Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

City Profile: St. Louis by UrbanSTL

[ I write about some cities more than others because I know them better. In an effort to broaden my geographic scope, I’m kicking off today what I hope to be the first in an on going series of city profiles written by a leading urbanist blogger in the city in question. First up is St. Louis with a great piece by Alex Ihnen of urbanSTL. Be sure to click on over and check out his blog and discussion forums – Aaron. ]

The popular image of St. Louis is deeply flawed. The numbers are cliché. Crime, population, education, all largely red-herrings. St. Louis metro has 1,000,000 more residents than Las Vegas, more than Baltimore, Denver, Indianapolis and San Antonio. St. Louis is safer than Salt Lake City, Blacksburg, VA and Toledo, OH. The “city” (1/6 of the metro population) is smaller than Tulsa and Wichita, more “dangerous” than Gary, Indiana and the police and public schools are controlled by the state. Together, the city and county would produce the 6th largest city in the nation. This combination of a small city in a big region skews statistics for the city only.

Much of the image and numbers are an ugly legacy of St. Louis and Missouri politics. The state took control of the police force during the Civil War for fear of insurrection. The city thought building roads and other amenities in the County to be an “undue burden” and the two separated in 1876. This, and subsequent decisions led to 91 incorporated municipalities in St. Louis County today. Fractured government has amplified the worst externalities of local control, racially biased municipal housing covenants and zoning served to racially segregate the St. Louis area, hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue is forgone in an effort to attract car dealerships and the next Wal-Mart to one side of the road as opposed to the other. Such issues will continue to exert influence on the future of St. Louis.

But St. Louis, to its residents and any eyes-open visitor is something else entirely. St. Louis is: an increasingly lively downtown with a wonderful sculpture garden, what may be the world’s best playground at City Museum and a National Park; one of the nation’s largest urban parks with an incredible art museum, history museum, science center, and zoo, all of which you can attend for free; home to world-renowned universities and research facilities such as Washington University, Saint Louis University, and others. St. Louis is a center for plant science research with the Missouri Botanical Garden, Danforth Plan Science Center, and Monsanto.

City Museum – Photo by Serolynne

But then that all sounds as though it could come from the St. Louis Regional Civic Organization for Progress, Development and Synergy. OK, that’s a fictitious organization. More than any other place I’ve been, St. Louisians do not define their city by its institutions or attractions, but by the life one can lead here. The small things and small places define St. Louis. Somehow, many of these things seem hidden. With just more than five years now spent here, I have only glimpsed the wealth of place St. Louis possesses.

Lafayette Square is one such place. So unexpected when I moved to St. Louis, and so quintessentially historic that it successfully doubled as a Chicago street of brownstones in the movie Up in the Air. With million-dollar Victorian homes Lafayette Square isn’t subtle. For that we go to Benton Park, McKinley Heights, Tower Grove South, and more, all distinct neighborhoods, all incredibly intact. Individually, each one offers a great place to live and a great destination to visit; collectively they create an incomparable city.

Lafayette Square

The private streets and mansions of corporate titans of industries past have received due recognition, and they’re a sight to see, but the city is built with red brick. The residents of the city live in red brick. In fact a feature-length documentary titled “Brick by Chance and by Fortune” is in full production. St. Louis grew consistently fast in the first decades of the 20th century and as a result is seems each block and each neighborhood offers a clear narrative on development. The definitive source detailing this story is “St. Louis: The Evolution of an American Urban Landscape” by Eric Sandweiss. However, anyone can travel from Soulard to University City via Fox Park, Compton Heights, The Grove, and The Hill and witness the story of St. Louis evolving before their eyes.

Fox Park – Photo by Mark Groth

Today, many are investing in these neighborhoods, the site of rehabs is common and home prices are going up. One place that may serve to highlight the changes in the urban core of St. Louis is The Grove, aka Forest Park Southeast. Home prices have doubled in the past decade and storefronts vacant for twice as long are springing to life.

Small improvements are everywhere. St. Louis is being rebuilt brick by brick, the older corner stores are seeing new life, century-old homes are being rehabbed to the highest standards and the mansions of the city’s private streets once again command multi-million dollar prices. Retail storefronts from Morganford to Locust are coming back to life and warehouses suitable for loft conversion are today in short supply. Historic preservation has been the engine of the St. Louis renaissance and the progressive state historic tax credit program is largely to thank.

Compton Heights – Photo by Flickr/matthewdiller

Civic institutions are adding to the development boom. The central St. Louis Public Library is beginning a $50M renovation. The St. Louis Art Museum is adding a $130M David Chipperfield designed wing and renovating the original 1904 World’s Fair building. Saint Louis University has added a $66M research building to its medical campus. The nascent CORTEX research district is home to Solae’s new $40M corporate headquarters and a collaborative $36M research facility. The adjacent Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital medical campus has seen incredible growth as well. The $235M BioMed 21 has just been completed, along with several other significant buildings. Barnes-Jewish Healthcare is currently constructing a $75M headquarters adjacent to the medical campus and a new $170M Shriners Hospital is soon to break ground nearby. Finally, at the Washington University Danforth Campus, at the western end of Forest Park, a building boom continues. Several $100M have brought a new student union, 600,000 square feet of lab and teaching space for the School of Engineering, new student residence halls and other academic buildings in the past decade.

