“There’s such a stark disparity between the conditions found in one half of the city versus another,” lecturer of American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis Michael Allen said. “I mean, the conditions in North St. Louis and the south side are very, very different in terms of population density, building density. It’s not accidental, this is the result of many choices, many factors.”
As Allen suggests, the manifestation of these social inequities can not be traced back to one single cause. Despite it being a culmination of many different factors, Chris Hamilton, a fellow in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, argues that the problems have most predominantly been rooted in federal policy and decision-making.
“To backtrack and sort of look back to it, how we got here, I think the most important point to underscore is that it is largely a result of federal, state and local government policy. But especially federal level policy,” Hamilton said. “There’s a myth that our racially segregated neighborhoods came [solely] through individual choices, of people wanting to be around other people like them, the manipulations of real estate agents and brokers, those are all part of the story. But the thing that puts its all into play is federal government policy.”
St. Louis’ unique geography yielded its susceptibility to becoming one of the most heavily segregated cities in the country.
“St. Louis is what we would call a border city that sort of sits right between the north and the south so it has a lot of these racial relations and racial attitudes related to the deeper south, but not a lot of African-Americans lived in St. Louis until the earlier years of the 20th century,” University of Iowa professor and author of “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City,” Colin Gordon said. “So as African Americans come in, you see very dramatic and ultimately successful efforts to segregate African Americans in cities like St. Louis much more than other cities.”
In spite of the current and recent existence of racial segregation in St. Louis, this had not always been the case. In the 1930s, for instance, there were neighborhoods in St. Louis that were integrated.
The neighborhood of Desoto-Carr, a housing project on Choteau and 14th, was one example of an integrated community within the city of St. Louis.
“Desoto-Carr used to be a racially integrated neighborhood that was full of European immigrants, as well as black families,” Hamilton said. “They lived together, it wasn’t perfect or without animosity and differences, but these neighborhoods were integrated because this was a time when not everyone had a car and the workers needed to be close to the job centers in downtown St. Louis.”
However, due to local government intervention, the racially diverse makeup of Desoto-Carr was not permanent.
“That neighborhood was razed through federal housing projects and in its place an all-black housing project was built there. Further in south St. Louis City, they built an all-white housing project,” Hamilton said. “So they would literally raze racially integrated neighborhoods and replace them with these segregated housing projects. So they kicked off the patterns that we see today.”
Racial division was largely a product of zoning which, according to Washington University in St. Louis professor Daniel Mandelker, is the “way in which cities divide their cities into different zoning districts and only certain uses are permitted in the zoning district.”
Although the Buchanan vs. Warley supreme court case of 1917 ruled that “racial segregation of residential housing was unconstitutional in respect to the 14th Amendment,” racial zoning was and remains in practice nearly a century later, albeit in less explicit ways.
“[Black] neighborhoods were zoned in ways that allowed them, even pushed them to become slums. Black neighborhoods were often zoned to have commercial, residential and industrial all side by side. The white neighborhoods had much stricter zoning policy. So what they did through the zoning that allowed the neighborhoods to have bars in them and saloons and these industrial sites, they zoned them in a way to create centers of vice. The way that the zoning in these cities occurred was that they ensured that these things were going to happen in black neighborhoods,” Hamilton said. “You end up with these neighborhoods with poverty, and vice and industry, that in a way created what became to be known as urban slums.”
Not only were areas zoned in a way which allowed for racial segregation, but racial deed covenants also served as a mechanism to prevent blacks from living in many areas in St. Louis.
“The supreme court outlawed [racial] zoning and they moved on to the local real estate interests and establish basically the same set of restrictions just by the way which regulate the practice of real estate,” Gordon said. “And [real estate agents] encouraged homeowners to attach what are called restrictive deed covenants to the deeds of their homes, so that they can go up and down the street and got people to attach these legal instruments to their deeds that [say], ‘I promise never to sell my property to an African American and I understand my neighbors have the same promise.’ And these spread across St. Louis between about 1910 and the end of World War II so they covered large swaths of the city on the south side and on the north side.”
This practice was not long-lasting.
