Imagining St. Louis as the capital of the US

It is fascinating to consider (1) a different capital in the United States in the center of the country and (2) a different center to the Midwest:

Photo by Nick Haynes on

In some ways, Arenson says, St. Louis was at the heart of these questions. Geographically, it was located where North, South and West came together. It had been a slave state, but had not seceded. It was central to many railroad lines. And it was growing at a remarkable place—it would rise from the country’s 24th most populous city in 1840 to the fourth biggest in 1870.

No one was more convinced of the importance of St. Louis than local businessman and booster Logan Uriah Reavis. Reavis was a remarkable man, with a remarkable appearance. He wore a long, messy red beard and walked bent over a cane due to a childhood illness. Born in Illinois in 1831, he failed in his early career as a schoolteacher “when the students ridiculed him ceaselessly,” according to Arenson’s book. In 1866, he arrived in St. Louis intent on starting a newspaper and elevating the image of his adopted hometown.

Reavis wasn’t the first to suggest the city as a new capital for the nation. In 1846, St. Louis newspapers claimed that the move would be necessary to govern a country that grew significantly in size after the end of the Mexican-American War. But Reavis may have been the most outspoken supporter of the cause. He presciently envisioned a United States stretching not just out to California but up to Alaska and down to the Gulf of Mexico. And he saw St. Louis as the obvious place for the government of this mega-United States: “the great vitalizing heart of the Republic.” In contrast, he wrote, Washington was a “distant place on the outskirts of the country, with little power or prestige.”…

In response, between 1867 and 1868, three House representatives from the Midwest proposed resolutions to move the capitol toward the middle of the country. As historian and educational publisher Donald Lankiewicz writes for History Net, the first two of these stalled in the Ways and Means committee. But a third, introduced by Wisconsin Representative Herbert Paine in February 1868, came to a vote on the floor. Eastern congressmen saw the proposal to move the seat of government to somewhere in the “Valley of the Mississippi” as a joke. But it shocked them with the amount of support it received, ultimately failing by a vote of just 77 to 97.

This story sounds very American: local boosters combined with an expanding frontier and disorder after the Civil War to produce a vision for a new capital in a booming city. Even though this did not come to fruition, it sounds like there was a short window in which is could have happened. And then what would have happened to Washington, D.C., one of the most important cities today?

I also cannot help but contrast this to the fate of St. Louis after this era. I recently showed my urban sociology class the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. This documentary puts the infamous public housing project in the context of a city that peaked in population in 1950, lost residents in white flight, and is racially segregated. Add this to the competition with Chicago for the center of the Midwest and St. Louis might be a great story of a city that did not live up to its lofty dreams.

Quick Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

This documentary (written about earlier here) is a fascinating look at the ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis but it also speaks more broadly to public housing in general in the United States. A few thoughts about the documentary:

1. The documentary tries to tell a comprehensive story about why Pruitt-Igoe failed. The argument is that is was not about bad residents or poor architectural design: the project was built as part of a system that is set up to fail where the government supported suburban growth after World War II, white flight out of cities like St. Louis, a flood of poorer residents to northern cities looking for jobs, urban business interests looking to clear slums and open up development opportunities, a shift away from an urban industrial economy, and issues of race and segregation throughout. In other words, this is a complex issue and simply eliminating public housing or building better developments don’t effectively address all of the relevant concerns.

2. This contains a great mix of archival photos, video clips, and interviews with former residents. I wish more of these images of cities and public housing from the 1950s and 1960s were readily available.

3. There is an interesting section on control over the residents of the projects. For example, the documentary says men were not allowed to live in the projects in the early days for women with children to get aid money. Therefore, a new generation of children in the projects lived without fathers and male figures. Additionally, early residents were not allowed to have television sets.

4. The documentary effectively shows the hope present at the beginning of such projects. For many of the early residents, this was a step up from tenements. These projects were not failures from day one. The repeated pictures of the projects with the gleaming St. Louis Arch in the distance drives this point home. Additionally, one resident repeatedly tells of good moments in her life while living as a kid in the projects.

