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Illustration by Samuel Conant
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Last October, I visited the St. Louis County Library's headquarters to hear Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Edward P. Jones read from his work. Jones' two collections of short stories, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children, had captivated me with their direct style, luring me in each time only to deliver a punch to the gut with their utterly convincing depictions of loneliness, tragedy, violence and endurance among blacks in the Washington, D.C., area. His panoramic first novel, The Known World, paints a vivid portrait of antebellum Virginia that includes scores of characters, each precisely rendered, sometimes with only a few deft strokes. The novel, which centers on a freed black man who owns slaves himself, expanded my sense of slavery's evils while seeming to probe the injustices of our times.
I arrived early, carrying my copy of Aunt Hagar. The room quickly filled with people. Jones appeared and read from two of his stories. After he finished, he offered to take questions. My heart began to pound. I had one. I'd gone over and over it in my head, trying to phrase it as best I could. I raised my hand, and Jones acknowledged me.
"Many of your stories are about the struggles of African-Americans in predominantly black neighborhoods," I said. "I was wondering what effect you think residential segregation has on the struggles of contemporary African-Americans."
There was an eerie silence in the room. I immediately felt that I had made a terrible mistake.
Jones straightened himself indignantly. "Sir," he began, "I have no political agenda. I am not a sociologist. I am simply trying to tell a story." He continued in this vein for a bit longer as I tried to vanish into my chair. The man who'd introduced him, sitting in front of the room, widened his eyes and suppressed a grin, as one does when observing a child being reprimanded in a department store.
Jones then called on the next questioner, who stuck to a safer subject: "How do you come up with your ideas?"
My question was a sincere one. Just a month earlier, I had read a book, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy Denton, that explained so much about my city and country that it prompted the question.
I grew up in southwest St. Louis County, but I was somewhat familiar with South St. Louis through my grandparents and high school. North St. Louis I knew only from a couple of service projects — delivering donated toys to a North Side parish in grade school, tutoring at an after-school program in high school. It was only in college that I really began to think about the area in a more conscious way.
My wife hails from Glasgow Village, an area of unincorporated North County. We met as freshmen at Saint Louis University, and sometimes on weekends we'd drive to her childhood home to do laundry, rent a movie or attend a fish fry at her parish. Our route was along North Grand, starting at Lindell and ending at I-70. It was on those drives — past Fairground Park, past boarded-up brick homes, past restaurants with bars on the windows, past Grand Water Tower, past sidewalks and crosswalks predominantly crowded with black people — that I began to consider what people meant when they said St. Louis was a segregated city. Here was another side of St. Louis, the reciprocal of the predominantly white neighborhoods where I spent most of my time.
How did this happen? I wondered. I caught certain phrases that seemed to hold answers: white flight, redlining, blockbusting. But it was more than a decade before I got my hands on Massey and Denton's book, which takes these concepts and others and presents a cogent, devastating critique of American racism, segregation and urban decay. Massey and Denton argue, persuasively, that such decay and segregation "was brought about by actions and practices that had the passive acceptance, if not the active support, of many whites in the United States," the result of which we'd been driving through all those years on our way to Glasgow Village.
For cities like St. Louis, Massey and Denton explain, a long history of laws and practices reinforced segregation and created the underclass. Many cities, including St. Louis, passed laws establishing separate black and white areas. Though these laws were ultimately declared unconstitutional, restrictive covenants still prohibited homeowners from selling their property to blacks in certain neighborhoods. Some real-estate agents reaped huge profits by blockbusting: scaring whites out of neighborhoods with the threat of black neighbors, then selling their vacant homes to African-Americans at rapacious prices with predatory loans. As the Great Depression and World War II slowed home-building, many minorities were forced to live in increasingly crowded neighborhoods, in homes that were endlessly subdivided to house new arrivals from the South.
During the postwar boom, the federal government took a prominent role in segregation through "redlining," part of a system of loan-approval practices that essentially barred banks from investing in areas inhabited or likely to be inhabited by blacks. These loans, Massey and Denton suggest, were a major force behind the country's rapid suburbanization after World War II. In the cities themselves, housing and urban-renewal legislation cleared out black neighborhoods that were perceived as a threat to business districts, replacing them with public-housing projects.
