Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City


Mapping Decline, illustrated with more than 75 full-color maps, traces the ways private real estate restrictions, local planning and zoning, federal housing policies, and urban renewal encouraged white flight and urban decline in St. Louis, Missouri.


In the summer of 2002, I attended an academic conference in St. Louis. Upon arrival at the hotel, I realized that the conference was not really in St. Louis but in Clayton, an inner suburb that had reinvented itself as a corporate park. St. Louis, as I discovered on my first foray east into the city, seemed to consist largely of abandoned houses and boarded-up storefronts—interrupted, only a few blocks from the Mississippi, by haphazard commercial redevelopment. This was a bad first impression (my route took me through the most neglected neighborhoods), but it stuck.

That summer, my colleague Peter Fisher and I received seed funding to begin work on a history of economic development policies in the United States, part of which would be used to learn the ropes of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, part of which would be used to delve into the historical meaning of “blight” in urban public policy. As we wrestled with the mapping, and particularly the challenge of digitizing historical sources, it became increasingly clear that we needed to start with a local case study. And, as we sorted through the legal and political history of “blight,” many of the most egregious cases (that is, cases that stretched the definition of blight in order to create tax breaks or subsidies) that cropped up were in the St. Louis suburbs.

So St. Louis was an important case but an understudied one. But the first step into the archives made one thing clear: the key to the story was not just the perfidy or futility of local urban renewal efforts, but the conditions that made such measures necessary. This pushed the research in new directions and earlier into the twentieth century. What began as a place to start a national history of local economic development policies had become a research project of its own. in some respects, this would be a conventional case study of urban decline—the St. Louis chapter of a story told so masterfully in other settings (Arnold Hirsch on Chicago, Tom Sugrue on Detroit). in other respects, it was an opportunity to tell that story in a different way, employing the visual and explanatory power of gis mapping (using census and archival data) to underscore the causal and consequential dimensions of the urban crisis in greater St. Louis and beyond.

While the archival record was complicated—spanning two states, twelve counties . . .

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