5. While the film is directly about St. Louis, this is a story repeated in numerous other American big cities. The Chicago story doesn’t seem too different: the projects were built on land civic and business leaders chose, the projects were a step up from tenement living, and within several years the projects became incredibly segregated, rundown, and the social problems began to spiral out of control.

6. There is one issue that the film doesn’t tackle: why exactly did this one project get torn down and not notorious projects in St. Louis and other cities? Why, for example, did it take until the 1990s and the HUD’s HOPE VI program for projects like the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green (the last building demolished just last year) to be demolished? There is clearly more to the story here in St. Louis as well as elsewhere: as the projects experienced more problems, why did it take decades to do something about it? (I’m not suggesting here that demolishing the projects was necessarily the best way to go. As the film briefly asks, what happened to all of those people who left?)

In the end, this would be a great film to show in class to discuss public housing and related issues of urban development, race and class, and public policy.

“A region’s workforce is not defined by its immediate suburbs”

The Chicago Tribune has a story about “super-commuterswho make the trip between Chicago and St. Louis. While the story seems more intent on putting a face on this growing phenomenon (although the numbers are still relatively low), there is a very interesting quote from a researcher about how we should view jobs and regional economies:

Regardless, said Mitchell Moss, the NYU professor who authored the study, the trend speaks to both the increased flexibility of modern-day workers — “the office” can be almost anyplace — and the challenges facing two-income families in a weak job market: Why uproot your family when your spouse can’t get a job in the new city?

The trend illustrates how the economies of places like St. Louis are increasingly hitched to their neighbors.

“It tells you that there is an inter-regional economic relationship, which is growing between places like St. Louis and Chicago,” Moss said. “A region’s workforce is not defined by its immediate suburbs.”

I’ve written several times about the need for more regional cooperation in the Chicago region between city and suburbs (see this post regarding Mayor Daley and this post about Mayor Emanuel). With limited cooperation, communities can end up fighting over corporations and jobs, whether tax money from a particular municipality should be spent elsewhere, and how best to address regional-level issues like transportation or affordable housing.

What exactly would it mean for Chicago and St. Louis to cooperate? One area could be transportation: I assume both Chicago and St. Louis were on-board for plans to construct a high-speed rail line between the cities. Environmental issues could be another area. For example, both cities rely on interconnected water sources and shipping so common issues could arise (but remember there is a regional fight about Asian carp). But what about business issues? Could they set aside their separate issues to encourage economic development that might benefit both cities? Are there really economic opportunities they could both benefit from in spite of the distance between them?

New documentary: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

A new documentary about urban life that was released yesterday may just be worth seeing: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. The film has been reviewed by a number of outlets (including a short review in the New York Times) but here is a longer description in Architectural Record:

Accepted wisdom will have us believe St. Louis’ infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing development was destined for failure. Designed by George Hellmuth and World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki (of Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth), the 33-building complex opened in 1954, its Modernist towers touted as a remedy to overcrowding in the city’s tenements. Rising crime, neglected facilities, and fleeing tenants led to its demolition—in a spectacular series of implosions—less than two decades later. In the popular narrative, bad public policy, bad architecture, and bad people doomed Pruitt-Igoe, and it became an emblem of failed social welfare projects across the country. But director Chad Freidrichs challenges that convenient and oversimplified assessment in his documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, opening in limited release January 20.

He makes a compelling case. Drawing heavily on archival footage, raw data, and historical reanalysis, the film reorients Pruitt-Igoe as the victim of institutional racism and post-war population changes in industrial cities, among other issues far more complex than poor people not appreciating nice things. But while Freidrichs opens a new vein for discussing Pruitt-Igoe, he doesn’t totally dispel the titular myth about it. There’s a passing mention of the project’s failure being one of Modernist planning, that such developments “created a breeding ground for isolation, vandalism, and crime.” And of course there’s an invocation of Charles Jencks’ famous declaration that the death of Pruitt-Igoe was “the death of Modernism.” But Freidrichs never adequately addresses Pruitt-Igoe’s place in the history of urban design.

