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Growing pains: St. Louis mayor needs policies to stem population decline

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 6, 2013 - As the release of the 2010 Census neared, many people around St. Louis hoped it would be the year the city's population decline stopped and that St. Louis would finally stabilize. It wasn’t.

From 2000 to 2010, the city's population went from 348,198 to 319,294. This continued a drain of people that began in 1950, when St. Louis had its peak of 856,796 people.

“That was a definite disappointment,” says Todd Swanstrom, Des Lee endowed professor of community collaboration and public policy administration.

But the numbers weren’t all bad, either. There were changes and even some growth in parts of the city, too, he points out. Old North St. Louis staged a small comeback, adding a population growth of 28 percent, or 416 people. Other neighborhoods, such as Forest Park Southeast, lost 21 percent of its population but saw a 26 percent rise in median income.

And in many areas, there was population loss but not a decline in households, Swanstrom says. That means that families might have left, but they were replaced by empty nesters, or singles, especially in places such as the central corridor, where walkability, retail and jobs were positive factors.

North St. Louis is still losing people, but it's not the urban crisis of the 1970s, Swanstrom thinks, with its mass loss of jobs, a rising crime rate and a new highway system that made it easy just to drive away.

“We’re past that,” he says.

And he believes that all signs point to St. Louis stabilizing.

But what will that take?

With an upcoming Democratic mayoral primary that will all but crown the city’s next mayor, what policies should the next administration adopt that will end the drain and help revitalize St. Louis?

For Swanstrom, the answer lies in a transparent, professional process for neighborhood development.

For J.S. Onesimo Sandoval, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Saint Louis University, St. Louis should look to immigrants, who’ve brought other cities back from the brink.

And the three Democratic candidates, of course, all have their own ideas about what it will take to stop the decline and, maybe, turn it around.

An inside job

What Swanstrom would like to see from the next mayor is a change in how money is allocated to get to the neighborhoods -- and a change in thinking about that process.

“The city needs to use the funds it has to leverage other resources and become part of a strategy, not just spread the funds around and do projects.”

It needs a professional organization working with the board of aldermen to set goals, he says. Neighborhoods need to be involved and seen as stakeholders.

Swanstrom, who helped createThe Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis, points to programs such as Healthy Neighborhoods Baltimore.

"The idea of Healthy Neighborhoods is to target the transitional places -- neighborhoods with some strengths. It is more a stabilization strategy than a growth strategy," Swanstrom says.

It's not about triage, Swanstrom says, but rather applying different strategies for different neighborhoods.

"The most distressed might have land banking, community gardens and social services," Swanstrom says. "The strongest might rely on code enforcement and marketing. The 'middle neighborhoods' need to leverage their assets -- such as walkability, anchor institutions, etc."

With a clear plan and a transparent process, Swanstrom thinks national funders who are looking for large scale projects with community buy-in would step up and work in a professional, non-political way.

“It’s naive to say that take all the politics out, but you can take out the petty politics.”

In St. Louis, neighborhoods such as the Central West End and Forest Park Southeast are success stories, Swanstrom says, and he believes St. Louis will see a revival.

“The question is, will it be done with a variety of mixed incomes and the best principles of livability?”

Former Alderman Jimmie Matthews, one of three candidates for mayor on the Democratic ticket, thinks something has to be done about deteriorating buildings, vacant lots, school and crime in the city. All those affect growth, he says.

“We can grow our city by dealing with the vacant lots and dealing with the vacant buildings that are owned by the city of St. Louis,” he says.

His strategy for that would be by giving them to the homeless or people willing to put in some sweat equity, by providing capital through grants to fix them up, and by working with people in deteriorating properties to fix up their homes or businesses.

What’s important, he says, is that it has to come from within the neighborhoods.

Start Update: That's an approach St. Louis Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed supports.

"I would begin to bring neighborhoods together to address some of the divisiveness that is so prevalent in our city. When people hear 'top 10 most segregated city' that doesn’t make St. Louis a very inviting place for newcomers," said Reed. "I would address the issue head on, because at the end of the day this reputation does hurt our bottom line, and it is a real problem.

