Like most other Americans, I was deeply horrified by the killing of George Floyd, which is one of many police murders of unarmed African Americans that has been caught on video in recent years. Police violence is one symptom of a problem of systemic racism in America, and while I could try to talk about it there are other far better sources out there that I encourage you, the reader, to look at (such as this article from CityLab about the reforms the city of Camden, NJ has made with its police force – I strongly encourage you to read about it if you are skeptical of the idea of defunding and reforming police). What I would like to discuss is another parallel issue in terms of systemic racism, one that affects everything about the way we live, and that is the segregation that still exists within our cities today.
You may be thinking, segregation was outlawed in the 1960s, how can it be an issue today? While formal segregation was outlawed through a handful of Supreme Court Cases and pieces of legislation, a type of informal segregation still exists within our cities that is rarely discussed outside of urban planning/architecture circles.
To show this, I want to talk about St. Louis, which is where I go to school. Over the last year in particular I have begun learning more about the history and the modern state of the city. While I love St. Louis for many reasons, particularly the people of the city who are among the friendliest in the country (at least from my experiences), it is also one of the most segregated cities in America. For the most part, the city is divided among a north/south line known as the Delmar Divide. To the North side of Delmar Boulevard (and in some areas south of downtown), neighborhoods are almost exclusively black. To the South and to the west of the city, neighborhoods are almost exclusively white.
Image: The University of Virginia Racial Dot Map via Reddit (A good screenshot of the STL portion was there).
St. Louis is not the only city that looks like this. Almost every American city looks the exact same way. My hometown of Washington, DC is mostly white in the West and mostly black in the East. Chicago has a racial gap between the North and South sides. New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, and even smaller cities such as Greenville, SC, and Syracuse look this way.
Image: Washington D.C. Racial Dot Map via Huffington Post
Image: Chicago Racial Dot Map via Wired
Image: New York City Racial Dot Map via Wired
Image: Los Angeles Racial Dot Map via Wired
Image: Dallas/Fort Worth Racial Dot Map via Wired
Image: Atlanta Racial Dot Map via Wired
Image: Syracuse Racial Dot Map via Syracuse.com
Image: Greenville, South Carolina Racial Dot Map (My Own Screenshot)
This presents an obvious problem, which is that most people live in neighborhoods almost exclusively made up of people of their own skin color and of a similar background to themselves. If you live in diverse neighborhoods made up of many different types of people from different backgrounds than yourself, you are far more likely to understand their points of view and relate to others as people. I think this is obvious to most Americans, although we do not live that way.
While there is the obvious problem of not being around others, the disparities between neighborhoods go far beyond this. A lot of what you see in a place can be explained by looking more closely at a given place and starting to look the history of a place. To begin looking into how this is the case, I will start by presenting a map of the racial makeup of St. Louis compared to poverty rates and certain health statistics:
Image: Washington University in St. Louis via ResearchGate
All four of these maps look alike. Whiter neighborhoods are wealthier and have lower rates of death from cancer and heart disease in St. Louis. In a country with few social programs, wealth largely determines quality of life in a given place, and whiter neighborhoods are overwhelmingly wealthier in the St. Louis area. This is only three sets of statistics, but the disparities between neighborhoods go even further than this.
Image: St. Louis County Planning via Reddit
If you look at life expectancy, there are similar trends between neighborhoods. Looking at this map of St. Louis County (separate from the city itself, but still affected by all the same factors as the city), white suburbs of St. Louis such as Wildwood have life expectancies into the nineties whereas black such as Kinloch have life expectancies as low as the fifties.
Image: Intenet Speeds in St. Louis (green is faster, red is slower), Riverfront Times
Even statistics you wouldn’t expect to link to race, such as internet speeds of a neighborhood, correlate to the racial makeup of a given neighborhood. In a time with more people working from home and kids taking class at home for an extended period of time, this is more of an issue than ever before. While I do not have maps to show other factors, there are plenty of similar trends in terms of access to quality education, access to quality food, crime rates, and more.
