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

Gordon, Colin. Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

St. Louis, Missouri was once a thriving metropolis, but is now a ruined landscape. As Colin Gordon explains in Mapping Decline, “[d]isinvestment and depopulation are so pronounced in central St. Louis that pockets of unintended green have replaced much of the housing stock.”[1] In this book, Gordon researches and maps the causes and costs of St. Louis’s urban crisis.[2] His research shows that St. Louis’ failure was not a consequence of free market conditions, where people simply wanted a bigger or better house in the suburbs. It actually reveals how racist policies and attitudes dramatically shaped the demographic boundaries of the city. Specifically, Gordon shows how federal and local governments, as well as private industry, were complicit in maintaining segregated neighborhoods by blocking minorities from residing in white communities.

Gordon puts much of the blame on policies created by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange (SLREE). He claims that around 1915, “The fear of ‘negro invasion’ in St. Louis was best expressed, and carefully orchestrated, by local realtors.[3] They created ‘restricted deed covenants’ to prevent minorities from moving into white areas (zones). The SLREE regulated and constrained its members even where no covenants existed.”[4] Real estate agents who sold homes to African Americans outside of the zone would lose their licenses.[5] Even though restricted deed covenants were judged to not be legally enforceable by the Supreme Court in Shelley vs. Kraemer in 1948, the practice continued.[6]

Furthermore, Gordon illuminates federal culpability in maintaining a segregated society. New federal policies enabled white flight from the city into the nearest suburbs. FHA mortgage insurance was primarily granted to white people moving to the suburbs, in effect, subsidizing white flight, while federal public housing assistance was implemented mainly in the inner city, which helped to solidify the region’s spatial organization of race and poverty.[7] Gordon claims that these suburbs “poached” the city’s resources while placing restrictive zoning policies on their own neighborhoods that kept out minorities.[8] In addition, during the housing boom that followed World War II, the federal government figured prominently in segregating neighborhoods through a process known as “redlining,” which essentially barred banks from investing in areas inhabited by people of color.[9] Housing and urban-renewal legislation cleared out black neighborhoods (“slum clearance”) that were perceived to threaten business districts and replaced them with public-housing projects.[10]

Mapping Decline is unique for the ways in which it combines archival research with geographic information system (GIS) digital mapping techniques.  The book includes more than 75 full-color maps that were rendered from census data, archival sources, case law, and local real estate records. Together the maps trace the ways private property restrictions, local planning and zoning, federal housing policies, and urban renewal encouraged “white flight” and urban decline in St. Louis.

The research for Mapping Decline began with a grant to apply GIS technology to the historical intersections of blight and public policy. As Gordon and his partner, Peter Fisher, wrestled with the challenge of digitizing historical sources, they soon realized that they needed a local case study. Sorting through the legal and political history of “blight,” they noticed that many of the most egregious cases were in the St. Louis suburbs. Their research revealed a general pattern found in many modern American cities, where “wealth sprawled to the urban fringe and the central city suffered stark and sustained decline.”[11] Gordon presents Mapping Decline as the St. Louis chapter of a story of urban decline that has been exposed in other studies, namely, Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960 (1998) and Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996).[12]

Gordon created a supplementary website to the book, “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” (http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/). Four interactive maps that relate to major themes in the book show visitors St. Louis’ deterioration in terms of “White Flight,” “Race and Property,” “Municipal Zoning,” and “Urban Renewal.” Each map page is animated by a chronological slidebar or a menu of map layers, and includes primary source documents. Visitors to the site can see change over time within each map by moving the slidebar across different date ranges. Primary source documents, such as zoning maps, urban renewal plans, and legal documents, can be viewed by selecting the “Documents” checkbox on the map page or by selecting “Documents” from the site’s main menu. Notes about historical context and full bibliographic citations are included for each resource. In addition, the website includes a page of links to other web-based historical GIS projects, data and map sources, and St. Louis documents and maps. Unfortunately, a number of these links proved to be outdated or broken at the time of the review. One of the projects, “Digital Harlem, Daily Life 1915-1930,” could be relinked by updating the URL to http://heuristscholar.org/digital_harlem/, while others, such as “Mapping Dubois,” were not located through searches.

The “Mapping Decline: About the Maps” page offers a number of interesting data options and tools to assist further research. Researchers who are members of Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research can log in and download 1940-2000 tract level census data used in Gordon’s study. The site also offers a link to Social Explorer, which provides easy-to-use tools for visual exploration of demographic information. Gordon notes that the Race and Property, Municipal Zoning, and Urban Renewal series are based on a number of archival sources and public data, which he further explains and provides links to relevant collections. The Urban Renewal link is outdated, but a Google search located the appropriate link to St. Louis’ Open Data page, which includes census data, property information, and geospatial data.

