced by courts since this would constitute state action denying due process of law in violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Although the case did not outlaw covenants (only a state’s enforcement of the practice), in Shelley v. Kraemer the Supreme Court reinforced strongly the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws, which includes rights to acquire, enjoy, own, and dispose of property. The Shelley case was a heartening signal for African Americans that positive social change could be achieved through law and the courts. (National Park Service)

I visited the block again last month and it is like many in North St. Louis:  quiet with maintained homes but signs of flight.  The house pictured on the left in the image above recently burned down, the remains razed.

Interesting, other African-American families lived on the block — predating the restrictive covenants. One family had lived on the street since the 19th century.

Hats off the the Shelley’s for fighting for years to stay in their home. No doubt the ruling prompted many white families to leave for other parts of the city and for the newly developing suburbs. It would be interesting to look at property records on this block to see when other houses were sold.  Were the Kraemer’s the first? Did others leave before the court case was settled?

The Shelley house, built in 1906, is an owner-occupied private residence and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood is currently identified as the “Greater Ville”, the Ville had been the center of African-American life in St. Louis for decades.

– Steve Patterson


The History of Problems in North St. Louis

My intent for today was to summarize Paul McKee’s development proposal being dubbed ‘NorthSide.’  In starting to write that piece it became clear I needed to build a foundation on the origins of the current problems in North St. Louis. So today I take you through decisions from the 20th century that got us to where we are and tomorrow I’ll give you my thoughts on McKee’s proposal.

North St. Louis has many great streets, buildings and people.  But it has as many streets that are largely abandoned, buildings barely standing, vacant lots and criminally minded youth.   It is known more for the latter than the former.

Above: North St. Louis property in August 2007
Above: North St. Louis property in August 2007

When I moved to St. Louis in August 1990. at age 23, I was told not to go North of Delmar Blvd. — the long dividing line between white and black St. Louis.  I ignored the advice, however well-intentioned,  from the 50-something apartment manager and went North of Delmar.  The following year I moved to the Old North St. Louis neighborhood.  But how did this dividing line come to exist?  For the answer we need to start way back in 1917.

Harland Bartholomew came to St. Louis in 1916, at age 27, after working briefly in Newark, NJ as an employee of civil engineers E.P. Goodrich & George Ford.  Bartholomew was the first municipal planner in the country.  Yes, St. Louis was the leading edge for planning at the time.  Of course, planning as a profession was just getting started.  The 1910 Census was 557,238.

Upon his arrival Bartholomew located his family in a relatively new house on Goodfellow near Page (map).  Although within the city’s limits, it was very suburban relative to the older parts of the city near the Mississippi River.  His 1917 report, The Problems of St. Louis, shows his dislike of the older sections of the city surrounding downtown.

Above: 1917 book, click to view book

From the above:

The problems of St. Louis are briefly as follows :

(1) Restoration of districts wherein values and occupancy are at a low ebb to a greater degree of usefulness and productivity.

(2) Perfection of transportation and transit systems to make possible the use of property within the zone of the city’s influence, now inaccessible,

(3) Extension of the city limits, or power of the city, to secure greater uniformity and permanency of  development.

(4) Provision for public works and service sufficiently far in advance to preclude undue delay and excessive expense.

The problems then are still the problems today.  Bartholomew spent the next 30 years telling the city how bad the older areas are.  Bartholomew, for example, convinced voters to approve fund measures to widen many streets which involved cutting off the fronts of many buildings, see The History of the Ubiquitous Building Setback Line.   Jane Jacobs in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities called such funds “cataclysmic money.”  The Census count was 772,897 by 1920, 821,960 by 1930 and, a down a bit to 816,048 in 1940.

In 1947 Harland Bartholomew, now nearly 60, authored the Comprehensive City Plan which considered much of the city, North & South, “obsolete” or “blighted:”

1947 "Obsolete" (black) & "Blighted" (red) map.

In the above image North St. Louis is on the right.  Delmar runs top to bottom a bit right of center.  Clearly much of the city, mostly white, was labeled obsolete & blighted.  But what did that mean?

Obsolete Areas

Present obsolete areas must be cleared and reconstructed. This is a social necessity as well as an economic essential. The City of St. Louis cannot continue to thrive and prosper where there is nothing but progressive decadence in its housing supply, any more than is could with polluted water supply or smoke laden air.