Rendering of BioMed 21

Preservationists and urbanists often focus on organic growth while single “transformational” projects are shunned. After all, here in St. Louis the “silver bullet” projects are infamous. The Pruitt-Igoe housing project stood for fewer than 20 years, from 1954-1972. When the complex was imploded Charles Jencks, an architectural historian, concluded it was “the day Modern architecture died.” The 57 acre site remains vacant today. St. Louis’ enthusiasm for “urban renewal” projects and the success in receiving federal funding has left many scars on the landscape. Multiple Interstates severed neighborhoods and separated the city from its river, the entire Mill Creek Valley neighborhood was demolished and the area remains incredibly underdeveloped, the 18-block Gateway Mall was clear-cut and remains mostly unplanned and underutilized, save a recent project. Even Saarinen’s iconic Arch and the surrounding Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a National Park, is unfinished. There are plans and proposals to correct some of this, such as an international competition to redo the Arch grounds and a citizen group named City to River looking to reconnect the city with the Arch grounds and river by removing I-70. Recent projects like City Garden have shown how to do major civic projects right.

City Garden – Photo Flickr/SenzEnina

Yet the biggest idea by far for St. Louis is Paul McKee’s $8B vision for the near North Side. Dubbed “NorthSide,” McKee has purchased more than 1,000 city lots, most measuring the familiar 25ft x 126ft of the common St. Louis residential lot. The city owns another 1,000 lots that would presumably be part of the project as well. The project area is more than 1,500 acres and includes plans for four job centers, one at the arterial roads on the north side of the project area, one at a new I-64/22nd Street interchange, one at the landing of the new Mississippi River Bridge and one at the Pruitt-Igoe site. The only project of this size in the U.S. is the Stapleton development in Denver, CO. However, Stapleton was built on the site of a vacated airport and not in a central city with many remaining historic structures, thousands of residents and infrastructure dating from the 1880’s. The North Side project has been very controversial and its sheer size makes it a daunting proposition.

From 700 square foot brick shotgun rehabs to an $8B development vision, St. Louis is practical and ambitious. That civic optimism and the pulse of St. Louis may be best reflected by the local blogging community. There are independent blogs posting weekly and covering Mid-Century Modern architecture, transportation, the city’s neighborhoods, downtown, preservation, one promoting the city’s continued progress, one lamenting its loses, one comparing St. Louis to “elsewhere” and on and on. As mentioned above, blogger Michael Allen exposed the NorthSide plan on his blog Ecology of Absence before anyone else was paying attention. Built St. Louis is a veritable photographic encyclopedia of the city. Steve Patterson’s Urban Review STL has been a staple for years. Several others serve as catch-all blogs, attempting to offer a wide-view of urbanism in St. Louis. My own writings appear at UrbanSTL. Few cities enjoy this depth and breadth of interest. To me, it’s indicative of St. Louis’s “wealth of place.”

Benton Park – Photo by Mark Groth

St. Louis is witnessing incredible development, but some big challenges remain. The most serious challenge is political and rooted in an 1876 vote by the city to secede from St. Louis County, though there is regional collaboration on some issues such as museum and zoo taxing districts, and transit.

The economic health of the city and region will obviously dictate future growth and redevelopment. It has been estimated that it will take eight years for the region to recover the jobs lost to this point in the Great Recession. And irrespective of the current downturn, St. Louis has experienced flat job growth for years. But increasing, local leaders are talking about “bending the curve” and changing the local economic dynamics in order to exceed growth projections. Among the initiatives of local economic
development are seeking to become the premier location for plant
science research and businesses, and an ambitious plan to establish St.
Louis as the principal Chinese air freight gateway to the US between
the coasts. The ultimate hope is that several Chinese companies would locate US headquarters in St. Louis, that high-tech assembly and production facilities would open in the newly established and greatly enlarged “foreign trade zone” adjacent to Lambert Airport.

St. Louis will be a great place to live and an engaging city whether or not these and other efforts come to fruition, but the city needs to bend the curve on growth if the historic built environment of the city is to be saved intact, see significant infill and be repopulated. Much of what is “wrong” with St. Louis is perception, by locals and those looking outside-in. Increased regional cooperation, support for mass transit, a new Arch grounds and economic development efforts will all contribute to changing perception both locally and elsewhere.

For coverage of St. Louis urbanism and the projects and issues referenced here go to the urbanSTL blog at www.urbanstl.com. You can also follow us at @urbanSTL on Twitter.

