Is St. Louis the next Detroit? (Not in my view)
As first appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on August 16, 2013:
When the St. Louis Cardinals played the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series, the whole nation was watching (it captured an astounding 57 percent of television viewers) and both cities — as well as both teams — were looking good. Detroit was still the unchallenged auto capital of the world, and St. Louis was home to a dozen of the nation’s biggest and best-known companies.
Since then, the two baseball teams have fared better than their cities. When they met again in the 2006 World Series, the rest of the nation yawned — 83 percent of viewers tuned out. Who cared about a baseball rivalry in two dying cities in flyover country?
From 1950 to 2010, Detroit’s population dropped from about 1.8 million to 714,000 — a 61.4 percent decline. Over the same period, St. Louis City dropped from 857,000 residents to 319,000 – a 62.7 percent decline.
Think of Detroit as a larger St. Louis — more than twice the size in area as well as population. Drive through north St. Louis and you see block after block of abandoned and boarded-up buildings; drive through Detroit and it is mile after mile of the same. It is the Empty Quarter of cityscapes — which partly explains why it takes an hour for Detroit’s police to respond to a 911 call.
Detroit leads the nation’s cities in violent crime, followed by Oakland and St. Louis. According to FBI statistics, your chances of being the victim of a violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, and assault) are not a whole lot less in St. Louis City than they are in Detroit. The incidence of such crimes is only 13 percent lower in St. Louis than Detroit. I worked in Detroit from 1976 to 1982 as a reporter and anchor at WXYZ-TV. Coleman Young was the city’s first black mayor, notorious for playing the race card (though most white politicians were no better). I once asked him about his girlfriend’s exorbitant salary as the administration’s PR person. That night, the station ran his response — an expletive-filled rant accusing me of racism for even raising the question. Later, many city employees — both black and white — thanked me for spotlighting the mayor’s favoritism.
Lee Iacocca took over a struggling Chrysler in 1978 and refused to meet union demands to match GM and Ford wage rates at $18 an hour. He told the union: “At $13 an hour, you can have 20,000 workers . . . at $18, you’ve got zero.” He understood the Big Three were on thin ice.
After 13 years anchoring and reporting at KSDK in St. Louis, I returned to Detroit for a year in 1999 at WDIV TV. I was astonished at how much worse the city looked. Gone were the well-kept, middle-class neighborhoods. The drugs and violence were so bad that city cops often would ride four to a squad car.
Therein, I think, is a principal difference between Detroit and St. Louis. Things in St. Louis never reached the same pitch of hopelessness.
St. Louis experienced its biggest out-migration of people in the 1980s, when the population fell 27.2 percent. From 2000 to 2010, the city’s population was down just 8 percent.
By contrast, Detroit’s population over the last decade fell a stunning 24.9 percent.
So, no, I do not think that St. Louis City is following Detroit down the road to ruin — or to bankruptcy, either. In a recent column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dave Nicklaus pointed out that with slightly more than twice the population of St. Louis, Detroit has six times as much debt.
What’s more, St. Louis has not experienced a massive breakdown in vital services. Far from taking an hour to respond to a call , St. Louis police, on average, are at a crime scene in 10.32 minutes. And where Detroit police cleared only 11.3 percent of murders and 12.7 percent of reported rapes through arrests in 2011, St. Louis police cleared 66.4 percent and 71.8 percent of such crimes, respectively.
Though far from perfect, St. Louis City still works for most people. Many old neighborhoods are flourishing again. Let’s hope that we are on the cusp of a real turnaround in the city’s fortunes.
Rick Edlund is the communications director at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.