There is a clear disparity between black and white neighborhoods in St. Louis, and while it may seem to some that this is a coincidence or the result of choices made by residents of these neighborhoods, by looking at the history of the city it becomes clear that this is the result of decades of systemic racism. To start to see the root of these issues, we can look at the 1937 Residential Security Map of St. Louis:
Image: 1937 Residential Security Map via St. Louis Patina
The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation created Residential Security Maps of all American cities as a guide for lenders in terms of which neighborhoods were worth investing in. Government assessors were sent to survey neighborhoods, and they graded them a color on a spectrum of Green to Red. Green neighborhoods were considered the best, blue neighborhoods were good, yellow neighborhoods were on the decline, and red neighborhoods were considered blighted. This practice was known as redlining, and neighborhoods labelled in red were often either allowed to decay or demolished entirely.
Neighborhoods that were labelled in red were almost always predominately black, Jewish, Catholic, Asian, or really any group of people besides Northern Europeans. Today, neighborhoods labelled in red across the country are overwhelmingly home to black and latino residents. Three quarters of these redlined neighborhoods still lag behind other neighborhoods economically today.
Looking at the map of St. Louis, the neighborhoods marked in red largely reflect this trend. From what I can tell (keep in mind my geography here is not perfect), the only exceptions to this rule are Soulard, Lafayette Park, and maybe some of downtown/midtown.
In addition to redlining keeping wealth and investment out of black neighborhoods, another similar issue that further institutionalized segregation into the city were restrictive covenants. Restrictive covenants were contracts signed as a part of home sales restricting the sale of homes to people deemed negative to property value and the character of the neighborhood. These agreements once again restricted sales of homes to Jewish people, Asian people, and most often black people. For the most part, neighborhoods were kept segregated by these documents through the 1940s. They were largely implemented by private individuals and were impacted by the financial interests behind housing.
There are some examples of neighborhoods that either did not institute these policies or found ways around them (in the case of a neighborhood called Lewis Place, enough light skinned black people passing as white people moved into the neighborhood to vote to overturn these rules). Eventually, the 1948 Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer, which involved St. Louis residents (also from Lewis Place, the house is still standing), led to the ending of restrictive covenants nationwide. While obviously this was a good example of a reform, it still left countless neighborhoods that were still segregated.
Not only were there restrictions in terms of lending that affected the financial resources available to neighborhoods and restrictions in terms of who could live where, but successful black neighborhoods were often ruined by “urban renewal.” The Mill Creek Valley was one of St. Louis’s most successful black neighborhoods in the first half of the 20th century. It was home to a number of important institutions that served black people (as many were segregated at the time in St. Louis), important cultural sites such as music clubs, and several black owned businesses. In 1959, it was demolished to make way for what is now Interstate 64. The Mill Creek Valley was probably the most important black neighborhood in the city and it was completely demolished to build a road. Not only that, but the highway that replaced it allowed for more predominately white residents to continue a move to the suburbs and commute to work via car, depleting the city of further financial resources.
Image: The Mill Creek Valley Prior to Demolition, Missouri History Museum via St. Louis Public Radio
The Mill Creek Valley is not the only example of a successful black neighborhood being demolished in St. Louis. While “The Hill” is known as the Italian part of St. Louis, there is also a portion of the neighborhood home to black residents. When Interstate 44 was constructed, the black part of The Hill was cut off from the Italian part of the neighborhood. Although it is my understanding that the two parts of the neighborhood tried to maintain a connection, there is a now a clear disconnect between the two sides of the highway. More recently, in the 1990s a neighborhood called Evans-Howard Place was demolished to make way for what is now the Brentwood Promenade Shopping Center. Over the next few years, additional parts of the surrounding area (which were also predominately black), were demolished for the construction of further shopping centers. These shopping centers are the go-to shopping areas for a lot of essential items for much of the surrounding area (it is my local Target, Home Depot, etc. when in St. Louis) and nothing would tell you about its history besides a small plaque attached to a rock off to the side of the Target parking lot. Residents were compensated for their land, but a good black neighborhood was destroyed to make way for big chain stores while the surrounding white suburbs remain.
