According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1950 and 2000 there was a net loss of some 500,000 people from the City of St. Louis, with the total population shrinking from roughly 847,000 people in 1950 to 348,000 people in 2000. Drawn by the appeal of newer, larger homes and pushed by fears of property value decline, crime, and the quality of the public schools, thousands of people moved first to St. Louis County and more recently to outlying counties in all directions. Due in part to an impressive “back to the city” movement, for the first time in 50 years the population in St. Louis City actually grew by 2.4 percent, increasing from 348,189 in 2000 to 356,587 in 2009. However, growth remains slow and many still site the lack of competitive jobs, the lack of quality public schools, the lack of basic amenities and crime as reasons why they either moved from, or do not want to move to St. Louis City.
These demographic trends coupled with, and at times fueled by, the shift from a manufacturing centered economy to a more service focused economy created many distressed neighborhoods and communities in St. Louis City and adjacent counties on both sides of the river. Many children in the St. Louis metropolitan area confront the reality of living in a building and/or neighborhood that has suffered from years of neglect and disinvestment. They may live in homes where the landlord is non-responsive to requests regarding heat, plumbing, and basic maintenance issues. Their neighborhood may be characterized by vacant lots, abandoned homes, trash, high crime rates and streets, streetlights, sidewalks and sewers in need of major repair.
Many of the residents in these neighborhoods do not have the resources to maintain their housing or rent from owners who have no incentive or inclination to invest in their property. Furthermore, as the population shrank and businesses left or went out of business, many of these communities saw decreases in municipal funding, further contributing to the distress in these neighborhoods. To address some of these issues some communities adopted the “broken window” policy of policing which holds that maintaining public order is as important as solving crimes and that targeting relatively minor offenses such as littering, graffiti, and vandalism can reduce fear and prevent more serious offenses. However, there is little research that shows that this line of policing is effective.
Unfortunately the subprime mortgage crisis and the resulting economic recession have disproportionately affected these neighborhoods already struggling for stability. In many of these communities the unemployment rate skyrocketed to more than double that of the national rate and unoccupied housing and apartments rapidly increased. Furthermore, in an attempt to offset budget deficits cities and states continue to cut basic services which is bound to further exacerbate the issues facing these communities. Many of the urban redevelopment and neighborhood revitalization efforts that were finally gaining traction have been indefinitely put on hold as businesses and organizations scramble to find funding. Hopefully as the economy rebounds so will these neighborhoods but it is most certain they will suffer further instability before this happens.