Perhaps the term white flight is an oversimplification. In 1976, the widely cited Detroit Area Survey suggested African-Americans were comfortable living in neighborhoods that ranged from 15 to 70 percent black, but many whites grew uncomfortable in areas that were less than 10 percent black. These contrasting views produced conditions ripe for racial turnover.But what about the desperate state of many neighborhoods in North St. Louis? Massey and Denton again provide a compelling explanation. In a city where race is evenly dispersed, any increase in the overall poverty level of a single group would be evenly distributed. In an area inhabited almost entirely by one race, however, an increase in the poverty level impacts solely that area. Poverty, of course, is associated with all manner of negatives: crime, violence, drug use, homelessness, abandoned properties, lack of commercial institutions. And these negatives reinforce neighborhood disintegration. The result? Much of the North St. Louis that I drove through in the mid-'90s, at the tail end of a century-long process of decline fueled by racism.
In April, University of Iowa professor Colin Gordon published Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City — a mix of history, urban geography and socioeconomic analysis that examines
St. Louis' urban decay. Why St. Louis? "It is a famously tragic story," Gordon told me during an interview, several months after I read his book. "It is the poster child of white flight, one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., and the setting for a string of major legal challenges to local discrimination."
Mapping Decline illustrates how the causes and trends of segregation outlined in American Apartheid played themselves out here. It clarified much of what I saw in my hometown. How did it happen that by 2000 the city was home to only 13 percent of the metropolitan area's population? How did the city's share of local retail go from 80 percent in 1940 to just 12 percent in 1997? How, by the turn of the century, did 70 percent of the area's white population live in tracts that were at least 95 percent white?
One of Gordon's primary arguments is that the story of St. Louis is not the story of impersonal market forces. Suburbanization, sprawl and segregation did not simply happen. Instead, he contends, these trends were abetted and intensified by widely held racial fears translated into both public and private policies. Efforts to reverse these trends were guided by the same assumptions and, on the whole, only made matters worse. "The modern urban crisis," Gordon argued, "was a direct consequence of public policy, not an unfortunate social ill that persisted despite public policy."
Local officials' desires to keep blacks confined to small, discrete areas of the city first found expression in a 1916 zoning ordinance, passed by a substantial margin, that barred blacks from buying houses or residing on blocks with more than 75 percent white inhabitants. When the Supreme Court ruled against this type of ordinance the next year in Buchanan v. Warley, white St. Louisans used restrictive covenants to bar blacks from their neighborhoods. As the county expanded, as much as 80 percent of new housing stock was restricted in this way. Meanwhile, African-Americans continued to move to St. Louis, finding themselves confined to increasingly crowded areas.
In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled on Shelley v. Kraemer — a case originating in St. Louis — that racial covenants couldn't be enforced by the courts. Yet segregation was reinforced, especially in the county, by zoning requirements that priced most blacks out of the market and by real-estate agents who steered black and white clients to different areas, notes Gordon. Redlining practices funneled money to the county while withholding it from the city.
Many programs set up to reverse the tide of urban decline only worsened the problem. Some black neighborhoods were razed in the interest of "urban renewal" to make room for highways and for middle-class residents and business development that often never materialized. At first, the displaced residents were moved into massive public housing facilities like Pruitt-Igoe and Darst-Webbe; later they were simply left to fend for themselves, moving into other areas of the city or select areas of the county.
The county mostly ignored renewal programs, except when tearing down large portions of black neighborhoods like north Webster Groves, Meacham Park or Olivette's Elmwood Park. St. Louis itself was more concerned with chasing commercial and industrial development and tourist attractions, enticing developers with tax abatements and even privately owned land that local officials declared as blighted. Gordon notes that such schemes meant "any local policy that claimed to safeguard public safety, health or morals by eradicating blight could — at the same time — execute the most naked transfer of property from one private interest to another." Over time, the logic and guidelines of such programs became even more twisted, as local officials in wealthy areas gave tax breaks to developers who proposed to tear down malls merely to build new ones in the same location. The people most in need of help were ignored in a never-ending competition among the area's many municipalities. In this way, Gordon observes, "Political fragmentation allowed local municipalities to prosper at the expense of each other, and of the region."