The unit area for reconstruction must be the neighborhood. It is necessary to create a new environment. This can be accomplished only by large scale operations. Obsolete neighborhoods must be rebuilt, not merely with houses of good design and construction, but with more open space, more park and playground facilities, a good school and community center.

The new Constitution of Missouri authorizes cities to clear obsolete areas and to sell or otherwise dispose of the property, as well as to replan, reconstruct, or redevelop such cleared areas. The new Constitution also authorizes the General Assembly to provide by law for partial relief from taxation for not to exceed 25 years for projects designed for the reconstruction or redevelopment of obsolete areas. A newly enacted Urban Redevelopment Corporation Act now provides for substantial tax relief for reconstruction projects. It should make possible considerable large scale reconstruction.

The Legislature has not enacted legislation which will permit St. Louis to undertake public housing projects of the type heretofore financed with Federal funds. Such legislation is imperative if St.Louis is to participate, as do other American cities in any future Federal public housing programs.

Present high costs of building construction together with rent controls preclude immediate reconstruction of obsolete areas, either for public or for private housing. As construction costs become lower the city must be in a position to encourage wholesale reconstruction of these obsolete areas. This can be achieved by public acquisition of land so that it could be made available for housing and other needed purposes if private acquisition and construction fails to accomplish the needed results. The total cost of clearance would scarcely exceed public expenditure during the past 25 years for other types of public work such as streets, sewers and airports. Unlike these, however, ownership of the land would be a sound investment. The land could be leased or sold, and much if not all of the expense involved could be recovered by (1) elimination of the present $4,000,000 annual deficit, (2) a long-term increment in taxable revenues on private housing projects, and (3) participation in Federal subsidy programs.

Plate Number 15 is a suggested plan for reconstruction of two extremely obsolete neighborhoods-DeSoto and Carr Neighborhoods. This plan calls for reconstruction of these neighborhoods, except for the present Carr Square Village, into super residential blocks with a revised street system that would recognize this block type of development and discourage through traffic; Fourteenth Street, Eighteenth Street, Twentieth Street and Jefferson Avenue would be widened while Cass and Franklin Avenues would remain as they are. Further proposals call for the grouping of commercial areas into designated shopping centers; the erection of two or three story row type apartment buildings generally except for a few multi-story apartment buildings; the erection of two new schools one east of Jefferson and the other between 18th and 20th at O’Fallon; the continuance of certain unobjectionable industries, the enlargement of Carr Park adjacent to Carr School; the development of DeSoto Park for active sports, swimming and as a community center; the enlargement of Murphy Playfield adjacent to the Carr Neighborhood on the north and the provision for landscaped areas throughout the community for passive recreation.

The effectuation of this plan would result in a good standard of housing with ample open space, freedom from multiplicity of small streets, attractive environment, small concentrated shopping areas, and a large neighborhood park and community center would replace one of the worst slums in the city. This is an area occupied by low-income families, many of whom should be rehoused here.

Plate Number 16 is a plan for the reconstruction of the Soulard Neighborhood. Some of the more important features of the plan are: the extension of Gravois Avenue from Twelfth Street to the proposed Third Street Interstate Highway, providing a direct route to the central business district; the widening of 18th Street, the widening and extension of 14th Street, the widening of Park and Lafayette Avenues; underground garages in the multi-storied apartment area between 12th and 14th; a neighborhood part of 10 acres or more complete with spray pool, community facilities and game courts; the extension of Lafayette Park to serve this as well as other neighborhoods; landscaped areas throughout the community for passive recreation; enlargement of the City Hospital area; grouping of commercial areas into orderly shopping centers and the complete reconstruction of the neighborhood into super residential blocks with a new street pattern to serve these blocks and to discourage through traffic.

Such a plan would transform an obsolete area into a fine residential neighborhood with a good standard of housing, enlarged open areas, greatly improved environment, small concentrated shop centers, and much needed park and recreation space. The new interstate highway passes diagonally through this neighborhood and could be most advantageously undertaken simultaneously with the reconstruction. This is an area well suited for families of medium incomes.

The plan sought to clear and reconstruct a vast area.  It had nothing to do with race – these areas were largely white.  It had everything to do with Bartholomew’s inability to see any value in these older areas.   Blighted districts, Bartholomew thought, didn’t need clearing but he clearly wasn’t a fan:

Blighted Districts

The blighted districts should be extensively rehabilitated before they degenerate into obsolete areas. This is both a social need and an economic essential because of high rates of juvenile delinquency, crime, and disease found in areas of poor housing.