In 1948, the Shelley vs. Kraemer supreme court ruling, which was in response to a situation where the Shelley’s, a black family, were kept from moving into a home in the white Fairground district of St. Louis due to their race, outlawed the practice of racial restrictive deed covenants.
But society’s seeking of racial separation pervaded all steps of the real estate process.
“These FHA-backed loans for housing developers to build these large-scale projects out in the suburbs… It was explicitly mandated that to receive these federally backed loans, you were only allowed to create sort of white only suburban communities,” Hamilton said. “So developers that tried to create black suburban communities were denied these loans, which meant the loans they had to get, if they could get any at all, would come at a much higher risk and much higher interest rates, and generally they could not get any additional money, even if they wanted to take on those burdens.”
The creation of white suburban communities was attractive to many who were able to live in those communities, which led to the popularization of white suburbia.
“These places became cheaper to live in than buying or renting in the city because of these federally backed mortgages which you could get in these neighborhoods,” Hamilton said. “So [white people] were really incentivized to move to these suburban communities that black families were not able to get into, both on the front and back end.”
Inevitably, the Shelley vs. Kramer supreme court ruling and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were not permanent remedies to the inequity Africans Americans faced in the housing process.
“[Governments] limited affordable housing by limiting multi-family units and limiting the smallest lot sizes that could be constructed. These are some of the tools that were used after the Fair Housing Act and after these more explicitly segregated policies were no longer acceptable,” Hamilton said. “So they turned to this kind of zoning, which in a way, is more of a class based zoning, which continued that initial inertia of the original segregative policies. So it became another tool for these municipalities to ensure the type of populations that they wanted, which were richer and whiter, in general.”
One way in which governments sought to remedy the existence of racial segregation in the home-buying process was through the implementation of housing vouchers.
“[The government] would give housing vouchers to some of these families to move somewhere else and these white suburban communities wouldn’t accept them. They were again relegated to these small sets of neighborhoods in North St. Louis city,” Hamilton said. “This is how North St. Louis city became largely a black residential enclave. So as housing was being demolished in other places, as that was happening, these black tenants and homeowners found themselves confined to the areas in which they might be able to take these vouchers or otherwise, they just legally were not allowed to move to any other neighborhoods.”
The remnants of these underlying issues are visible to those living in St. Louis today.
In addition, the history of racial segregation has yielded residential complacency, producing a largely divided city in terms of its racial makeup.
“Sometimes there’s this psychogeography — like the sort of mental image of the city. The sort of perception of safety and comfort. People aren’t blind to what’s happening one neighborhood over and it impacts their ability and their desire to stay where they are,” Allen said. “These sort of political boundaries, these dividing boundaries, are these visual divides. You know you can follow these lines.”
The distinct racial segregation that once separated St. Louis city from St. Louis county has manifested itself in all parts of St. Louis as racial segregation has also become a suburban phenomenon.
“Our suburbs are mainly very highly racially segregated. We have few that are not,” Hamilton said. “We have a pattern in the North St. Louis county populations where most of the population is black, we have a handful of suburbs to the west that tend to be a little more integrated, and in the South, the suburbs tend to have a high white population. The suburbs in the far west in the county tend to be overwhelmingly white.”
For Allen, the long history of racial segregation in St. Louis has confined both white and black people to a limited understanding – which further allows for this racial divide to permeate society.
“If you’re rich and white or you’re poor and black, you’re more likely to be surrounded by people just like you. You’re not really thinking outside yourself,” Allen said. “Very few districts really cross those social stratifications. We’ve isolated these groups and are not cooperating.”
Gordon suggests that the consequences of these issues are felt not just by members of the African American community, but by the entire community.
“I think it is a tragedy in many respects to think that cities clearly suffered from this history. And it’s not just African-Americans in the city but for the city as a whole,” Gordon said. “I think the more diverse and integrated settings are now safer, they’re more politically tolerant, they tend to have stronger political institutions, stronger patterns of political engagement, all of these are good things. But so much damage has been done over a long period of time for St. Louis and other cities like it, that it’s really hard to get there from where we are now.”