Active St. Louis urbanism blogs:
Ecology of Absence: ecoabsence.blogspot.com
Urban Review STL: urbanreviewstl.com
Dotage St. Louis: stldotage.blogspot.com
B.E.L.T: beltstl.com
St. Louis City Talk: stlouiscitytalk.com
St. Louis/Elsewhere: stlelsewhere.blogspot.com
Gateway Streets: gatewaystreets.org
St. Louis Patina: stlouispatina.blogspot.com
Downtown St. Louis Business: downtownstlbiz.blogspot.com
Built St. Louis: builtstlouis.blogspot.com
STL Rising: stlrising.blogspot.com
Vanishing STL: vanishingstl.blogspot.com
St. Louis Energized: stlenergized.blogspot.com
Exquisite Struggle: exquisitestruggle.blogspot.com

Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development, Regionalism, Transportation
Cities: St. Louis

42 Responses to “City Profile: St. Louis by UrbanSTL”

  1. Randy Vines says:

    It’s no surprise that Alex nailed it with this inspiring story of Saint Louis’s undeniable rebirth. I guess part of the city’s identity is the very fact that it is so misunderstood, overlooked and underappreciated. Any urbanophile who visits Saint Louis will find a very different city than the one depicted in popular media’s dubious rankings. Well done, Alex!

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Overall, the article reads like a random fluff story; the statistics and the narrative come off like something the local boosters’ club put out to attract outsider investors.

    For a random example: the part about turning St. Louis into a Chinese investment hub is wrong on every possible level. First, St. Louis is not a hub of anything right now; it’s a hope that somehow Chinese companies will invest in St. Louis and not in New York, San Francisco, or Houston. Second, if you need outside investment to revitalize your city, you’re just a third-world backwater with no hopes beyond making foreign big business happy. And third, even third-world backwaters don’t get rich out of foreign investment. The recent success stories – Japan, the Tigers, China – have all had export-oriented growth, which means a net outflow of capital rather than a net inflow.

  3. Alon, you’re a ray of sunshine.

    The point of this series I am doing is to let people showcase their city in a generally positive light to a broader audience.

    As for the Chinese hub, what they are specifically looking to do is attempt to convince the Chinese firms to use the St. Louis airport an the interior gateway for air freight since their airport is underutilized and has plenty of nearby space. The hope is that this would lead to some spin off businesses. I think it is a long shot, frankly, but I don’t think the idea is flawed. Nor do I think that is where they are hanging their entire development hat, though I myself criticized them recently for not having enough differentiated economic development initiatives.

  4. Alex says:

    Alon –

    You’re right, it’s a broad overview that lacks real detail and so I don’t take offense to the “random fluff story” comment. However, you’re missing and misunderstanding the story a bit: Yes, Chinese companies will continue to base their primary operations in New York, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, etc., but St. Louis is hoping to become the Midwest hub, the access point for expansion of Chinese imports to the “rest” of America. And you’re right, that along does not equal growth for St. Louis. However, along with flights importing goods, something needs to be put back on those planes for export. This obviously speaks directly to your point.

    Finally, the Chinese Hub idea is quite far along, trade commissions continue to go back and forth exploring opportunities, the Chinese ambassador has visited St. Louis, our Mayor was recently in China, and several Chinese airlines have signed commitments to further study opportunities. I’m not sure why a city wouldn’t seek outside investment. BUT this is just one idea and it may come to nothing. If so, St. Louis will still be a great place to live and visit.

  5. This article, of course, overlooks the elephant in the room–or in this case, across the river. Much as many cities suffer from capital flight to the suburb, St. Louis follows the Paris model (as does my hometown of Portland)–exile the poor and minorities into a suburban ghetto. In this case, East St. Louis.

    I’m of the mind that suburban slums are no better than inner-city ones–and that both represent a failure of regional governance. The case of E. St. Louis is complicated of course by the state line; there’s not much that anyone in Missouri can do about it–but a fair accounting of the city will consider all parts of the greater metropolitan area, not just the inner city.

  6. Daron says:

    The Metro-East is certainly a part of the region and the arch competition mentioned above is including East St. Louis. I personally have never thought of East St. Louis as a suburb. It is part of our downtown, and after the arch competition we will hopefully be better connected to it.

    Places like Collinsville, Edwardsville, and Belleville can’t be called suburban ghettos.

    Perhaps Alex could have mentioned the work of the East-West Gateway Council of governments a little. Some of our government agencies do cross the river.

    Metro, our transit agency is partially funded by the Metro-East and offers buses and light rail there in addition to a small airport. Our transit map shows both sides. That’s more than you can say for New York City. Have you ever seen New Jersey on a NYC subway map? Seriously have you ever transferred trains in Philly? Three train systems in one city with totally different payment systems! New Jersey isn’t included.

    The Metro-East is the second biggest urban area in Illinois outside Chicagoland, and Illinois residents could sure do more for it. (insert rant about Carbondale here)

  7. Alex says:


    St. Louis hasn’t exiled the poor and minorities to any suburb and the city is much more likely to be used as a very American example of how those groups are accommodated (or not). It’s the opposite of Paris. St. Louis’s most wealthy and influential fled the city and generally remain in wealthy, exclusive suburbs. Those without the means to move stayed in the city. This happened in East St. Louis as well. The book to read is “Mapping Decline” that details white and wealth flight from the city.

  8. Adam says:

    if i were commenting on an article about a city that i know little to nothing about, i probably wouldn’t enter the conversation with my fists up. just sayin’.

    excellent representation and responses, alex.

