So many maps! And they are so beautiful! And also damning, I loved them. I wanted more about the process of mapping itself, because so few academic geographers and planners really wield maps like this. So I was a little disappointed that this didn’t involve some thinking through of what the process of mapping teaches us, especially given the title.
What it did do was masterfully describe the growth of St. Louis and its spectacular decline, and it balanced fairly beautifully a big picture view of the policies that caused it along with enough of the intricate detail to judge how it all happened. It describes the period from 1940-2000, bringing this story somewhat into the present which is also rare. He also does a far better job of combining policy and planning analysis with acknowledgment of race: ‘The plot of this story, in St. Louis and elsewhere, is irretrievably racial in its logic and its consequences’ (11). Also that
This is a story that can be retold, with local twists and variations, for virtually nay American metropolis in the modern era. Local, state, and national policies encouraged economic and demographic flight from increasingly poor, and black, central cities. Sprawl and political fragmentation made these cities–and the larger urban (35) areas they anchored–increasingly difficult to govern or finance. The modern urban crisis was a direct consequence of public policy, not an unfortunate social ill that persisted despite public policy.
He opens with ‘Local Politics, Local Power’, a look at the wildly fragmented political mosaic of counties, cities and jurisdictions that make up St. Louis (233 incorporated municipalities in a 12-county area? Jesus). It’s so different than that of L.A. which I know best, but with the same effect — the carving up of an urban area into smaller sections allowing wealthy white areas to insulate themselves and their wealth from the rest.
This pattern of governance in greater St. Luis was accomplished quite purposefully; it was, in Terrence Jone’s apt phrase, ‘fragmented by design’. This fragmentation in turn, facilitated and invited a prolonged pattern of local piracy as political units sought to maximize local wealth and tax bases while minimizing any claims that might be made on them (45-46)
Here too, he examines the politics of the growth machine, the movement to the suburbs of whites and wealth, cities left with no tax base for their poverty-stricken populations.
Next Collins looks at the “‘The Steel Ring’: Race an Realty in Greater St. Louis,” an examination of both the local, state and federal polices that led to intensive segregation, and the real estate industry, which he sees as lying at the heart of it. St Louis was one of the cities that legislated racial zoning, when that was struck down it turned to race restrictive covenants (which, like L.A., heightened during the first great migration of African Americans from the South during WWI). One neighbourhood purchased their street and streetlights from the city so they could impose uniform deed restrictions, but most simply formed those ubiquitous neighbourhood and homeowner associations. Interestingly, Collins writes:
As with most such settings in St. Louis, the local improvement association was more a consequence of the covenant than it was a cause; the boundaries of the neighbourhood were determined by the willingness of homeowners to sign the covenant. (80)
After restrictions were outlawed, these restrictions continued on as art of policy.
The FHA, as Robert Weaver…noted in 1948, had ‘turned the agency’s operations over to the real estate, and home finance boys.’ Four years later the NAACP scored what it viewed as an ‘extension of racial discrimination and segregation abetted and furthered by a government agency backed by billions of dollars of insurance secured by taxpayers’ money’ and concluded bitterly: ‘We are breaking down the ghetto in old housing only to see federal funds being used to establish impregnable ghettos in new, desirable suburban developments’ (From memorandum re: FHA Underwriting Manual (n.D.), NAACP Papres pt 5, reel 4:0945).
I like this pithy statement: ‘African Americans did not, in the logic of the HOLC, live in residential areas; they invaded them and compromised them’ (92).
Some of the data Collins managed to get and map is truly awesome.
On to zoning! The most boring thing on the planet, but yet also one of the most devastating. Because this is what it does:
Exclusive and fragmented zoning in the suburbs erased any semblance of residential diversity, sorting the white middle class into income-specific single-family enclaves on the periphery and leaving African Americans, the elderly, and the poor to filter into older and higher-density housing stock (much of it unprotected by zoning)in the central city (112)
A 1926 court case challenged zoning, and the law in question on nuisances was actually struck down by an Ohio judge, stating ‘in the last analysis the result to be accomplished is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life’. The Supreme Court agreed, but allowed it as part of a bigger plan for land use. Through zoning for large lots, single family homes, minimum square footage and the like, lower-income people were kept out.
I think my favourite chapters were around Urban Renewal and the definitions of blight, and some of the data Collins was able to get hold of is amazing. Also profoundly profoundly depressing as he charts the passage of the multiple and often overlapping programs under which urban renewal was carried out. There are volumes to be written on the changing and highly political uses of the term ‘blight’, ‘blight’ as verb, as risk, as disease, as something that even if not yet present can loom and threaten and justify another huge tax break to yet another corporation. And of course, it always invoked the presence of Black people. It helped ensure that ‘renewal’ focused on the destruction of community, the tearing down of homes to build for commercial use and ‘economic development’. Almost no onewas rehoused or given compensation as homes came down to make way for freeways and landmark projects like malls, hotels, and stadiums. Taxes were shifted entirely into financing the loans required to construct such projects through TIF (Tax-increment financing), essentially stolen from schools and other essential city services. And at the end of the day, only 1 of 12 projects financed through TIF was even breaking even in terms of what the site had been earning before development and what after.
To conclude, Collins writes: ‘Wile its central thread is private property, this is not a story…of private markets and private choices. What gives this story its plot, and its sorry ending, are the many ways in which private and public policies shaped or frustrated those choices’ (221). The solutions he believes is to ‘displace local fragmentation with some form of regional governance’. This will help ease competition between local areas, help increase density and improve services, can approach the topic of tax sharing. Here is where my greatest critique comes in, because this book does so much but doesn’t take the next step in trying to answer why public policy took the turns it did. It doesn’t really get at the multiple ways that this preserves the unique privileges of wealthy whites in exclusive areas and how they have fought to increase those privileges, nor how it serves the interests of large corporations and real estate developers lobbying at all levels of governments. These are the interests that must be overcome to reverse any of it, and there is not much sense of how to go about that.