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St. Louis continues to lose black residents as white population makes a comeback

The St. Louis region grew slightly in 2014, but the city dropped by about 1,000 people, according to new Census data.
U.S. Marine Corps Flickr page

Black residents are leaving the city of St. Louis in greater numbers than ever, according to 2017 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau released on Thursday. The statistics show more than 4,000 black St. Louis residents chose to live elsewhere between 2016 and 2017.

"Part of what’s driving this is that in parts of the city the quality of life has declined, where residents have decided that they are looking for other homes," said Onesimo Sandoval, a demographer at Saint Louis University. "Better access to schools, better access to opportunities such as jobs, resources."

A snapshot of non-Hispanic black population decline shows the city lost:

  • about 1,200 black residents between 2013 and 2014 (a 0.8 percent decline)
  • about 2,800 black residents between 2014 and 2015 (1.9 percent)
  • about 3,100 between 2015 and 2016 (2.1 percent)
  • about 4,200 between 2016 and 2017 (3.0 percent)

The U.S. Census Bureau does not consider Hispanic identity to be a race. For example, a person might be of Hispanic heritage and also be black or white.  

Don Roe, executive director of planning and urban design for the city of St. Louis, said his office is worried about the latest estimates.
"We don’t like to see the loss of any of our population," he said. "We’re very much concerned about the future. We’re concerned about attracting residents to the city. Today, tomorrow and the next day ahead."

White population grows 

Sandoval said many Midwest cities are shrinking, losing residents of most races. The fact that the white population in St. Louis is growing, however, is fairly unique.

"We're starting to see an uptick in the number of white residents in the city of St. Louis," he said. "If that continues, it’s going to be a pretty historic moment. Because the white population has always declined in the city of St. Louis since 1940." 

The 2016-2017 census estimates show St. Louis residents who identify as non-Hispanic whites number about 135,000. Non-Hispanic black residents number about 143,000. 

Sandoval says if current population trends continue, white residents could outnumber black residents in the city by 2025.


Why the change?

Sandoval said new white residents, many of whom do not have children, are attracted to the city for jobs and apartments along the central corridor of St. Louis. Development along the city arteries running from downtown through the Central West End is booming. 

Meanwhile, historically black neighborhoods have largely been ignored by investors.

"A large part of this transition are black residents who are leaving for the suburbs," Sandoval said. "These are families who are leaving with their children."

The U.S. Census Bureau develops its estimates with data from birth, death and migration records. The next census will take place in 2020.

Roe would not speculate about why black residents are leaving St. Louis at increasing rates. He said where people live is largely a matter of "individual choice." Still, he said, the city knows it has work to do to keep residents and attract new ones.

"On a daily basis we’re trying to do things in the city to improve the quality of life for our citizens: service delivery, public safety and dealing with vacancy. And we’re diligent about doing that," Roe said.
Wider population woes

Census data released in March showed the metro St. Louis region, which includes the city of St. Louis and 14 neighboring Missouri and Illinois counties, dropped to the 21st most populous metropolitan area in 2017. Baltimore replaced St. Louis in the 20th position.

The estimates put the St.Louis metro area population at slightly more than 2.8 million as of July 2017. The region actually grew slightly from 2016 to 2017, but Baltimore gained more residents in the same period.

Holly Edgell is lead editor for Sharing America, a collaborative covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon.

Follow Holly on Twitter @hollyedgell.

Holly Edgell is the managing editor of the Midwest Newsroom, a public radio collaboration among NPR member stations in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.