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What makes neighborhoods grow?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2011 - As her bed-and-breakfast guests enjoyed generous helpings of Belgian waffles and sausage, bananas and strawberries on Monday morning, innkeeper Kathy Marks-Petetit chatted away about how she hadn't been sure her dream-come-true business would take off and thrive in Lafayette Square.

"When we first bought this house (in 2002) and opened the business, we didn't know which way it would go," says Marks-Petetit, who owns the five-bedroom Park Avenue Mansion with her husband, Michael Petetit. The business, at 2007 Park Avenue, overlooks Lafayette Park. "It was a flip of the coin, but now we plan to live here until the day we die, mainly because it's a good neighborhood and it has a thriving business district."

Lafayette Square is also luring new residents, one of only a handful of city locations that experienced population growth, according to the 2010 U.S. Census figures. The overall numbers showed a continuing exodus of people from the city. It lost the highest percentage of residents on the Missouri side of the St. Louis region. The city's population dropped by 8.3 percent, to 319,294 from 348,189 a decade ago.

Yet, as Lafayette Square showed, a few areas experienced population increases, too. Examples included neighborhoods in the 7th Ward of Alderman Phyllis Young, and the 6th Ward of Alderman Kacie Starr Triplett, both Democrats. Population in the 7th Ward grew by 21 percent, to 14,555 from 11,990; the numbers in the 6th Ward jumped by 19 percent, to 14,259 from 12,017. Young has part of Lafayette Square among other neighborhoods; Triplett's neighborhoods include the Square and parts of downtown and the Gate District in south St. Louis.

Changing Age

"There were very few parts of the city that saw an increase in population," says Will Winter of the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. "Downtown as a neighborhood saw one of the largest percentage increases. Roughly two-thirds of this increase came from an increase in white residents."

Another issue that struck Winter was the change in the age of the city's population. The number of whites under age 18 increased only marginally to about 27,000 from about 25,000 while the under-age-18 black population declined about 24 percent -- to about 43,000 from 59,000.

"In other words, the rate of decline of black youth was three times the overall population decline," he said, adding that researchers were unsure at this point how much of the decline stems from "aging out" and how much is due to movement of black families out of the city.

Hope VI

He added that population growth in the city occurred largely in areas that "have seen large investments in housing, such as downtown." Growth resulted from mixed income HOPE VI housing developments in south St. Louis in the Peabody Darst Webbe neighborhood, near 14th Street and Chouteau Avenue. There, the population grew 63 percent, to 2,378 people from 1,460 in 2000.

W. Christopher White, head of communications for the St. Louis Housing Authority, says the HOPE VI project did just what it was intended to do -- remake public housing in a way that attracted not only the poor but working and middle class families to low rise units that included both subsidized and market-rate rental and for-sale housing. He says the area is far more stable now than it used to be, thanks to the HOPE VI investment.


In addition to moving into the downtown loft district, whites chose other housing in the 6th and 7th wards. Some say they chose to remain in the city because of its diversity.

"I enjoy living in a neighborhood that is both economically and culturally diverse," says Mary Kay Christian, a single mom who moved to a two-story brick and siding home in the 6th Ward. "This was something I wanted for my children. I wanted them to live in a community and embrace people of different economic and ethnic heritages and understand that people who have a lot of money and those who don't have to learn how to live together and improve our community together."

The same attitude comes from Mary Sue Rosenthal and Alison Gee, a couple who have two adopted African-American sons and live in the 6th Ward. They speak of a sense of belonging in the Gate District, a popular and thriving neighborhood. The neighborhood is bounded, roughly by Choteau and I-44, Grand Boulevard and South Jefferson Avenue. Although some parts of the district, such as Gee's neighborhood, experienced growth, other parts experienced a population drop. The census says the number dipped by 1 percent, to 3,456 in 2010 from 3,491 in 2000.

"We're very pleased, absolutely love our neighborhood," says Gee. "Everybody is friendly. It reminds me of my Old England neighborhood when I was growing up as a child; we were always in and out of each other's houses. Everybody greets each other and we have a tremendous sense of community."

Another 6th Ward resident who lives in a Gate District section that has experienced growth is Tara Buckner. She and her husband have two children who attend school in the Kirkwood district as part of the city-county desegregation program. She has city planning experience and formerly headed St. Louis's Empowerment Zone.

Buckner and her husband are an example of middle-class African-American families who decided to stay in St. Louis, even though the county's black population has risen to 21 percent. Buckner formerly headed the St. Louis Empowerment Zone and could have afforded to find housing in St. Louis County when the couple moved to St. Louis 12 years ago from Minneapolis. They rented in the Central West End for two years before falling in love with the Gate District.

"I can see the Gateway Arch from my window," she says. "Plus, I like telling people the school superintendent is my neighbor."

Not exactly. But St. Louis School Superintendent Kelvin Adams does live in the neighborhood, as do many other high profile black and white professional and public officials.

Old North

Old North St. Louis is another area that experienced population growth, with the population rising 28 percent, to 1,916 residents from 1,500.

Sean Thomas, head of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, says the numbers don't reflect more than a dozen homes his group has developed since the population count. He credits housing and the farmers' market, among other developments, that are attracting more people to that part of the city.

Triplett says the Gate District "has really evolved as a neighborhood for middle class families. I am unaware of another neighborhood in the city that is solidly middle class yet reflects the diversity that exists in the city."

Alderman Young could not be reached for comments.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.