Thursday, June 16, 2016

St. Louis Population Loss During Modern Mayoral Terms

With Francis Slay recently announcing he will not run for re-election as Mayor of St. Louis, his four consecutive terms go down as the longest run in our city's history. Back in 2010 I gave the office of Mayor some thought and looking back at that post, for the most part, I still feel the same including the need for a new set of ideas and styles. The Democratic Party Mayors have largely failed if you use residency as the measure of success.

Do people want to live here or not? To me, that is the ultimate measure of a city's success. If it's a hopeful, growing, stable or improving place, people will move there. If hope is lost and the future does not look bright, people will leave. And in St. Louis, people have and continue to leave in droves, mostly for the 90 plus suburbs and small towns in St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jefferson County.

St. Louis has been losing population at a staggering rate since we ended our growth period in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Here are the numbers summarized on the St. Louis Wikipedia page that show the mass exodus of people out of St. Louis:


The reasons are complex and varied on how something like this can happen.  We have a city that was built for one million inhabitants, but we're down to 315,685 and dropping fast (source).

Now that Slay is exiting, I'm starting to read some accounts that praise Slay as a Mayor which make me a little skeptical if you use population as your measuring stick.

I'm not here to criticize though; I recognize that public service is a tough job. The professional and personal toll of being a politician must be exhausting. I respect Slay for being in office for so long and running successful campaigns for re-election. That is not easy.  But the fact remains that during the Slay years ~33,489 people up and left St. Louis during his tenure as our top leader; this is a staggering figure that should always be considered when opining on his legacy. It just blows my mind that we are losing this many people year after year. If the 33,489 people who left St. Louis made up its own city, it would be the 19th largest city in the state of Missouri.

Yet, it would be shallow to just point out the numbers of people who vacated during a single Mayor's term(s), without taking a look at the other modern-day Mayor's numbers. This is not intended to be a petty political shot, rather a quest to understand the history and trajectory for St. Louis during my lifetime.

So let's take a look at the data.

An assumption was made from the graph below; my data source was the United States Census Bureau, plotted out annually by Google. Since this graph only went back to 1970, I used the 1960 data and increased the 1960-1969 data in a linear fashion so I could estimate the population when Mayor Alfonso Cervantes took office in 1965. Meaning, those years will not be accurately represented. But you still get the gist of the population losses.
year by year 1970-2013 data plotted by Google

Here's how the numbers shake out for each Mayor from 1965 to 2014, sorted by the largest declines:



Why the massive drop from 2009 to 2010? Either there is an error in the data, or the rules were changed on how Census counts were estimated. But, you get the point...people are not picking up what these guys have been laying down...and this has been going on for over 60 years.

You know despite these negative numbers, I am still bullish on St. Louis. I've lived here for 22 years and, as a whole, quality of life in the city has gotten better. Sure, there are exceptions, but I still firmly believe there is reason for optimism and hope for the future.

But in order to steer the ship away from this exodus it is going to take leaders who can listen, compromise, think large, act independently and...um...lead. You know, inspire. People with an outsider perspective would be wonderful.

Let's hope someone runs that is interested in the entire city, someone that lives in a neighborhood that is racially and economically inclusive, someone that has lived the challenges of navigating the schools, someone who takes ownership of the harm that petty and violent crime have on our business community and our citizens. Someone that loves it here and cares as much as the devoted on the future of the city. It is now or never, right?

No more silver bullet stadium proposals! We need to focus on neighborhood growth. Jobs within the city's borders that hire new and existing people in the city. Make sure we subsidize and incentivize small and medium sized businesses at the same rates as the larger ones (my neighborhood restaurant has done more to raise my quality of life than the Rams ever did). We need someone who can see the big picture that recognizes our faults and makes every decision to get us one step closer to that goal. If you can articulate a vision and repeat it incessantly until all 315,685 of us know your goals, then we can appreciate the decisions that are made to march toward those goals...even if sometimes it feels like a compromise. We need to feel some wins. I'd prefer 1000 little wins vs. 10 big ones.

Best of luck to the next set of candidates for Mayor. It will be fun to watch the field of candidates unfold. We need as many people paying attention, reading, listening and making educated, careful and critical choices at the ballot box. And remember, if you don't live in St. Louis you can't vote in St. Louis. You are either part of the problem or the solution when it comes to things that matter like hiring leaders. Shooting your mouth off from the suburbs just doesn't cut it when it comes to real change. 

Here's to growth on the horizon and a brighter future that lets all these young people doing great things in our city not think they have to move to the burbs to live out their adult lives.

4 comments:

Adam said...

I think the sharp drop between 2008 and 2010 may have to do with St. Louis contesting the population numbers up until about the last census. Notice how the data shows a slight increase in population between about 2001 and 2010, which we know didn't actually happen. So if the numbers had been reported properly (i.e. not contested so as to artificially raise them) I think the data would show a gradual decline from ~2001 to 2010.

That said, I don't think it's accurate to say that St. Louis' population is still dropping fast. I mean, if a city were adding a few thousand people per decade we wouldn't say it was growing fast. And relative to the precipitous loss of the 70's (-27%) our current loss rate of <1% per decade is pretty flat.

I'm not a big fan of Slay, but I don't think one can judge a mayor's performance purely on growth, particularly when that mayor takes the helm of a sinking ship. It could be argued that Slay has successfully curtailed the rampant loss of the 70's and 80's (I'm not arguing that but someone could probably make such an argument). I do think it's time for Slay to step down, but I'm not at all encouraged by the candidates and potential candidates so far. That said, things are getting noticeably better in the city. There's a reasonably healthy rate of new construction and the residential stuff, at least, seems to filling up pretty quickly. Unfortunately job growth is still lacking, but a big part of that, I think, is our fractured region and the stifling competition between the city and county. I was recently depressed by an editorial in the PD essentially praising St. Louis as great place to start a business and then move it to one of the coasts—complete with quotes from Wash-U-graduated entrepreneurs saying "St. Louis was fine but I have no intention of living in the Midwest again." that's not going to do much for our job growth. sigh.

Anonymous said...

There are two big problems with the city that have been consistent over the period studied: (1) terrible schools, and (2) high crime rates.

My family and I lived in the St. Louis area twice, and neither time did we even consider buying in the city. We lived in Richmond Heights (Clayton schools) and then in Chesterfield (Parkway schools).

The city has a LOT to recommend it. But no parent would sacrifice his children's education and well-being just to live there.

For the record, there was bussing from the city into Parkway schools while our children were there, and we were fine with that. The hope was that inner city children could learn better in better school districts. It appears that that ideal was never realized for reasons that I don't completely understand. But while I was fine with bussing inner city children into the suburbs, I would have stenuously resisted bussing my children into the city schools (which never happened, and as far as I know was never even proposed.)

But the bottom line is (1) poor schools and (2) high crime. Why would anyone want to live there?

Tom said...

High crime and crummy schools. Who would want to live in the city for the past 60 years or so?

Mark Groth said...

I get trolled so rarely from county people on this site...thanks for imparting your ignorance of St. Louis on my website Tom and anonymous. I find uninformed comments like this from county people to be exhausting. You are either part of the problem or the solution and leaving comments like this from the burbs are part of the problem and do no good.