Saint Louis City’s Growth: Trickle-Down Urbanism?
A look at the latest American Community Survey data confirms that income growth in Saint Louis City has been lackluster for the past decade. Since 2005, median income growth has lagged inflation by 6 percent, indicating falling real wages. But at the same time, some are proclaiming the return of the city, with new developments on Washington Avenue, Ballpark Village, and the Central West End pointing to a bright future.
These contradictory accounts of the city’s performance point to a more complex reality, a tale of different populations and neighborhoods. The bad news is that wages are stagnant and the poor and middle class continue to leave the city. From 2005 to 2013, Saint Louis City households whose income was less than $75,000 per year (more than twice the city’s median income) fell by 7.8 percent. But the good news is that wealthy households (earning more than $100,000 per year) increased by 78 percent. Households earning $200,000-plus per year more than doubled over the same period.
But as the map below demonstrates, lower income residents are most predominant in North and South Saint Louis City, while the very wealthy are most populous in the central corridor. That means increasing growth where growth is most visible, and stagnation and decline where it is out of sight, out of mind.
Saint Louis City’s planning strategies may have contributed to this bifurcated outcome. We have written before about the city’s attempt to generate density, walkable neighborhoods, and a vital downtown through lopsided investments to the central corridor. The city also uses tax incentives to subsidize high-end living and entertainment districts. Instead of fostering economic opportunity, which draws residents who will generate local culture from the bottom up, the city instead will become an entertainment machine, which will draw the creative class, who in turn will create jobs.
Even where this upended model succeeds (and there is no guarantee of that), there are questions as to whether this actually helps middle-class or poor residents, or simply makes them former middle-class or poor residents. Urban “renewal” in boutique cities like New York City and San Francisco has resulted in a displacement of the poor and middle class and rapidly rising income inequality. Although Saint Louis City is not NYC, income inequality is rising quickly. From 2005 to 2013, the city’s median income fell from 75.3 percent to 69.6 percent of the city’s mean income, indicating an increasingly top-heavy income distribution. This trend, compared to that of Saint Louis County, is shown below:
If leaders focus on making the city a safe, affordable, and easy place to live and do business, it is possible Saint Louis City could enjoy an expansive resurgence. But as things stand, the city is pushing more publicly supported bar districts, luxury apartments, and expensive amenities to draw the rich into the city center and hope the wealth trickles down to the rest. For areas like North Saint Louis, that could be a long wait.