There has been much talk about the Better Together proposal. At its core is the question of whether or not to repeal the Great Divorce: St. Louis City’s withdrawal from County. In theory, leaders in St. Louis believed that they would have enough land to expand beyond the boundaries set back then, while still maintaining a tax base and a viable population. It didn’t work out as planned. St. Louis County has just over 1 million people to the city’s 300,000. Residents of other counties are quick to remind us that the majority of St. Louis Metropolitan Region residents don’t live in St. Louis City and County. They live in outlying counties like St. Charles or Jefferson. Last year, I argued the small geographical size of St. Louis City was an excuse. Cities like San Francisco and Boston are smaller and do better than St. Louis in most metrics. But that’s not my point.
According to what St. Louis County leaders understood in 1876, divorce from St. Louis County had a certain logic at that time.
We should first address the issue of population growth being constrained by the city’s geographical size. We are shocked at how far the city has grown since that time, according to David Rumsey’s incredible composite image of Compton and Dry’s 1876 pictorial St. Louis. Despite the city’s growth to 310,864 by 1870, and to 350,518 by 1880, Jefferson had not yet experienced urbanization. The area between Jefferson & Grand was still largely rural except for Midtown. Much of the Tower Grove area wouldn’t be developed until the 20th century. Think about it: It would have taken a pedestrian less than half an hour to walk from the riverfront into the countryside around a St. Louis population of 350,000 to reach the countryside.
I do not doubt that the housing conditions in some of the more densely populated neighborhoods of the city’s core, especially those just north of downtown, in areas like Kerry Patch, were acceptable according to today’s standards. As the reformers of the last century demonstrated, housing codes can improve living conditions if they are consistently enforced and supported by ethical politicians. In 1876, a St. Louis leader would have seen the 62-square mile area that lay before him as an almost unlimited amount of land to accommodate at least another million people, if the city was built at the same density. Remember that parts of southwest St. Louis weren’t developed until the 1940s. The City proved it could accommodate 856,796 residents in 1950, although many areas were uncomfortably crowded. This was before there were dozens more highrises.
If we could convince people that it is a great place to live, we could bring a lot more people into the city.
The city’s small geographical size has also caused problems with the industry. After World War II, the Big Three automakers chose Fenton and Hazelwood to build their new huge plants. They chose these three cities because they were large areas of flat, open land. St. Louis simply didn’t have enough land to build super-sized automobile plants. To return to 1876’s perspective, sprawling, one-story assembly plants were unimaginable when it was possible to build multistory factories with relatively small footprints. The Midwest’s deindustrialization was also something civic leaders couldn’t have predicted. My research shows that although many historical accounts claim that St. Louis was economically outperformed by Chicago during Civil War, I have found that many Gateway City businesses saw their productivity rise during that period. The Lemp Brewery is an example: Despite all the chaos of war in St. Louis in 1862, the value of William J. Lemp Sr., who took over the plant from Adam in the middle Civil War, increased approximately tenfold between 1860 and 1870. What city leader could have foreseen the Rust Belt when they looked at such balance sheets?
The purported motive behind the actions of St. Louis County leaders is to avoid paying the infrastructure costs. The City’s crumbling streets and bridges are often given a lot of attention, which is understandable. It is deeply troubling that many bridges that cross the tracks of the St. Louis Railroad are being replaced for five years or more. A glimpse at the 2019 St. Louis County budget is enough to keep even the most sound sleeper awake at night. The County’s capital expenditures for the next five years alone total more than 200,000,000 dollars. Many public works projects were constructed quickly during the boom years of suburbanization in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, the time has come for them to be retired. It will be expensive to replace them, especially in a county that has a shrinking tax base or a declining population.
Perhaps it’s the reverse: Perhaps, as 1876’s city leaders predicted, St. Louis City does not want to be reunited with St. Louis County.