Even though I appreciate the scholarship and ingenuity that went into Gordon’s study, and resulting book and website, I could not help but feel that the project felt isolated from larger, related social issues and lacked much needed counter narratives and personal stories. Although much different in scope and context, one example of a study that connects forced segregation with consumerism is Liz Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003). Cohen shows how the mass-consumption-driven economy offered false promises of political and economic democracy following World War II. Her study also revealed how federal policies and local racism prevented people of color from upward mobility and access to white suburbia. And Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert’s Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America (2011) shows how a set of almost invisible policing practices ban the homeless and other “disorderly” people from occupying certain public spaces. Once “zoned out,” they are subject to arrest if they return. Gordon might have connected his findings to issues, such as consumerism or the control of unwanted urban populations, that would have enriched his overall story.

Gordon also failed to provide counter narratives to the arguments and maps he presented or to personal stories that could have helped the reader connect to the lived experience of African Americans living in St. Louis. Additional research using newspaper articles, letters, or oral history interviews would have shown how people in African American communities fought against the discriminatory practices highlighted in Mapping Decline. Gordon briefly mentioned actions by the NAACP, but did not convert any of their court cases into visual data.

Even with these oversights, Gordon’s study has successfully connected to recent social and political events. In 2014, Gordon’s maps helped frame a discussion about unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the Michael Brown shooting, an event that launched the Black Lives Matter movement. On August 14, 2014, BloombergBuisinessweek published an article, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” which highlights the maps posted on Gordon’s website. The article begins with the question, “What does a map have to do with a riot?”[13] The rest of the article connects Gordon’s maps to other recent scholarship to show how a history of racism and inequitable development of the city contributed to the recent tragedy.

Gordon and his research have become authoritative resources for people all over the country who are trying to make sense of events in Ferguson and St. Louis at large. Earlier this year, Gordon became the star witness in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the Missouri NAACP against the Ferguson-Florissant School District in North County, St. Louis. In his testimony, Gordon exclaimed that “white flight patterns moved first from the city of St. Louis into the northern suburbs in the county. Blacks became concentrated in various large apartment complexes east of West Florissant Avenue, such as those on Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown was shot on Aug. 9, 2014.”[14] Gordon contends, in his book and testimony, that the city’s boundaries were drawn to keep black people out. “The seeds of that past discrimination are blooming now.”[15]

Another news article that references Gordon’s research went beyond the city’s physical restrictions to explain why white people and people of color continue to be separated psychologically. Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis underscored centuries-long white fear of African American franchise and agency with the following questions: “What would happen if the slaves revolted? If they got the right to vote? If thousands came and took our jobs? If they lived next door? If they came to the suburbs we built to get away from them? Or the suburbs we built to get away from those suburbs?”[16] This same article also suggested that any transition out of the current state of affairs would be difficult for a city that has been finding ways to control black people’s movements for hundreds of years, noting that “Today’s rules are about curfews, sagging pants, and evening protests. In the late 1770s, Spanish colonial ordinances restricted slaves from holding nocturnal assemblies, dressing ‘in barbarous fashion,’ and leaving their cabins.”[17] The parallels are eye-opening.

Seeing the connections between the historical and urgent current events in our country has given me a greater appreciation for Gordon’s book and website. As his research and news stories show, the results of systemic racism are not easily overcome. I expect that Mapping Decline will continue to contribute to this national conversation for years to come.

[1] Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 4.

[2] In addition to Mapping Decline, Gordon authored Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality (2013); Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health in Twentieth Century America (2003); and New Deals: Business, Labor and Politics, 1920-1935 (1994).  His digital projects include “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City” (http://mappingdecline.lib.uiowa.edu/), an interactive mapping project based on his St. Louis research; “Digital Johnson County” (https://worldmap.harvard.edu/digitalJC/), which provides access to a wide range of map and data layers documenting the social, natural, and political history of Johnson County, Iowa; and “The Telltale Chart” (http://telltalechart.org/), a data visualization project that focuses on historical and recent economic data.

[3] Gordon, 70.

[4] Ibid., 83.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Ibid., 98-99.

[8] Ibid., 221.

[9] Ibid., 96-97, 103-09.

[10] Ibid., 162-63.

[11] Ibid., 222.

[12] Ibid., xiii.

[13] Peter Coy, “The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord,” BloombergBusinessweek, August 15, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-08-15/how-st-dot-louis-countys-map-explains-fergusons-racial-discord.

[14] Tony Messenger, “Historian Highlights Racial Divide That Haunts St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 13, 2016, accessed November 1, 2016, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/tony-messenger/messenger-historian-highlights-racial-divide-that-haunts-st-louis/article_8c83ef3c-522a-5634-b816-e10d181e4d4f.html.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jeannette Cooperman, “St. Louis: A City Divided,” Aljazeera America, August 18, 2014, accessed November 1, 2016, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/18/st-louis-segregation.html.

[17] Ibid.

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