The following is Part Two of a three-part series examining the debate over a potential merger between St. Louis City and St. Louis County. Part One addressed the current political debate surrounding the issue, and Part Three will address what the future of our region could look like.
Earlier this year on “The Jaco Report,” Jennifer Bird, a recent candidate for St. Louis County Council, sat next to Marius Johnson of Better Together, a nonprofit gathering information about how tax dollars are being spent in St. Louis City and County. “Jennifer, you mentioned the race card, so let’s throw it out there,” says Charles Jaco, host of the show, referring to a potential city-county merger. “We know the temperature of this area. It’s no big secret. Would you say a lot of the opposition is they don’t want a big city that’s half African-American as part of the county?” Bird immediately disagrees. “I lived in the city for almost 16 years … I would strongly reject that notion. It’s a convenient argument to use because, of course, it’s a smoke bomb. Once it’s been dropped on you, you feel compelled to defend yourself.” Johnson, the only African-American sitting at the table, looks at her and sincerely says, “I believe you. I take you at your word on that.”
Recent articles about St. Louis in national publications include: “The Most Racist City in America: St. Louis?” on Gawker, “America’s Most Miserable Cities” on Forbes, and “The 10 Most Dangerous U.S. Cities,” also on Forbes. However, these sensationalized headlines do not tell the whole story. St. Louis has made progress, but we are still dealing with the after effects of a century of racially-based policies. While the city has taken important strides to outlaw them, the residual damages of discriminatory housing practices have shaped St. Louis’ current structure. The conversation of race is fraught at best, and can easily turn divisive, clouding the necessary question lurking beneath the city-county debate: how can we trace the impact of these policies on the city today?
Drive out to the suburbs in West County and you’ll see family homes nestled in spacious lawns. In the wealthy suburb of Ladue, 81% of students in the school district are white and 9.1% are black, as of 2010. As of 2013, the St. Louis Public School district serves 25,200 total students–82% are black, and 88% qualify for free or reduced lunch prices through the National School Lunch Act. These stark racial and economic differences began to crystallize in the 1950’s, as white residents who could afford to leave St. Louis City began to move to the county in search of an idyllic suburban life, building spacious family enclaves and either commuting into the city or establishing altogether new centers of commercial activity. As white city residents moved to the county en masse, the number of municipal governments in the county jumped from 35 to 95 total between 1940 and 1960. Municipalities were responsible for imposing their own zoning requirements, and by regulating lot size, building height, and population density, they were able to successfully curtail multi-family and apartment-style housing. Consequently, black inner-city residents were unable to afford the price of relocating to these communities.
“A lot of these places like St. Ann, Ladue–they were basically incorporated to keep black people out,” says Alex Ihnen of nextSTL.com, a local online news source for St. Louis-area civic issues. “They would incorporate these tiny towns and say, ‘We don’t allow apartment buildings in our town. It’s not about black or white, we just don’t want apartment buildings in our town.’ Or they would say, ‘Every home has to be built on a half-acre lot.’ So you’re only allowing people with a certain income to move in. You’re clearly eliminating the black population.” From 1950 to 1970, the city lost 60 percent of its white residents, and the white population continued to move out of the city at a rapid pace from 1970 onward.
The proliferation of municipalities created community planning decisions made at a local, insular level. “Each of these governments had every incentive to maximize tax revenues, stabilize property values, and minimize demands on local government … and none of these governments had any incentive to think about broader metropolitan goals or needs regarding commercial development, affordable housing, or regional infrastructure,” writes Colin Gordon, author of “Mapping Decline,” a comprehensive study of St. Louis’ history. “It’s nasty. It’s really ugly,” Ihnen adds. “It’s not that we need to change things today because someone was racist in 1957. But it’s had a real, negative impact.” As white residents resettled in the county, black residents remained in the city, unable to move to the affluent suburbs because of a lack of economic opportunity in part caused by discriminatory housing practices.