Reed added that population decline cannot be solved in isolation.

"We need to adequately address the problems with our public schools, polarization, and crime to create an environment to get our population back moving in the right direction," Reed said.

"We have great history, architecture, parks, relatively easy commuting, and many good things that make people want to live here," Reed continued. "We have great universities that people move here to attend, but some of our struggles listed above prevent us from capitalizing on them to increase our population, as many move away when it’s time to raise a family. Solving these problems would also make us more appealing to corporations (and their employees) looking to relocate to another city." End update.

For Mayor Francis Slay, “One of the biggest barriers to growth are lines,” he writes in an e-mail. “There are too many of them dividing St. Louis. We have too many wards in the city and too many municipalities in the region. It makes it difficult to compete in a global economy. It makes it harder to change as the world changes. It distorts our national rankings, which hurts St. Louis’ image both here and in the rest of the country.”

For Slay, the city re-entering the county would be a good step forward.

“We are working on a close collaboration between the development agencies in the city and the county,” he says.

Slay is also a proponent for quality school choice and increasing college education attainment.

"In fact, the census showed growth among both 20-somethings and empty nesters. So, before they have children, young people are moving into the city, and after their kids grow up, empty nesters are moving back in. That shows we are improving the quality of life in our city. It also shows we don't offer nearly enough quality educational choices in our city."

An outside job

Since 1950, white people have been leaving St. Louis. In 2010, Sandoval says, numbers showed that black residents were leaving, too.

But for Latino residents, numbers were growing. They just weren’t big enough to make up for the loss of the whites and blacks.

As part of a class he taught, Sandoval worked with students to make population projections for 2020.

What they found is that St. Louis has positive momentum, demographically speaking, meaning the city should be growing when you look at the number of births relative to life expectancy.

But people keep leaving. And that leaving isn’t spread evenly across the city. The worst-hit areas were in north St. Louis, where the populations that remain are mostly seniors. No one’s going to be born into those spots to take over, either.

“That’s not a very good sign from a demographic perspective,” Sandoval says.

If the city can’t fix their migration problem, he says, their projects show that in 2020, the drain continues.

So how to fix it?

Sandoval looks to Baltimore, Md.

Baltimore, which has had similar problems with loss of population as St. Louis, has made itselfimmigrant-friendly, with public policies and programs aimed at working with immigrants. Other cities have looked to being more immigrant-friendly, as well.

Richmond, Va., has an Office of Multicultural Affairs. Chattanooga, Tenn., started H.A.N.D.S. (Helping All Nationalities Diversify Society) Across Chattanooga. And Fort Wayne, Ind., started a Hispanic and Immigrant Liaisonprogram.

Even Denver has looked to working with immigrants, Sandoval says, beginning in the '80s.

That means St. Louis is behind in the game, he says.

Immigrants will come into the city and revive it, says Sandoval, who will be speaking about the demographic challenges facing St. Louis. along with Swanstrom, on March 1 at a Public Law Review Symposium at SLU called "Saving the Cities."

The challenges for St. Louis are two-fold. First, we’re not a primary stop, people are coming here after leaving the coasts, Texas or Chicago. St. Louis needs policies that make it welcoming and attractive to immigrants. And second, Missouri isn’t seen as being immigrant friendly, Sandoval says. So there are battles to be fought in Jefferson City, too.

Matthews says he’s not against immigration, but the opportunities should be given to people who live in the city's neighborhoods, not the people who come in from outside.

“You can come in to a poor neighborhood and have a business and leave rich,” he says.

Increasing immigration is a big priority for Slay, he says, pointing out the initiative that began last year with the Immigration and Innovation Steering Committee, which is working to make St. Louis more welcoming to immigrants.

“We have to make it obvious, communicate it, and make it part of our brand that the color of your skin, your gender, whom you choose to love, where you went to high school, or what country you were born in do not matter,” Slay says. “Your character and talent do."