St. Louis is not the only city with this type of history. There are countless examples of urban highway projects cutting off portions of cities and destroying neighborhoods. You can look at Detroit, where the Black Bottom neighborhood was demolished to make way for Interstate 375 and lost with the neighborhood were countless historical Blues and Jazz clubs. Or you can look at Boston, which implemented a multi-billion dollar project known as the “Big Dig” to bury Interstate 93 which ran through its downtown. Now, there is a strange empty gap in the middle of downtown where the highway is now buried. It is a permanent mark on urban fabric of the city.
Image: Hastings Street, Before and After I-375 Construction, Detroit via Crain’s Detroit Business
In addition to highways dividing and destroying neighborhoods, there are other forms of division that leave a scar on the urban fabric today. St. Louis is known for a strange number of street barriers and cul-de-sacs. These barriers were placed to prevent vehicular traffic from going down certain roads throughout the city and to keep outsiders away from certain neighborhoods. These can be found in all different parts of the city and are both confusing to navigate around and divisive. Some neighborhoods, such as McRee Town (which is now known as Botanical Heights) were cut off by surrounding neighborhoods almost entirely through methods like these street barriers. In the case of McRee Town, both Interstate 44 and Interstate 64 had already cut off the neighborhood on two sides, but the barriers took the division a step further. Planters were placed to prevent cars from driving under the interstate to neighborhoods to the South and fences were built in the nearby Grand district to prevent residents from passing through. Some of these barriers have now been removed, but not before a local development led by the nearby Missouri Botanical Garden could purchase a large portion of the neighborhood and rebuild it with suburban style homes. The Botanical Garden along with other nearby institutions considered the neighborhood to be a problem to have nearby, and they used their influence to further deteriorate it in order to rebuild something that at least looks better to those passing by. Similarly, many communities around the city build fences to restrict access from surrounding areas. There are some parts of University City that border the Delmar Loop (a popular shopping and dining area) with fences and streets with dead ends to keep out people from the Loop, which had declined back in the 1980s and has since seen a lot of redevelopment. Out in the suburbs, there was a fence dividing the predominately black suburb of Kinloch with Ferguson (which at the time was a sundown town) up until 1968. When crime increased again in Kinloch in the 1970s, a plan was considered to build a wall between the two communities. Similar division existed between Kinloch and the nearby suburb of Berkeley, and now Kinloch is slowly being depopulated as land is bought out for the potential expansion of St. Louis’s Airport.
Image: St. Louis Street Barriers (my photograph).
St. Louis is a relatively extreme case of use of street barriers to divide neighborhoods, but it is once again not the only case. In Detroit, there is the Eight Mile Wall (a half mile in length) which was built to physically separate white homeowners on one side from black homeowners on the other. It is still present and serves as a barrier between what are now two black neighborhoods.
I have now spent quite a bit of time discussing the ways in which the city of St. Louis (and some other cities) were racially divided by highways, street barriers, and more. There are many scars in the urban fabric of the city that were designed to keep people away from each other, and these scars are still present today. Not only do these barriers divide different types of people, but they also prevent people in different neighborhoods from accessing the goods and services found in other parts of the city.
We can look at healthcare as an example. From 1937 until the end of legal segregation, Homer G. Phillips Hospital was the only hospital in St. Louis that served black people. Even after segregation technically ended, with most black people living on the North side of the city, it was a crucial source of medical care for many black people. In 1979, despite protests from many local residents, the city closed down Homer G. Phillips Hospital and it was eventually converted into a nursing home. With the closure of the hospital, the closest hospital to the North side of St. Louis was located on Delmar Boulevard, but this hospital eventually closed as well. Now, the nearest hospitals are located in midtown and the Central West End, extending the distance required to travel to the nearest hospital in the event of an emergency. With confusing street barriers still present in some places, this travel time only further increases (a new 10 bed hospital was approved for the former Pruitt-Igoe site in late 2019 that may help with this issue, but it is one of many proposed developments for the site that may or may not materialize).