Over a decade earlier in 1935, a federal housing agency created maps of 239 urban areas to assess the likelihood that real estate investments would be repaid. Neighborhoods were graded on a scale of A-D, a practice known as “redlining.” The racial makeup of a neighborhood was a key factor in their decisions: majority African-American neighborhoods received the lowest ratings of all, while white neighborhoods were granted the highest ratings. As a result, black residents could not secure federally-backed mortgages, which had lower down payments and interest rates, and the value of their homes plummeted.
Majority African-American neighborhoods didn’t happen by accident–the racial boundaries of neighborhoods within St. Louis City developed as decades of housing policy snowballed, each one leading into the next. In 1880, African-American residents only accounted for 6.36% of the city’s population, which increased in the 1910’s. In 1911, St. Louis City voted on an ordinance that would legalize segregation, as supporters argued that having African-American neighbors would drive down home values. A post card from 1915 in the middle of their campaign shows a block of stately multi-story homes, almost all of them marked with a spidery X hovering over the roof, proclaiming “an entire block ruined by negro invasion.” The measure passed in St. Louis by a majority vote, but a similar case made it to the Supreme Court soon after, and racially-based zoning was ruled illegal in the U.S. However, the belief that having African-American neighbors would negatively impact home values took hold. This led to additional efforts to keep white and black neighborhoods separate within the city, while still complying with the law.
Restrictive covenants were one of the most pervasive forms of accepted segregation, and became widespread in the first half of the 20th century. Neighborhood homeowners were asked to sign a binding legal document prohibiting the sale or rental of their property to occupants of color. In 1938, two leaders of a St. Louis neighborhood organization explained the reasoning behind these covenants, as quoted by Clement Vose in his book “Caucasians Only”: “White people living in these towns who feel that the negroes should not be denied their liberties but prefer to live separately can do this by banding together in a community and draw up an agreement as property owners not to sell to negroes, this agreement after being signed becomes part and parcel of the deed.” Legally, these covenants were considered private agreements, so courts would not overturn them.
While restrictive covenants were prevalent all over the U.S.–Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, New York City, and Los Angeles also used them–one case in St. Louis struck down the legitimacy of these covenants for the whole country. On September 11th, 1945, the Shelleys, an African-American family, purchased a home at 4600 Labadie Avenue in The Ville neighborhood of North St. Louis, which (unbeknownst to them) was protected by a restrictive covenant in the majority white area. That evening, the Shelley family was notified they were being sued by the Kraemer family, with the full support of the neighborhood. According to court testimonies, Ethel Shelley explained that “the place was restricted; something like that.” The court then asked if she understood why her family was being sued. “I understand the white people didn’t want me back,” she responded, and recalled seeing other black residents on the street at the time they purchased the house. “I see other people on the street, that’s why I bought it. If I hadn’t a-seen them I never would.” The Circuit Court of St. Louis found the restrictive covenant practices invalid, but the residents of the neighborhood appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court and won a reversal.
St. Louisans opposed to restrictive covenants formed the Real Estate Broker’s Association of St. Louis, and helped the Shelleys raise money to appeal their case to the Supreme Court. The Shelleys became unofficial symbols of the fight against restrictive covenants. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that state courts could not enforce these covenants in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer, which invalidated them throughout the entire nation–a huge victory. However, around the same time, white residents began to leave the city for the newly developed suburbs in the county. Municipalities continued to divide and expand in the county, while zoning ordinances and discriminatory home loan practices preserved racial boundaries in the city. Today, the Shelley’s former neighborhood, The Ville in North City, is 97.3% black and 1.2% white as of the 2010 census. By contrast, the census reports that the county municipality of Chesterfield was 86.5% white and 2.6% black.
As it has developed, the current structure enables municipalities to ignore what happens outside of their own boundaries. Merging the city with the county would not solve all of the region’s problems. However, the fragmentation of St. Louis has roots in a history of segregation that is oftentimes easy to overlook, and a more unified structure could create a greater sense of mutual responsibility. “Cooperation would help us focus on issues, problems, and then help us allocate resources,” says Alex Ihnen. “The challenge is it takes real work. It’s not just talking about it, it’s not just holding public forums–it’s actually doing something about it.”
Stay tuned for Part Three of this series, a look at possible scenarios for reunification and their economic impact on the region. You can read Part One here.
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