Rehabilitation of blighted districts must be undertaken on a neighborhood basis also in order to protect environment and to create improved living standards. Because of the larger areas involved, special planning and experimentation is required. Obsolete buildings should be removed, some streets should be closed, new park, playground and recreation areas created, small concentrated shop areas established, and individual buildings should be repaired and brought up to a good minimum standard. The new Constitution of Missouri specifically provides for this type of rehabilitation. There is fully as much opportunity for private enterprise in this field as in the more spectacular large scale reconstruction housing projects.

The most important single requisite for the improvement of housing in St. Louis is the enactment of a Minimum Standards Housing Ordinance. The City Plan Commission, the Building Commissioner and the Health Department with the aid and assistance of the American Public Health Association, have collaborated in the preparation of such an ordinance which provides for:

1. Elimination of overcrowding by prescribing minimum standards of space per family and per person.
2. The number, area, and openness of windows permitting entrance of fresh air and natural light.
3. Screens on doors and windows to restrict flies and mosquitoes.
4. Elimination of basement rooms as dwelling units unless they comply with the provisions set forth in the ordinance.
5. Improvement of sanitary conditions by elimination of hopper water closets and privies in sewered areas within six years of effective date of ordinance.
6. The location of water closets and the number of persons using them.
7. Keeping dwelling units in a clean, sanitary, habitable condition and free from infestation.
8. Maintenance and repair of dwellings necessary to provide tightness to the weather and reasonable possibilities of heating.
9. Installation of flues which would permit the operation of heating equipment to maintain adequate temperature in each habitable room.
10. Adequate daylight or fixtures for artificial illumination in public halls bath rooms and other habitable rooms.

Unless and until such an ordinance has been adopted and enforced, most housing areas in St. Louis will continue to deteriorate and blighted districts and obsolete areas will reach much greater proportions than at present.

The rehabilitation of blighted areas is the No Man’s Land of housing. It is more important than reconstruction of obsolete areas. It is a field that has been completely neglected partly because it is less spectacular than large scale reconstruction and partly because the opportunities for profitable investment are presumably less than in a new development. Without a definite plan for the rehabilitation of the present blighted areas new obsolete areas will develop faster than present areas can be reconstructed. Plate Number 17 illustrates the manner in which neighborhood rehabilitation should be undertaken.

So the message was clear in 1947, these areas were going to change.  The 1947 plan added to the pressure for whites to move to the suburbs. Soon race would be another.

At the time most of these areas were off limits to non-whites.  Blacks had few choices about where to live.  One choice was The Ville, located in North St. Louis:

The Ville is not St. Louis’ earliest Black community, but it is certainly the most cherished. When elder Black folks talk of their old St. Louis they remember the area bounded by Taylor Avenue, St. Louis Avenue, Sarah Street and what is today called Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. Though embattled with middle-class flight to the suburbs, underemployment, and other ills, it remains a close-knit community of churches, schools, social institutions and residences. Fortunately, the Ville was never dominated by high-rise public housing.  (Source: Soul of America)

At the same time much of the city, where blacks still couldn’t live, was being set up to be cleared or rebuilt.  But soon blacks would be able to move beyond a few areas like The Ville:

In 1945, a black family by the name of Shelley purchased a house in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time of purchase, they were unaware that a restrictive covenant had been in place on the property since 1911. The restrictive covenant barred “people of the Negro or Mongolian Race” from owning the property. Neighbors sued to restrain the Shelleys from taking possession of the property they had purchased. The Supreme Court of Missouri held that the covenant was enforceable against the purchasers because the covenant was a purely private agreement between the original parties thereto, which “ran with the land” and was enforceable against subsequent owners. A materially similar scenario took place in the companion case McGhee v. Sipes from Detroit, Michigan, where the McGhees purchased land subject to a similar restrictive covenant. The Supreme Court consolidated the two cases for oral arguments.  (Source: Wikipedia)

The Shelley house is in the 4600 Block of Labadie (map), just a block outside of The Ville.  In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelley v. Kraemer, agreed that restrictive covenants are private agreements but state enforcement of them violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.   Blacks were now legally free to buy where they pleased. Easier said than done.  More on that in a bit.

By 1949 Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949 that funded large scale “Urban Renewal” schemes like those envisioned by St. Louis’ Bartholomew and New York’s Robert Moses.

Bartholomew predicted by 1970 St. Louis' population would pass one million and we'd live in newly rebuilt high density housing.