We can also look at access to schools. Like the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, Sumner High School on the North side of the city was one of the only places black people could get an education in the city of St. Louis. It is one of the only remaining school buildings on the North side of the city, and with the population of kids living in the city of St. Louis decreasing it is consistently on the verge of closure. In a country where property tax value largely determines school funding, it is extremely hard to continue providing a quality public education to all when wealth disparities are so severe.
We can also look at where basic stores serving everyday needs are found in the city of St. Louis. Much of the North side of the city is considered to be a food desert. People living roughly 15 minutes to the north of the Delmar Loop often travel another 15-20 minutes south of the Loop in order to buy groceries at Walmart in a suburb of the city (one of the shopping centers on the site of the previously mentioned Evans Howard Place). With a fairly limited transportation system (a metro that runs east-west across the center of the city and bus service), if you can’t drive or don’t own your own car this becomes challenging.
Perhaps the single most disgusting factor affected by the division between neighborhoods is the lack of respect some people have for other neighborhoods in the city. In many black neighborhoods on the North side, illegal trash dumping from outsiders is a persistent problem that is really challenging to address. At night, outsiders come in and dump trash on the streets and on empty lots in these areas, which is so outrageously disrespectful to the people who call those places home. Some local activists attempt to purchase security cameras to catch the illegal dumpers, but these can be costly. Similarly, with high numbers of abandoned houses, brick thieves sneak into these neighborhoods and collect bricks from these buildings. These are then sold to contractors and developers, as it is cheaper to build with previously manufactured bricks than new ones. Your house in Phoenix, Arizona or Dallas, Texas may be constructed with stolen materials from St. Louis. These brick thieves destabilize the structures of homes and make already dangerous abandoned buildings even more unstable. How can you expect a neighborhood to get ahead when outsiders treat it as if it’s a dumping ground?
All of this is made even more atrocious when you consider just how dedicated some of the residents of these neighborhoods are to improving quality of life. Community gardens on empty lots of now demolished homes are common and some of them are particularly incredible. There are many people dedicated to trying to make their home a better place to live, and some of the most generous and kind people I have met in St. Louis are from these neighborhoods, but they are not given the resources they need to truly thrive.
And while many storefronts are abandoned, there are small business people working to redevelop the empty spaces on shopping streets. Take the Wellston Loop as an example. In the past, it was very similar to St. Louis’s Delmar Loop. Both were sites of trolley lines and were important streets full of businesses and restaurants. With the closure of St. Louis’s streetcar system and the shift towards the automobile for transportation, both entered into a state of decline. However, the Delmar Loop was turned around largely due to a handful of important financial interests in the area (there is a wealthy neighborhood next to it, Washington University is a short walk away, and a local businessman named Joe Edwards turned the street around through a number of investments). Delmar now consists of a mixture of restored buildings and new construction. There are a handful of empty lots along with a handful of important historical landmarks. Today, the Wellston Loop is mostly made up of those empty lots and more historical buildings. The older buildings that remain contain some truly lovely spaces and are just waiting to be reused, the empty land looks a lot like the handful of remaining lots on Delmar do, and there are a handful of local businesses and investors still there. For example, there is Mom’s Soul Food Kitchen which is a delicious restaurant with black owners, a small furniture store called ACE Furniture which has some really nice and very reasonably priced furniture, and I think there is also a small local farmers market on weekends (I have now been back in DC for a few months, so I may be forgetting the location of the market). These businesses, and a handful of others, are scattered between some really beautiful remaining structures, such as the old J.C. Penny Building that are worth visiting to see and hopefully will someday be restored. It is really important that these remaining institutions continue to get support in order to preserve and begin to redevelop the area.