But even if The Pruitt-Igoe Myth falls short of its stated goal, it’s nevertheless exceptional. In an important act of preservation, Freidrichs captures the voices and memories of five former Pruitt-Igoe residents. They tell stories of jubilation when they’re assigned an 11th floor apartment (their “poorman’s penthouse”) and when they see rows upon rows of windows bejeweled with Christmas lights. They share horrific tales of siblings murdered and living in constant fear of who lurks in the shadows. They remember how the welfare office told them they couldn’t have a phone or a television, and how their husbands and fathers weren’t allowed to live with them.

Nearly 40 years after its destruction, the people interviewed for the film continue to wrestle with Pruitt-Igoe’s legacy and its place in their lives. They love it and hate it, but don’t resent it. Despite the piles of trash, mountains of drugs, and preponderance of crime, this was their home. For some, it was their first proper dwelling. They cared deeply about Pruitt-Igoe and still do, even in its current form—a largely overgrown lot roved by feral dogs. Pruitt-Igoe is fundamentally a part of them, and by sharing their memories they obliterate the part of the myth that says it was undone by its people.

Something that just came to mind while reading a few reviews: why was Pruitt-Igoe blwn up so quickly while other notorious housing projects, like several in Chicago, lasted three decades longer? There has to be some interesting local twists to this story.

In an era where high-rise public housing projects are rare if not all gone because of the Hope VI program, it will be interesting to see how these housing complexes are preserved in American history. Will they simply be seen as failures? What will the lessons be?

The ASA, the NRA, and St. Louis

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a recent piece that included the American Sociological Association:

When more than 5,500 association executives hold their convention next month in St. Louis, it will give tourism officials a rare opportunity to pitch the city for future conventions.

From an economic development perspective, the gathering of the American Society of Association Executives, though modest in size, represents the mother of all conventions — because its attendees have the power to bring thousands more visitors to the city, along with millions in revenue, during future conventions. The visiting executives represent groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association, American Sociological Association and Electrical Apparatus Service Association, to name a few confirmed attendees…

Though St. Louis, like many Midwest cities, struggles to compete with tourism meccas such as Las Vegas, New Orleans or Orlando, conventions nonetheless brought about 350,000 people and about $370 million into the local economy last year. And those figures leave room for growth, according to officials with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, who plan to field a sales team to woo as many as 1,500 of the associations represented at the conference…

For people living on the coasts, “St. Louis is thrown into the mix of Midwest cities,” Ratcliffe said. “We need a differentiator.”

This raises some questions:

1. Might this be the only time that anyone from the ASA would even be in the same room as someone from the NRA? Or do these association executives interact more often?

1a. It is interesting that this newspaper selected the NRA, ASA, and Electrical Apparatus Service Association as three diverse organizations.

2. Why not hold ASA in St. Louis? And how exactly does the organization select which cities in which it will hold a conference? Here are the factors the ASA says it uses to select its meeting sites:

  • Sites where members are afforded legal protection from discrimination on the basis of age, gender, marital status, national origin, physical ability, race, religion, and sexual orientation
  • Meeting space–flexibility, accessibility, under one roof
  • Date options
  • Hotel contract provisions, particularly room rates
  • Facilities’ recycling, compostable, and sustainability initiatives
  • Extent of unionization at facilities to be used for meeting space and guest rooms
  • Air access/service and local transportation multiplicity
  • Restaurant proximity and diversity
  • General “city feel”
  • City/Convention Bureau assistance

I would be interested to know exactly how some of these are figured out. And is there an official list of cities that could be approved?

3. Here is a tidbit about the ASA and St. Louis:

Stryker joined ASA in 1948 when he was a graduate student. He attended his first annual meeting in 1950 in Denver, CO. This was when ASA meetings had a sit-down dinner for all attendees. In an interview, Stryker said the proudest he has felt of the ASA was when the Association threatened to cancel its annual meeting in St. Louis because the hotel refused to allow African-Americans to register. The hotel backed down, thus effectively desegregating St. Louis.