  9. lh says:

    Great article. My one minor complaint is the lack of mention of the Central West End. The CWE is a great urban revitalization story, not to mention a wonderful place to live.

  10. lh, I believe the Central West End was covered in the submitted post, which unfortunately I had to edit down a bit to manage the length.

  11. Mike says:

    Most of this post strikes me as an long way of saying: “If St. Louis annexed its suburbs it wouldn’t seem so bad.” But it didn’t, and it is.

    Even compared to other 40-60 square mile cities, the numbers – of crimes, of population losses, etc. are stunning.

    But the post does have a good point in one respect: for a decayed city, St. Louis is full of beauty. I’m surprised he didn’t mention St. Louis Hills, which (in this former Central West End resident’s opinion) is the most beautiful part of the city.

  12. AF says:

    I have to agree, it does read like a bit of a fluff piece. I’m not necessarily advocating negativity, but concentrating on the two steps forward St. Louis has taken without mentioning the ten previous steps back does not paint an accurate picture of the city as a whole.
    I really liked Aaron’s previous impressions on cities such as Dallas and Nashville, because it was an honest taking-in of all things, good and bad.
    I have spent a few hours recently scouring St. Louis with Google maps streetview and Bing maps birdseye, and mostly came away dismayed by the vast scars on the urban landscape. I understand that to an STL native, this is old news and the instances of reinvestment are much more interesting, but to someone less intimate with the place, that is only part of the story.
    If this article was the only info a person had before visiting STL, they would be disappointed. Midwestern cities are excellent places that deserve to be trumpeted, but this article is much less thought provoking than the usual content on this site. Natives do tend to have blinders to the less flattering aspects of their cities that visitors do not. Thoughtful, honest feedback from outsiders is crucial and should ideally be taken note of in a non-defensive manner.

    Also, STL should talk to Newark or Hartford before lamenting small city limits.

  13. lh says:

    Clearly, St. Louis has a huge amount of urban decay. I can recall driving on Page through the inner-ring suburbs and Western part of the city and seeing what seemed like miles of abandoned row houses. St. Louis built like crazy in the later part of the 19th Century and large areas emptied in the 20th century. It isn’t that is old news to St. Louis natives, it is that it is literally really old news. The growth of the City in recent years (or decades) is real. I lived in the CWE from 2003-2006 and saw it rapidly develop. At the same time, the South Grand and Tower Grove areas were beginning their renaissance that seems only to be gaining steam. Real problems still exists, but it isn’t worth dwelling on past losses.

  14. Adam says:

    “Thoughtful, honest feedback from outsiders is crucial and should ideally be taken note of in a non-defensive manner.”

    completely agree when the feedback is based in fact. however, the very negative response by Alon above, and the less-negative but equally uninformed response by Scotty (both addressed by Alex in subsequent posts), don’t really constitute thoughtful feedback IMHO (no offense intended). i think it’s alright to be defensive when the critique is unfounded.

  15. Alex says:

    By the way, the post is purposely framed as a view of St. Louis from a resident and one who happens to love the city. It’s not meant to be a critical look at all our sins. Those are easily found right? A view that does more than tear down every positive with two negatives is sometimes necessary.

  16. John Morris says:

    I guess the best policy might be to open the floor to more bloggers from or with knowledge of STL to put up their posts as time allows.

    Notice the history here. STL was successful at getting lots of Federal funds for mega projects and “Urban Renewal”, now the city is living with the results. Newark was also a big success that way.

    How could handing out billions in “other people’s money”, go so wrong.

  17. Kaid @ NRDC says:

    Thanks for this post. I tend to agree that giving some space to the positive side is constructive, especially since we need cities and urbanism to help solve all sorts of environmental problems.

    In that vein, readers may be interested in the restoration of the city’s Old North neighborhood, which I recently profiled on my smart growth blog at NRDC.

    Aaron, keep up the great work.

  18. Kaid, thanks – and thanks for sharing the link.

  19. Alon Levy says:

    Alex: thanks for the response. It clarifies things more – but it still makes St. Louis look like it’s pursuing the wrong growth strategy. the issue with seeking outside investment is that it doesn’t develop local businesses. It turns the city into a branch town for big business. It works fine for city leaders, who get to brag about windfall tax revenues, and for city residents who can work for those companies or retail to those who do, but really sucks for everyone else. Try raising capital for a startup in Smyrna, Tennessee that doesn’t revolve around the Nissan factory.

    It also makes the politics of the city work worse for growth, not just the economics. It forces the city to tailor itself to just a few big businesses, which are not accountable to anyone local. If they start polluting the city, city leaders have an incentive to not fix the problem, but instead lie about it and lobby politicians to ignore it. If they need to extract subsidies from the city to keep operating, the city will not have enough native businesses to keep it going if it says no. It’s common in small company towns, and for some reason St. Louis as you’re portraying it wants to become less like a big city and more like one of those small towns.

