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Countdown: Census numbers may not lie, but they may not tell whole story

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 28, 2011 - Around 3 on a Tuesday afternoon, people fill the tables and form a line at the door at Crown Candy Kitchen in Old North St. Louis.

Barbara Zid steps outside with her sister and family as another June storm rumbles overhead. Zid, from Swansea, Ill., has made the trip here her whole life. Nothing inside the famous candy shop and restaurant has really changed.

But outside, things are quite different.

"The changes around here are unbelievable," Zid says.

Sunday afternoons years ago, she'd come with her family, shop at the stores along 14th Street and get an ice cream at Crown Candy. She watched the neighborhood literally crumble over the years, but like many, kept coming to the famous ice cream parlor.

Now, she sees a new kind of change in Old North St. Louis.

"The neighborhood really has changed for the better," says Zid, who holds a paper bag of takeout in her hands. "It's tremendous what they've done up here."

She sees rehabbed buildings and the newly opened Crown Square, which has a few shops already. There's much still left to be done, she says, and the boarded and crumbling buildings next door to freshly rehabbed ones show a community in progress.

The numbers from the 2010 U.S. Census agree. Between 2000 and 2010, Old North grew 28 percent, adding homes, businesses and people. (Old North is roughly bounded by North Florissant and Cass avenues, Branch Street and Interstate 70.)

"We like to point out that we grew at a faster pace than St. Charles County," says Sean Thomas, executive director of Old North Restoration Group.

We should break those numbers down, though. Old North added 416 people for that 28 percent population change, while St. Charles County added 76,602 people for a 27 percent population change. So, while growth in Old North is obviously not as entrenched as it is in St. Charles, the positive direction of change in Old North is still important. 

But the number that gets the most attention, at least so far, is the 8 percent drop in population in St. Louis. Focusing on that number misses areas like Old North, Shaw and downtown, which have seen attention, investment -- and growth.

From a city level, yes, there has been population loss in St. Louis. But block by block, the numbers may tell a different story.

The 2010 Census

Every decade, the U.S. Census basically holds up a mirror, showing the country how it looks. It is, in effect, a snapshot of the country at the time, sometimes provoking more questions than answers.

"I see the census as just kind of a reality check," says Sarah Coffin, associate professor of public policy studies at Saint Louis University. "What it does not tell us, but everyone seems to think it does, is how good or bad we're doing. That's the challenge."

While compelling, the data don't necessarily offer a complete picture either, says Will Winter, with the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"It's like a snapshot filtered through a fuzzy mirror," he says.

Basically, the census tells us the who and the what, says Mark Tranel, director of the Public Policy Research Center at UMSL, "not the when, why or how."

Finding the answers to those questions can be easier said than done, in part because of how the most recent Census collected the data.

"It used to be that every 10 years the Census would do what they called a full count," Winter says.

For 2010, though, the census was simplified to 10 questions and that full count has been replaced with more detailed data from the American Community Survey, which is released every year. That survey uses a smaller sample size, Winter says, and therefore isn't as precise or accurate.

"Instead of facts, it's estimates on an ongoing basis," says Tranel.

Another pitfall with the census, the researchers all agreed, is that it's easy to take the numbers and build a story around them, without digging deeper.

"People tend to cherry pick the data that confirm their suspicions," Winter says.

Take population decline, which is generally portrayed as bad. But is it always? Maybe not.

In an applied project in one of her classes, Coffin had her students look at Forest Park southeast and the Tower Grove corridor in the city. The results were quite interesting: The population declined, but the number of households increased, as did the income.

"It's hard to say anything specific about household composition other than households are getting smaller," Coffin says. "But it does suggest there is a potential migration back to the city of these smaller households."

In Forest Park Southeast, for instance, many former two-family and four-family buildings have been converted to one-family or two-family flats, she says, suggesting more affluent residents coming in. But the numbers could also mean that aging households with kids are leaving the area, she adds.

"Population loss straight up does not tell you anything really about what's happening in the city," she says, adding that the raw numbers may not tell the story of a neighborhood.

"There are facts and there are truths," says Coffin.

In this case, facts are the raw numbers. But the truths?

"That's a bit more complicated," she says. "That requires looking at it on a much more in-depth level."

Analysis of census data related to the Countdown series has been provided by members of the Applied Research Collaborative, a joint project of three of the region's leading research institutions: St. Louis University (Department of Public Policy Studies), University of Missouri-St. Louis (Public Policy Research Center) and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (Institute for Urban Research).  

Kristen Hare