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I recently visited the St. Louis, to see my family. I normally use my visits to tour historic sections of the once proud and fourth-largest U.S. city in the late 1800s. But those are the long-gone glory days.
Today, the city is struggling to define itself in the post-NAFTA, post-industrial reality of the “new economy” that has led to the greatest level of income inequality the nation has seen since before the Great Depression.
The pain and fragments of this change are visible everywhere in the city, mainly in the form of shuttered factories and feral and abandoned houses that almost give Detroit a run its money as the epicenter of U.S. urban decay. They are most pronounced on the city’s north side, historically the racially demarcated home to the city’s poorer African-American residents for more than eight decades. That is the story I went out to photograph this trip, in June 2016.
St. Louis experienced what many Midwest, industrial cities confronted during and after World War II. The U.S Interstate System promoted out-migration to the surrounding county. White flight rapidly accelerated population losses following the 1950s. (See a superb illustration of that white flight here: http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/map/.) The population dropped from 880,000 residents at the start of the 1950s to a mere 315,000 souls in 2015, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate.
Industry, including automobile manufacturing and other sectors, began a long slide to obsolescence. St. Louis and the surrounding region were once major players in automobile manufacturing and home to several “Big Three” plants: one Ford, two Chrysler, and one General Motors. The city’s world-famous Corvette plant closed its doors in 1981 after a 37-year run. At its peak it had a payroll of more than 13,000 employees. Since then, Ford shuttered its plant in nearby Hazlewood in 2006, and Chrysler closed two plants between 2008 and 2009 (north and south plants), costing the region about $15 billion, according to one study. (GM still has an assembly plant 40 miles from St. Louis in Wentzville.)
I wanted to see first hand how things look on the city’s infamous north side, or “home” as it is known to its residents. It had been years since I did such a trip. I was startled by the lack of businesses except gas stations, beauty shops, food and restaurant establishments, and garages.
I met a sixty-something man on a street just off Vandeventer Avenue and North Market Street. He told me he had worked for Chrysler until being laid off in 2009, when the Fenton plant was shuttered for good, before the factory was razed to the ground. A grandfather, he called himself T-Bone, and had just purchased his two-story brick home for $24,000. He hoped to acquire two adjacent lots through a process that allows property owners adjacent to vacated lots to acquire those lots at no cost after three years of maintenance. He told me he wanted to become more engaged in local politics to help restore his section of the city. He lived two houses down to a boarded up, abandoned home, one of several on his block.
Today, more than one in four St. Louis residents live in poverty. The U.S. census puts the median household income in the Gateway City at $35,000, well below the U.S. average of $53,000. Racially, the city is as divided as ever with blacks and whites evenly divided, and now Hispanics and Latinos numbering (officially) under 5 percent.
All of these numbers mean that the city, and its poorest residents, are struggling. That struggle can be seen on just about every block north of Delmar Avenue, all the way to the city’s borders with adjacent and also struggling municipalities like Jennings. Anyone visiting the city should soak its charms—the Gateway Arch, the amazing churches, the historic downtown, and especially charming and historic Lafayette Square.
Then they should take a drive for an hour or two and see what life in the new urban, post-industrial America looks like. Gentrification is not a problem that is displacing residents in the city’s north side. No urban, yuppie, or tattoo-covered and scrappy millennial pioneers from the affluent suburbs are rushing to create art centers or startups in old factories sites. This is the place people leave if they can.
This is not Portland, Seattle, or Boston. This is a much tougher, more violent, and grittier place. It is also in many ways a more friendly place too, where people will still say hello if you have street cred and give them respect. This is St. Louis, and the recovery, if it comes, is still a long ways off. Without long-parted industry, that future is still not certain.