  20. Anonymous says:

    The “China Hub Hope” will be a mega-disaster for the region. More trucks, more pollution, more noise, more traffic jams, more subsidized large businesses, … the SOS (same old crap). The City is desperate and its manufacturing/banking base was destroyed years ago.

    But worse and compounding the growing problems are local attitudes that favor cars over people, more highways over livable neighborhoods, large parking lots as the symbol for prosperous businesses, etc, etc. The majority of residents (85%) live outside the City and only a small number visit downtown for a few baseball games. The 90+ little municipalities in StL County with all of its small minded attitudes fight against real change and that is all you need to know to understand the Lou region. Two of its leading (considered “progressive” here) municipalities voted not to merge recently.

  21. Alex says:

    I do not understand the disdain people have for St. Louis and its work to attract new business to the region. I have to believe that if we were discussing Chicago, San Francisco or Denver that the attitude would be much different. Yes, St. Louis needs to develop local businesses. We’re doing that and we can do more. New local businesses will be one result of massively increased trade with China. It seems that many simply cannot escape the negative image and attitude they have towards the city.

    “small minded attitudes fight against real change and that is all you need to know to understand the Lou region”

    This statement couldn’t be more wrong, but is it illustrative of those who themselves cannot think beyond their own preconceptions and decided attitudes. It’s a small-minded statement of ignorance and defeat. Letting the negatives, real and perceived, dictate and doom the future of a city of 2.8M is lazy and cynical.

  22. cdc guy says:

    The biggest single problem with STL (and other cities similarly situated) is clearly the 7:1 suburban/urban ratio.

    To me, the inescapable conclusion is that the 1/7 core is probably not in a position to lead the whole metro with its initiatives, no matter how noble. And unless there is some regional cost-sharing system in place, STL will never be able to bear the cost of transit, transportation and other infrastructure alone. And if there is regional sharing in place, then the suburban areas will have enough clout to influence the shape, size, look, and feel of city infrastructure. Which is to say that STL will probably continue to add lane-miles of highway and urban parking lots.

    The real problem-children Midwest cities seem to share this structure and development pattern. In all cases, the metros are expanding in area (but only marginally in population), decreasing the core-city share of metro population, and sucking life out of marginal old city neighborhoods.

    If I had the answer of how to convert today’s suburbanites into urbanites, I’d be rich. Permanent $5 gasoline might do it, but even then, it won’t cause a move back to old cities but rather conversion of suburbs into more-urban places.

    Urbanites should definitely celebrate successes and promote revitalization. After all, I earn a living in a Midwest city doing urban revitalization, and have chosen to live in core-city neighborhoods for my entire adult life, including my childrens’ school years. I believe, and I act accordingly.

    But this does not mean that I close my eyes to what outsiders (suburbanites and out of town visitors) see. In the last several years, Aaron has written some honest assessments of my home city that are every bit as true as the progress-speak that I sell professionally. And there are some places I go in my city where I just cringe when I look around. Both views are needed; it is just as wrong and distorted to focus exclusively on the positive as on the negative.

    Focus on “both-and”: don’t take every positive piece as a Chamber of Commerce gloss, nor every negative one as uninformed and small-minded. Everything does not really need to be polarized.

  23. Jeff says:

    A lot of posters on here clearly don’t know St. Louis at all. To the anonymous poster above who says “small minded attitudes fight against real change and that is all you need to know to understand the Lou region”– you are completely ignorant. On April 6th, suburban St. Louis County voters OVERWHELMINGLY passed Proposition A which will restore and expand our transit system at a time when most transit systems in the country (including “successful” New York and Chicago) are slashing service.

    For every misguided development move, there are five success stories. St. Louis is still the #1 city for historic rehabs in AMERICA thanks to our (surprisingly) progressive state historic tax credit program. Formerly forlorn commercial districts such as Manchester Ave, Morganford, Cherokee Street, and Locust Street and Washington Avenue are now buzzing with new development. St. Louis is doing something right.

    Saint Louis has been around a long time, and it is still very much alive and kicking. Our historic architecture can stand up with the great cities of the nation, and the level of high culture clearly a testament to this city’s greatness.

    Those who dismiss the recent progress of St. Louis are just missing out. Do yourselves a favor and visit– it’s a different place from even five years ago. If not, it’s no lox off our bagel. St. Louis will keep on keepin’ on without your acknowledgement.

  24. Adam says:

    ‘The 90+ little municipalities in StL County with all of its small minded attitudes fight against real change and that is all you need to know to understand the Lou region. Two of its leading (considered “progressive” here) municipalities voted not to merge recently.’

    the majority of constituents in those municipalities also recently voted to pass a county sales tax to increase regional transit funding. that’s progress. perhaps those “small minded attitudes” are changing.

  25. Adam says:

    oops. i didn’t see Jeff’s post in time. sorry for the duplicated information.