4. It is interesting that St. Louis is supposedly off the radar of a lot of associations. At one point, St. Louis was poised to become the main city in the Midwest, leading Chicago in population as late as 1870 and was still the 8th largest city in the US in 1950. Is it simply a population issue now or is it something else: is it not interesting enough, does it not have large enough facilities, is travel in and out not easy/cheap enough? I’m sure St. Louis is like many cities that would want to attract more conventions and bring more money into the local economy.

St. Louis also lost population (8%) in the 2000s and mayor says it is “absolutely bad news”

Last week, 2010 Census figures about Chicago were released and showed a population decline of 200,000. Population figures regarding St. Louis were just released and city leaders are surprised at the 8% population loss over the 2000s:

Figures from the 2010 census were a bitter disappointment, as the city’s population dipped to 319,294.

That’s down more than 29,000 – a staggering 8 percent – from 2000.

For St. Louis leaders, the news was doubly disappointing because they were expecting to see an increase.

“It is absolutely bad news,” Mayor Francis Slay said. “We thought after more than 50 years of population decline that the city had finally changed direction. Obviously, that’s not the case.”…

St. Louis was the nation’s eighth-largest city with a population of 856,795 in 1950. Now, for a couple of decades, it hasn’t even been Missouri’s largest city.

Kansas City’s population grew to 460,000 in the latest census, widening the gap over St. Louis, though the St. Louis metro area remains significantly larger.

Since the mid-20th century, the exodus of St. Louis residents to the suburbs has been startling. And people keep moving farther away from the urban core. St. Louis County lost population in 2010 for the first time, down 1.7 percent to 998,954 in 2010, as residents relocate to communities like St. Charles, O’Fallon, Wentzville and Troy.

Since 1950, St. Louis has steadily lost population. A few thoughts about these figures:

1. On one hand, it seems odd that the mayor would be caught so off-guard by these figures. Couldn’t the city have predicted or at least seen some hints of it through other measures (like vacancies)? But this is more complicated:

A census estimate on July 1, 2009, forecasted that the city’s population of 348,189 in 2000 had grown to 356,587.

Either the estimate was wrong or there has been a substantial recent exodus.

The 2010 census is based on the population in April 2010.

So what happened between this 2009 Census estimate and the 2010 figures?

2. There are two things at stake with these figures: the loss of state and federal dollars (often tied to population) and a blow to civic pride. As the mayor suggested, the city had thought they had turned a corner. Additionally, there appears to be some comparisons to Kansas City, the other major city in Missouri.

2a. But on the other hand, the trends happening in the St. Louis area are happening in many large cities: people are moving to the suburbs, further and further from the center of the metropolitan region. Even St. Louis County (suburban but three times larger than St. Louis) lost population, 1.7%, for the first time.

3. While it is notable that the population in St. Louis dropped by about 29,000 (8%), in the last sixty years, this is the smallest percentage drop since a population increase in 1950. From 1960 onward, here are the percentage decreases: -12.5% in 1960, -17% in 1970, -27.2% in 1980, -12.4% in 1990, -12.2% in 2000, and -8.3% in 2010. So perhaps the population in St. Louis is slowly stabilizing.

Large cities with most, least crime

CQ Press has compiled a list of the safest and least safe big cities in terms of crime:

The study by CQ Press found St. Louis had 2,070.1 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, compared with a national average of 429.4. That helped St. Louis beat out Camden, which topped last year’s list and was the most dangerous city for 2003 and 2004.

Detroit, Flint, Mich., and Oakland, Calif., rounded out the top five. For the second straight year, the safest city with more than 75,000 residents was Colonie, N.Y.

I would not have guessed St. Louis as topping this list. Of course, St. Louis doesn’t like this ranking and suggests that the crime situation in the city has been improving:

The annual rankings are based on population figures and crime data compiled by the FBI. Some criminologists question the findings, saying the methodology is unfair.