The 1950 Census was St. Louis’ peak at 856,796.  In  the next 20 years (1950-1970) the population didn’t pass the million mark as Bartholomew had predicted.  Instead it fell 25% to 622,236.  Real Estate agents in these decades engaged in blockbusting and steering.  They determined which streets, blocks and neighborhoods would quickly shift from all white to all black.  And although some whites live North of Delmar and some blacks lived South of Delmar the dividing line was established.   North St. Louis has come to be viewed by all as black.  As time marched on white flight was followed by black flight, leaving North St. Louis with fewer total residents, more and more who were poor & black.

Many public housing projects were built on the near South side & near North side.  The most well known was Pruitt-Igoe, which opened in 1955.  In 1956 the Pruitt (black) – Igoe (white) project became integrated.

Above: Pruitt-Igoe (click to view Wikipedia article)
Above: Pruitt-Igoe (click to view Wikipedia article)

Within a decade the 2,870 apartments were only 2/3rd occupied.  In March 1972 the first of the 33 buildings were imploded with all being demolished within two years.  Planned as the type of project to rebuild a former Polish slum, Pruitt-Igoe didn’t last 20 years.

The RAND Urban Policy Analysis Program released 3 reports on St. Louis in 1973 including St. Louis: A City and Its Suburbs: By: Barbara R. Williams.  The following is the official summary:

A summary statement of the research findings and policy implications of a series of studies conducted under the St. Louis project of the RAND Urban Policy Analysis Program. Three possible futures for the city are posed: continued decline; stabilization in a new role as an increasingly black suburb; and return to a former role as the center of economic activity in the metropolitan area. The analysis argues that without major policy changes beyond the local level, the city will most likely continue to decline, and suggests that, among the alternatives open to the city, promoting a new role for St. Louis as one of many large suburban centers of economic and residential life holds more promise than reviving the traditional central city functions. However, new resources, available to the city from sources outside the city, are essential to any improvement. Several mechanisms are offered for consideration: (1) a more substantial federal revenue-sharing program; (2) a state revenue-sharing program to support selected public goods; (3) a metropolitan revenue program, sharing revenue generated by industry in the metropolitan area; and (4) a metropolitan earnings tax.

In response local firm Team Four was hired to look at the problems facing the city:


This document contains the technical memorandum that was submitted to the Plan Commission by Team Four, Inc. in 1975. This memorandum proposed public policy guidelines and strategies for implementing the Draft Comprehensive Plan that was prepared by others. It offered a series of considerations concerning the process of adopting, staging, budgeting and ultimately implementing the Draft Comprehensive Plan. In addition, this document contains a preface dated 1976 that attempts to clean up any inconsistencies and or controversies surrounding the proposed implementation strategies and a bibliography or annotated listing of Technical Memoranda and Appendixes. Part I of this document focused on strategies for three generic area types: conservation, redevelopment, and depletion areas; and Part II of this document discussed major urban issues and their solutions. (Source: Summaries of Historical Planning Documents, City of St. Louis)

This last document will forever be known as the “Team Four” plan.  It called for a triage approach to the city.  Letting areas that are too far gone to die, focusing resources on areas that could be saved.  Increasingly this meant white areas would get help and black areas would not.  The Team Four plan was never officially adopted but many feel it became the unofficial policy of the city.  Bartholomew’s 1947 Comprehensive Plan was the last city-wide plan adopted.

The city basically stopped trying to any planning.  People continued to leave.  By 1980 the Census count452,801.  In 1990, the year I moved to St. Louis, the Census count dropped below 400K to 396,685.

In the late 1990s the city embarked on the 5th Ward Comprehensive Master Plan.

By the time the plan was adopted by the Planning Commission in March 2002 the boundaries of the 5th Ward had changed as a result of the 2000 Census (now at 348,189).  No regulatory changes were made in the planning area to ensure the plan would be followed.

In 2005 the city adopted a new Strategic Land Use Plan.  But the old zoning and land use designations remained unchanged.  New more thoughtful & appropriate ideas alluded to in this new land use plan never materialized.  We remain stuck in 1947.

Developers have been free to build just about anything anywhere they pleased.  In 2006 I reported on the project by the now-defunct Pyramid Construction, Sullivan Place (see, Pyramid’s Sullivan Place Senior Housing An Anti-Urban Monstrosity).

The decline of North St. Louis goes back farther than anyone reading this blog post.  St. Louis basically stopped trying to plan their way out of decline — perhaps the best option.  Tomorrow I’ll look at the plan by Paul McKee to reverse this long trend.