And that fragmentation continues to this day.
When I look around from my vantage point in South St. Louis, near the Botanical Garden, it seems to me that whites are moving in and blacks are moving out. There's the new Botanical Heights development on the site of the mostly demolished, mostly black McRee Town. There are pockets of reinvestment I see when riding my bike along Pestalozzi from Grand to the brewery — rehabs that I suspect will be occupied mostly by whites. On my own street, two black families have moved out in the past five years, and another family plans to move soon. It seems to me that the city, increasingly, is being gentrified by whites, with displaced black people moving to parts of North County that whites then flee for places like St. Charles.
I ran this theory by Gordon. His response: "I think this is exactly right. White flight in< St. Louis was followed closely by black flight — leaving large tracts of the North Side virtually vacant and much of the 'urban crisis' now located in North County's inner suburbs."
Glasgow Village, where my wife and I used to spend Friday nights, is now what Gordon would call a transitional neighborhood, a neighborhood in the process of changing from mostly white to mostly black.
Although Edward P. Jones is not a sociologist, he seems to understand what segregation means for African-Americans, past and present.
His stories demonstrate that understanding not in terms of statistics and theories, as in the nonfiction American Apartheid or Mapping Decline, but rather in narratives about those who live their lives and make choices in a setting shaped by forces described in those books. In that setting, which is almost taken for granted as the backdrop of Jones' stories, he dramatizes the consequences of his characters' choices: the young man who defrauds a mentally disabled woman, the single mother who sees a dreadlocked man on the train and dreams that he might be a father for her children, the poor man who risks his life to save a wealthier woman whose family once spurned his own.
I realize now that my question to Jones about residential segregation was akin to asking Douglas Massey to speculate about a character's motivation in a piece. In an interview he did with Z.Z. Packer in The Believer magazine in 2005, Jones took issue with those who argue that racism in America is effectively over. "We know, day after day, that people are still being oppressed," he said, pointing to discrimination in housing as a prime example. "Every other month, I read in The Washington Post how testers will go to apartment buildings and see if they'll be rented to, and you find out that black people are still being discriminated against."
So why did Jones react as he did to my question? Perhaps he saw in my question a patronizing and reductive implication that the characters in his stories are merely victims of larger forces. If so, I can understand his reaction. Jones' fiction seeks to depict black characters as fully rounded human beings, flawed and complex like anyone else. On some level, his characters may be victims, but that's not the most interesting thing about them. More interesting to Jones are the choices they make and the lives that they live. Some of them are victimizers themselves. Some are heroes. Most are somewhere in between.
I didn't intend to imply otherwise. I do see now, though, that my question was misguided in a different way: In its focus on segregation's effects on blacks, it overlooked segregation's effects on everyone. Gordon concludes Mapping Decline with a powerful argument that cities, with their political, economic and cultural resources, are crucial to American society. To continue to ignore the city and its residents, he says, hurts everyone. When I spoke with Gordon, he described the "carnival of waste" that he sees in the abandonment of so much of St. Louis' best housing stock. St. Louisans built a city and then left it behind, largely because of racial fears. Now many are leaving the neighborhoods they once built as an escape and sinking more resources into starting over yet again, while others pour money and sweat into repairing what's left of the original place.
Gordon makes a compelling case that racism is the original sin of St. Louis — and many other American cities — a sin that lies at the heart of our region's most serious problems. As the old saying goes, we are punished not for our sins but by them. The question is: How do we repent? And will we?
Books referenced in this article:
- Lost in the City, All Aunt Hagar's Children, The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Amistad, 2006, 2004, 2003
- American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy Denton. Harvard University Press, 1998
- Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City by Colin Gordon. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008
An audio interview with Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.