Greg Scarbro, unit chief of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, said the FBI also discourages using the data for these types of rankings.

Kara Bowlin, spokeswoman for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said the city actually has been getting safer over the last few years. She said crime in St. Louis has gone down each year since 2007, and so far in 2010, St. Louis crime is down 7 percent.

Erica Van Ross, spokeswoman for the St. Louis Police Department, called the rankings irresponsible.

“Crime is based on a variety of factors. It’s based on geography, it’s based on poverty, it’s based on the economy,” Van Ross said.

“That is not to say that urban cities don’t have challenges, because we do,” Van Ross said. “But it’s that it’s irresponsible to use the data in this way.”

It probably doesn’t matter if methodology is good or bad for these rankings because what really matters is public perception. If St. Louis becomes known as a city of crime, comparable to places like Camden, Oakland, Detroit, and Flint, this could have a negative effect on the number of businesses and residents who want to move to the area. It is not a surprise to see the City of St. Louis fight back by attacking the data and also suggesting that crime rates have gone down in recent years (though this is relative and doesn’t give an indication of how their crime rate compares to other places).

(I was curious to see where Chicago and its suburbs, such as Naperville, ranked. Unfortunately, it looks like the data for the whole Chicago MSA was not available.)

Quick Review: Turner Field and Busch Stadium

In the last three weeks, I visited two baseball stadiums for the first time: Turner Field in Atlanta and Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Both stadiums are relatively new (Turner Field opened for baseball in 1997, Busch Stadium in 2006) and I’ll compare them.

1. Both have some similar features that characterize baseball stadiums built after Camden Yards in Baltimore. They feature wide concourses, particularly on the bottom level. There are unique spots in each stadium such as special vantage points, named sections, food options, and restaurants in the bleachers. The seating is pretty close to the field though skyboxes and suites are given prime positions. Home plate faces the downtown and the outfield seats are constructed so that the buildings can be seen from the seats. I would have to say Busch Stadium was nicer: it featured a lot more red brick (while Turner Field had a lot of dark blue) and a better location.

2. The locations differ. Busch Stadium is at the south end of the downtown with its southern edge bordering Interstate 64 while Turner Field is a few miles south of downtown along Interstate 75. There really is nothing to see or do around Turner Field while one can easily walk from Busch Stadium to the Gateway Arch. Even with these options in St. Louis, more could be done to surround the stadium with fan-friendly areas instead of open space.

3. The two games offered some fun moments. The best part of the Atlanta game was watching the home team come from behind to win in the bottom of the 9th. The best part of the St. Louis game was to watch Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds. In his third big league appearance, Chapman threw multiple pitches over 100 miles per hour, peaking at 103 mph. Chapman also faced Albert Pujols with one on and one out in the bottom of the 8th – Chapman induced an inning-ending double-play groundout.

4. It is a little hard to compare crowds since I was at Turner Field on a Monday night and at Busch Stadium on a beautiful Saturday afternoon during a key series with the first-place Cincinnati Reds. However: Atlanta had a pitiful crowd considering the team was in first place and playing well. The St. Louis crowd was enthusiastic throughout, even with their team down 4 and 5 runs in the last two innings. I felt bad for the Atlanta players as they deserved a better crowd.

5. One feature I strongly disliked in both stadiums: they both had people speaking to the crowd between innings. While this is probably done to keep fans attentive, I found it annoying. This is the sort of thing I would associate with minor league parks where the baseball quality is lower so fans need to be entertained in other ways. Fans at major league games should find plenty to do without needing to be entertained all the time by special entertainers.

6. A final thing I noticed: both teams prominently featured their past accomplishments. The Cardinals’ scoreboard consistently included the line “ten-time world champions.” The Braves set of pennants in the outfield commemorating their incredible playoff streak from the 1990s through the 2000s was impressive.

7. Final thought: I enjoyed visiting both stadiums and seeing some good baseball.