  26. Joe says:

    I just wanted to add that I lived in the Shaw neighborhood in St. Louis in the 70s and 80s when the Shaw neighborhood had growing crime and Lafayette Square was full of abandoned houses (my friends in the suburbs weren’t allowed to come into the Shaw neighborhood to visit). Washington Ave. downtown was also being abandoned little by little. Yes, St. Louis has a way to go to correct the mistakes made in the past (which includes the end of tearing down its historic architecture)and to create a more connected city, but every year I return for the holidays to visit, more rehabbed areas appear, more bike paths appear and more restaurants and bars have been opened in neighborhoods I never dreamed of being rehabbed before (the Grove and mid-town alley). Even North St. Louis is seeing development in the Old North neighborhood. I think it is important to highlight the successes and the change in attitudes to show that there is a developing progressive view of city living in St. Louis. Those who have not lived there or visited over the years are not going to notice the changes. As I stated, it still has a way to go but has also come a very long way since the 70s and 80s!

  27. Alon Levy says:

    Alex, I can’t speak for Anon or EngineerScotty, but I know you’re wrong about me when you say, “I have to believe that if we were discussing Chicago, San Francisco or Denver that the attitude would be much different.” If Denver started spending scarce city dollars on attracting outside investment, I’d have a similar negative reaction.

    In fact, let’s compare St. Louis to Denver here. Denver recently moved its airport to a more suitable location, seeking to become a major hub. Continental decided the new airport was too expensive and shut down its Denver hub. Instead of begging Continental to stay, Denver focused on diversifying its airline operations, which led to a local startup, a renewed Frontier Airlines. In contrast, St. Louis’s response to TWA’s folding is to try to lure another outside big business to the airport, instead of develop its own enterprise. I don’t think that’s why Denver’s basically the most successful Sunbelt city outside Texas today, but it probably has the same cause as Denver’s success.

    SF and Chicago are a bit more complicated: I attack those cities’ whoring themselves to big business, especially my current city of New York, but usually on different grounds. While the neglect of small business, the subsidies, and the big business mentality are still huge problems, nothing will turn Chicago into a company town, unless the company’s run by the Daley dynasty.

  28. Daron says:

    The ‘Big Idea’ is multi-faceted. St. Louis isn’t trying to become a vassel of Chinese businesses. The airport has extra capacity that isn’t being used. St. Louis is a major inland port and has good access to most of the country. If China brings the flights and warehouses, St. Louis collects the rent. The term in entre-pot. It works for Singapore.

    At the same time, the Tri-City Port District and the Port of New Orleans are conspiring to bring in Chinese goods from the south after the increase in the panamax limit in 2015. Between the port and the airport, St. Louis hopes to double up on cargo and maybe rival Memphis in some ways.

    Memphis is the comparison, not Denver.

    It could be said that the only thing right with Memphis right now is its airport. St. Louis’ metro is twice as big though and far more diverse. Yeah, FedEx is home grown, but St. Louis has its own companies capable of expansion. UniGroup comes to mind.

    Bigger roads, more trucks, and soiled air will surely follow, but so will cash. If it is limited to just cargo, the region is selling itself short. It isn’t though. Chinese biotech companies recently toured St. Louis’ plant science cluster. That’s going to go both ways, probably with more expansion in local companies than the reverse. International students and immigrants follow. The skilled kind. Don’t believe me, believe the NY Times,


    “Immigrants from China have also prospered here as entrepreneurs, creating jobs for other immigrants. Sandy Tsai, 59, said she and her husband chose St. Louis to start a business because they noticed it was in the middle of the country. Now their company, Baily, makes egg rolls, noodles and fortune cookies in three local factories that distribute to thousands of Chinese restaurants nationwide. Ms. Tsai said her employees ranged from egg-roll makers earning $8 an hour to laboratory researchers with advanced degrees in food science.”

    Denver is mentioned in that article too…

    Nobody that lives here thinks this thing is limited to cargo, that’s just the first step. Passenger flights and American businesses are supposed to follow.

    I won’t be satisfied until St. Louis gets its panda bears. I know how Chinese diplomacy is supposed to work…

  29. Cooper says:

    This is a great idea for a series. As someone who blogs about Detroit, I appreciate reading about other cities that are struggling to overcome the same set of issues.

    I think the growing network of city blogs has been eye-opening in that regard. We can’t think about our cities in isolation anymore. As the Urbanophile, GLUE Space, Rust Wire, and other blogs have shown, not only do Cleveland, St. Louis, and other Midwest cities share a similar past, they’re all trying to reach a similar future, and there’s lots to be learned from that struggle. Huge cities like New York and Chicago aren’t the only models for urbanism, nor are they necessarily applicable on smaller scales. Bit by bit, I think older industrial cities are figuring out their own model of urban revitalization.

  30. cdc guy says:

    Daron, there’s no question that St. Louis is pursuing good ideas. In some ways, the initiatives that you highlight are directly following not Memphis but Indianapolis:

    1. FedEx’s second-largest US hub. This led directly to a gazillion square feet of warehouse/distribution facilities west of the airport in former beanfields and tremendous growth in home-grown logistics (trucking and warehousing) operations. That is currently one of Indianapolis’ economic-development areas of emphasis.

    2. Ag science. Two of the older and bigger players in this realm are Dow Agro and Elanco (Eli Lillly’s animal-health operation). Of course, Purdue is one of the US’ leading Ag schools and is just about an hour’s drive away. (One might rightly ask if that’s a missing element in St. Louis’ ag science push: ag scientists.) This is part of a larger “life sciences” ec-dev emphasis in Indy.

  31. Adam says:

    ^ i’m not sure that St. Louis is pushing the ag science angle so much as the plant science/bio science angles (though certainly they overlap). Between Monsanto, Washington University, SLU and the Missouri Botanical Garden, I don’t think St. Louis is lacking in plant scientists. What’s more, the CORTEX collaboration between Wash. U., SLU, and BJC Healthcare has created a burgeoning life sciences district that has already generated numerous startups. In terms of straight-up agriculture, I believe UM, Columbia and UM, Rolla probably lead the way in Missouri as they’re located in rural areas.

  32. John Morris says:

    I guess that brings up the question–Should they be? Wouldn’t it be better if these schools were clustered in a way that made cross polination with the real world easier?

    I mean, isn’t there some available “rural land closer in to Saint Louis, is perhaps not in the town itself? I really have a personal problem with the ROE from lot’s of isolated land grant schools.

    Is it any wonder places like State College, don’t generate much value? What’s the last significant start up there Accuweather? (from the early 1960’s I think)

  33. John Morris says:

    This gets back to the whole problem with socialism/ collectivist systems in general.

    Nobody has a blunt incentive to ask WHY? Why, sould this line be built and not this one? Why is this school here and not there?

    Evading questions like that because they make people uncomfortable doesn’t make them go away. This is why Bernie Madoff was so popular right up until the moment he wasn’t.

    I’m not saying I have the answer. Maybe some of these schools are in the right places but if they are, it’s a bit more due to blind luck because government funding and government backed student loans mean the question just isn’t asked enough. Do you expect the mayor of Columbia, the local state senator, or congressman to ask it?

  34. Alon Levy says:

    Daron, you’re wrong about Singapore. Singapore didn’t invite foreign businesses in for a tour and beg them to invest. Instead, it levied a 36% payroll tax on local employees for a social security fund, most of which people can’t access until retirement. This gave the government a huge sovereign wealth fund, which it invested first in local companies, and now in companies in poorer countries in Southeast Asia. The government also promoted Singapore as a hub for people connecting from Europe to Southeast Asia, but it always made sure to avoid being in the pocket of just one country or cluster of companies. Instead of seeking outside investment for biotech, it invested in biotech itself.

    While Singapore is very unequal and corporate-dominated, this is by the authoritarian government’s own choice. It’s not big business forcing the government’s hand. On other traditional points of conflict between local governments and big business, such as pollution, Singapore actually does well. Lee Kuan Yew was an early adopter of urban cleanups, promoting a ten-year plan to make the local river habitable. As a result, the city’s many polluting industries have all been relocated offshore, where they contribute a lot to global warming but do not pollute people’s lungs.

  35. Daron says:

    Alon, I lived in Singapore for a year and a half. Part of that time had me working in Chinatown helping Chinese businesses get visas for expanding their businesses there. Singapore’s priorities were simple, you can open your business there as long as you have all Singaporean management and there’s a potential that it will become a Singaporean brand.

    A lot of the companies active in Singapore are based in Hong Kong, but there’s fair back and forth.

    Singapore’s success based on their geographic position can’t be denied. If you’ve ever flown into Changi airport you’ve seen the endless sea of container ships waiting to get into the port. Many of the Chinese business men I talked to were interested in bringing goods in and putting them in warehouses around the island.

    Marina Bay Sands is opening soon I believe. That’ll put another mega-conference center quite close the one they already have at Suntec City. I now live in Seoul and I would say virtually every businessman I meet has been to Singapore or will be there soon for some sort of business meeting or conference.

    Singapore’s politics are all about fierce independence and leadership. As ASEAN emerges, Singapore will be its capital, and Indonesia will be the source of its power. ASEAN is going to be very powerful. I agree, Singapore is nobody’s monkey. They take the lead or they don’t play. Lee Kuan Yew’s water independence plan is incredible and finally beginning to happen.

    St. Louis isn’t independent though, it’s part of a bigger state in a bigger country. The city isn’t selling itself out to China. It is establishing a strong two-way connection. We’re supposed to be the Gateway City, connections and open doors are part of our identity. St. Louis has invested plenty in its own biotech. St. Louis has invested in biotech in Singapore too though the particular news article escapes me. The ‘Big Idea’ isn’t the only iron in the fire.

    Regarding AgScience, CDC Guy, please keep in mind that Monsanto is based in St. Louis and they operate under the mantra of, “all your seeds are belong to us.” St. Louis is also home to both the corn and soy bean associations. The life science industry in St. Louis is strongly linked along I-70 through Columbia and into Kansas City. The big ag school is Mizzou and they just built a big facility in Mexico, MO. Mizzou’s Extension program is the main ag school in St. Louis, I believe. It is right for St. Louis to pursue the medical devices, biofuels, and plant science and leave the ag science to Columbia. There’s no reason to compete. If Stl, KC, and Columbia each specialize, and companies stagger their specializations across Missouri, then all the better for the state. Each city enriches the others.

    Back to Memphis, the Memphis Bioworks Foundation has an interesting AgScience plan that encompasses lower Missouri where Monstanto and Dow Agro have both invested in seed facilities lately. If Memphis is claiming that is within their domain, then perhaps another life science corridor can be worked on.

    CDC Guy, there are many similaries between the Gateway City and the Crossroads City, and I would love for you or Aaron to expand on them. The big difference though is that St. Louis has a million more people than Indianapolis and quite a few more governments. On issues of self-esteem though… yeah.

  36. John Morris says:

    Alon said,

    “Instead, it levied a 36% payroll tax on local employees for a social security fund.”

    Please, please don’t use the word Social Security to describe the Central Provident Fund which actually exists as a sovereign fund investing in real assets, not a pay as you go Ponzi Scheme.

    Daron Said

    “Mizzou’s Extension program is the main ag school in St. Louis, I believe. It is right for St. Louis to pursue the medical devices, biofuels, and plant science and leave the ag science to Columbia. There’s no reason to compete. If Stl, KC, and Columbia each specialize, and companies stagger their specializations across Missouri, then all the better for the state. Each city enriches the others.”

    Glad to hear that Mizzou has a substantial extension in Saint Louis. I was talking off the top of my head and making assumptions based on my experience in PA, where IMHO, Penn State is a vastly disconnected and underutilized asset. No doubt it’s a bit of an extreme case, trapped in by mountains and forests in one of the more remote places in the State. Now they are building some hugely expensive road to connect “Happy Valley” with Corning, NY which might be the closest point of synergy with anything at all. In between is an area so off the beaten path that it’s a hide out for White Supremacist groups.

    What the hell is the point of placing a leading business school, engineering program and Art MFA program in a place like that? Even if one was locating for agriculture a place from Harrisburg to Philly would have made a lot more sense.

    My guess is that Ag sciences and the other fields you mention are too close together to want that much separation.

  37. Tyson in St. Louis says:

    As someone who’s lived off and on in St. Louis over the past 10 years, I agree with those who are saying the angle was a little too positive on this piece, like something from the regional chamber of commerce. So they’re people renovating old buildings…so what. So there’s a big push towards biotech…big surprise. Let me guess, light rail, new convention center and new retro ballpark…check, check and check.
    The coolest thing about St. Louis isn’t the Arch, Anheuser-Busch, the Cardinals or any gentrified inner-city neighborhood. It’s the fact that you can still see Chuck Berry perform once a month at Blueberry Hill in the Loop (next performance – June 16th). Seriously, everyone should come check this guy out while he’s still with us.

  38. StLouisHomes says:

    Thank you for a great article. I really enjoyed your photos of the city, I guess that was from the arch. I agree with you about much of what is Wrong with St. Louis is perception. Its always enjoyable to go to the little pockets, benton park, soulard, the hill, and see how they really are vibrant and alive with locals trying to make things better.

  39. Jaccq says:

    As someone who has lived in St Louis since the early 50’s, Alex is obviously a clueless outsider. Knowing what made StL a great city is no longer true. Gaslight Square, the end of workable-usable mass transit, local officials who had national prominence, numerous closed businesses, etc, etc, The revitalization in the last decade was a direct product of financial incentives provided by the state and not due to any real change or growth in employment opportunities.

    These are not perceptions but reality. The region is now dominated by small minded attitudes and local bloggers are part of the problem, especially the ones who think they know MOre.

  40. Adam says:


    how do you not realize that your “why bother because Saint Louis’ golden days are gone” attitude is one of the small-minded attitudes that work to hold the city back? what are YOU doing to improve the city? and though you say that Alex is a “clueless outsider,” your list of grievances is not particularly insightful. i’m quite sure that Alex has done more to motivate change with his blog and his involvement in City to River (among other things) than you have with your bitter, non-constructive comments. by the way, it strikes me as inconsistent that “local bloggers are part of the problem” yet you apparently read and comment on translocal blogs such as this one? no offense, but you sound like one of many saint louis metro residents who wants NYC or Chicago to fall into your lap, but you don’t want to have to do any work for it. if that’s the case, why don’t you move? and just out of curiosity, do you actually live within city limits, or do the majority of your tax dollars go to the county?

  41. Adam says:

    Actually, Tyson, the coolest things about Saint Louis are the people who care about it and who work together for its betterment. I take it you’re not one of them.

  42. Alex says:

    I’m still surprised at the negative reaction to a generally positive story about St. Louis. The readers of this site, my own, and other urban blogs spend the vast majority of the time addressing what should have been done, what’s wrong and what could be better. That’s fine, but the reality is that places like St. Louis are wonderful places to live. If you read urbanstl.com you’ll see that I also spend quite a bit of time addressing things I don’t like, things that should change. I probably do this more than I would like and to the point of forgetting that I live in a great city. So whether or not every Midwest city can attract the “creative class,” become a bio-science hub or homegrow the next Google, TD Ameritrade or Pfizer, there will still be millions living in such cities and enjoying it.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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