There are hundreds if not thousands of different places, stories, and pieces of history out there to learn about in St. Louis. I have left a lot of important parts of history out and I still have a lot left to learn myself, but the point of this whole piece is to strongly encourage everyone to be more curious. Every city in America and every community in America has some degree of segregation in it, and as a result we often know very little about areas not so far from the places we live. I will be the first to admit that I barely know about a lot of the history of my hometown of Washington DC. I probably know more about the history of St. Louis than I do DC, and when I am here (and while I am in St. Louis too) I definitely stick to a certain bubble. It is really important that we start to go out of our bubble and get to know other places because not only is that the first step to bridging the gaps and divisions between places but it also is incredibly rewarding. You can meet really incredibly people, visit some really cool places, and have experiences that you otherwise would not have had.
In addition to on a personal level starting to pop your bubble, it is really important to engage in your local community and figure out how to support the demolition of the barriers between places. To use another example from St. Louis, a wealthy neighborhood on the South side of the city called Lafayette Park borders up against the Clinton-Peabody housing project. Kids of Clinton-Peabody would go over to Lafayette Park and play basketball and this made some Lafayette Park residents uneasy. Some of the generally whiter and wealthier residents of Lafayette Park felt as if the kids from the neighboring area were dangerous, even though they were just kids having fun and doing no harm. Some advocated against removing the basketball court, but those who wanted it removed won the debate and it was taken down. Be one of the people advocating to let the kids play basketball and engage with your neighbors rather than keep them out.
Similarly, on a larger scale, I think it is really important to engage more in local politics. A town called Reston, not far from where I live in northern Virginia, is engaged in a debate on whether or not to allow additional dense buildings to be built. Reston is a unique suburb, as it was founded as an affordable and integrated community at a time when most suburbs were overwhelmingly white. It grew into a larger community and eventually the town center developed larger apartment buildings and shops. With this increased popularity, it has become less diverse and wealthier. An increase in density would bring more living units into the area, which would in turn hopefully make the community more affordable to everyone. It is really important to learn more about what may seem like boring topics such as zoning as they truly affect the way people live.
By looking at the details, we gain a better understanding of what’s going on. Learning about the history of our cities helps you understand what you see on a daily basis. Asking small questions like what was there before that shopping center, or looking at a building and asking what was there before, and why are there these small spikes on the ground in front of a business can reveal a lot about the places we inhabit. Understanding history is the first step towards making our communities better places to live for everyone.
Although a lot of this information comes from some of the classes I’ve taken in architecture and urban design, here are a few sources I’ve found that provided some supplemental information and are worth reading on their own:
The Racial Dot Map (You can view any city on it): https://demographics.virginia.edu/DotMap/
A Tale of Two Streetcar Lines via stlmag: https://www.stlmag.com/history/a-tale-of-two-streetcar-lines%3A-the-delmar-and-wellston-loops/
Evans-Howard Place via STL Public Radio: https://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/target-and-trader-joe-s-brentwood-african-american-neighborhood-was-there#stream/0
Disparities in Income and Poverty via St. Louis Post-Dispatch: https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/racial-disparities-in-income-and-poverty-remain-stark-and-in-some-cases-are-getting-worse/article_9e604fc3-c47d-581e-95a2-5a2166011a17.html
Lewis Place Neighborhood via St. Louis City Talk: http://www.stlouiscitytalk.com/posts/2010/06/lewis-place-neighborhood
The Enduring Impacts of Restrictive Covenants via St. Louis Post-Dispatch: https://www.stltoday.com/homes/market-news/the-enduring-impacts-of-restrictive-covenants/article_61f6e05a-23e1-11e8-878a-afb2fcda4058.html
Redlining’s Current Impact via the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/03/28/redlining-was-banned-50-years-ago-its-still-hurting-minorities-today/
Segregation in America via NPR: https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america
A couple of really good CityLab articles, which is a website I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to know more about urban design and some of the mentioned issues: