St. Louis mayor

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 (



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 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.

St. Louis Mayors 1949 to Present

St. Louis seems to have a weak mayoral political structure. The Board of Aldermen seem to call most of the shots and aldermanic courtesy is alive and well (i.e. you stay outta my business, I'll stay outta yours). I'm sure this has some positives, but I'd prefer the thought of a strong mayor with some chutzpah and a 2 party system with Republicans running against Democrats, at a minimum; or better yet, independents or 3rd party candidates running for office.  I don't like the idea of completely getting rid of party affiliation, as I think a 2 party system at least gives the voters 2 chances to unseat the incumbent (first in a primary, and then in the general election). 

But let's face it, there aren't many Republicans running for city offices in St. Louis, it's a one horse race in many wards.  To the best of my knowledge, there's only one Republican on the entire BOA (Fred Heitert in the 12th ward). 

We haven't had a Republican mayor since 1949.  The downfall of the city's population started right around that time and was owned by the Democrats ever since then.  Now, I'm not so naive as to believe the political affiliation of the mayor is why we lost over 1/2 our population in 50 years; but maybe we're due for a change of party/uni-party structure.  I'd like to vote for a mayor in the coming years with some vision.  Someone that can appeal to my fiscal conservative leanings (don't give money away to projects and people that don't give back, or build toward a stable future); yet, intimately in tune with what city living means to those that have chosen to live here in the darkest times, and would consider St. Louis as their home or business location in the near future.  A candidate who can lead/influence changes to zoning, crime, racism on the north side, south and city hall, nepotism, historic tax credits, long range planning, cleaning up the crappiest neighborhoods in the city.  I wish we had a candidate who would call out the public schools that give STL a bad reputation and why and know which schools are actually performing well, and why and speak to the fact that the system isn't completely broken, but some bad apples need to be tossed out and replaced.

There are a couple things I've seen in my days that have transformed St. Louis as a region.  The Great Rivers Greenway River Ring and historic tax credits immediately come to mind.  These are two voter/politician initiatives that make complete sense to me on all levels.  How can you argue against these? 

I wish we had a mayor that was a prominent voice for change in the same vein as the above mentions.  A strong personality with a powerful agenda to get this city headed in the right direction. In my days in St. Louis, we've had Freeman Bosley Jr., Clarence Harmon and Francis Slay....all 3 St. Louis bred politicians.  Our history of mayors indicates a strong tendency toward insiders and locals. 

I'd like to see some fresh blood, an outsider's perspective, and outside looking in take.  Someone with the energy and blind optimism of the promise of the city could go a long way in changing hearts and minds on the region.  I think our history of negativity since the post-1950's really drags us down.  I feel a sense of "can't-do" in a lot of the old timers and long time residents' speak.  I don't feel this as much in the fresh blood.

In our long history, we've had 45 mayors:  21 Democrats, 13 Republicans, 6 Whigs, 3 Independents and 2 Know-Nothings (huh?):

The Know-Nothing movement was a nativistAmerican political movement of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholicimmigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant males of British lineage over the age of twenty-one. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and entirely Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery. Most ended up joining the Republican Party by the time of the 1860 presidential election.[1][2]
The movement originated in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party. It spread to other states as the Native American Party and became a national party in 1845. In 1855 it renamed itself the American Party.[3] The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply, "I know nothing."  SOURCE

The French settled this town, Germans and Irish Catholics built this city, what the hell did the British do for St. Louis?  I don't get the paranoia; yet, I assume it stems from the Catholic vs. Protestant thing more than the lineage thing.

Anyhow, I wish we had a mayor with some drive and vision. The 3 that I've witnessed in my time as a resident haven't provided me with the confidence that the ship has been turned in the right direction.

I think we need bold action so we can all enjoy a better St. Louis in our lifetimes.

I always kind of admired Rudy Giuliani for his ability to clean up Manhattan. Although, many New Yorkers dissed him for this very same reason. He's got his flaws, no doubt, but you have to admit, Manhattan is a pretty safe and nice place to be.  Anyone who has spent some time in large swaths of north city and pockets of south city would have to admit that there are parts of St. Louis that could use a firm hand and cooperation from the Feds to get rid of negative elements in some of our worst neighborhoods. Bad guys are doing business in broad daylight in some very obvious parts of town.  There are thugs, unlicensed drivers, brick thieves, copper pirates, dealers and just plain assholes being assholes in many parts of town.  These people drag the entire city down in reputation and perception, etc.  The cops know this, the city knows this, yet we allow it to happen.  We've allowed the bad guys to win or have their way for years, and it displaces honest and decent residents while further draining these areas of hope and positivity.  Don't just take my word for it, read the writing on the wall in the Ville on what some of the locals think of their stomping grounds:

Notice the "We shut shit down" comment.  Name me any rational, decent human being that wants these guys doing business in their neighborhood.  A little Giuliani/Elliott Ness-like firmness might be nice in this town and go a long way toward making St. Louis a better place to live.

There are many, many other things that the mayor could be stronger on besides crime, leadership and vision.

The mayor is a figurehead for the signs of the times as well as the big decisions that are made and the big events that happen under his administration's term(s).

But, the focus of this post is to look at who was driving the bus during the INSANE exodus of people out of ole St. Lou. Let's not think about the good times when America was a powerhouse and our cities were strong and growing. Let's start with the 1950's when the personal automobile, rise of middle class wages, desegregation and the suburb booms came into play. 

Let's start with some population facts:

We should never forget the fact that we lost 508,607 St. Louisians from our peak to the last census count of 2000.  That is a major failure.  The worst decade in St. Louis history was 1970-1980 when we had a 27% loss of residents.  The 70's in St. Louis must have sucked.  Think about it, nearly a third of the population bolted in that 10 year span. Who had the keys to the bus at the onset of the 1970's?  It was none other than Alfonso Cervantes who steered the ship from 1965 - 1973, he served 2 terms!!!  People said "thumbs up!,  great job!" as the mass exodus was underway.  So what was going on during the Cervantes admin?  Here's what I could find:

Three of Cervantes' greatest contributions were in the fields of race relation, crime-fighting, and city finance.
While other cities suffered through race riots, the peace was kept in St. Louis. Mayor Cervantes met with and talked at length with African-American leaders. African-Americans were added to City government positions and 95 were appointed to City commissions.
Cervantes took the lead to get the City Aldermen to pass crime-fighting legislation. A Commission on Crime and Law Enforcement was created. Pawnshop owners were required to photograph customers and record the identity of sellers. Voters were convinced to pass a one per cent sales tax to put policemen on horseback in the parks. Car thefts were reduced by his 'lock it and pocket the key' program.
In finance Mayor Cervantes was successful in getting a $2,000,000 bond issue passed for completion of the Arch and grounds. This was necessary to get $6,000,000 in Federal aid. A $15,000,000 bond issue for street lighting and a juvenile center was passed in 1972 after he found ways to pay off the bonds without increasing the property tax. Business taxes and convention revenue were the answer.
Other successes during his two terms included establishment of Night Housing Court, organization of a Business Development Commission to help keep businesses in the City and bring in new ones along with setting up the Area Office of Aging, Beautification Commission, and Citizens Service Bureau to handle complaints. A Land Re utilization Authority was created to take over vacant properties and group them for re-use.
Mayor Cervantes failed in his attempt to get a new airport started in an area south of East St. Louis. He thought this would be a great benefit to the City and downtown St. Louis, but the proposal stirred up so much controversy in St. Louis County and Jefferson City that it helped lead to his defeat for a third term in 1973. Source

But maybe the writing was on the wall in 1973 when John Poelker took over and served from 1973-1977.

In the 1973 primary election, John H. Poelker defeated James F. Conway and Mayor Alfonso Cervantes, who was seeking a third term for the Democratic Party nomination. He defeated Republican Joseph L. Badaracco, former President of the Board of Aldermen, by more than 18,000 voles on April 3, 1973.
On becoming Mayor, Mr. Poelker worked with the Board of Aldermen to create the Community Development Agency (1974). It replaced the former City Plan Commission, Municipal Business Development Commission, and the Beautification Commission. Additional neighborhood development was undertaken by the Community Development Agency. Construction of the new Convention Center on the near North Side was begun after changes in financing were made as a result of a bond issue election. A new Port Development Commission was also established during the Poelker.
The city's re-entry into the county was discussed frequently in Mayor Poelker's term. In August 1976 the Mayor said, 'There is a limit to the number of things that you can do. It is not anticipated that re-entry would solve the city or the county's problems.'
The city had a $6,500,000 budget surplus as he left office. The surplus was mainly the result of unspent federal revenue-sharing funds that the city received. 

Something tells me not much happened under the Poelker admin...maybe he was the Harmon of his time.

He only served 1 term and was replaced by James Conway from 1977-1981.

Mayor Conway obtained a $15,000,000 Federal grant opening the way for a $150,000 May Department Stores Shopping Mall. Legislation enabling construction of new downtown office buildings was guided through the Board of Alderman.
Col. Leonard Griggs, Air Force Retired, was brought in to head the Airport.
Comptroller Percich and the Mayor differed on interpretations of the City Charter. As a result, lawsuits and threats of lawsuits were brought by the Mayor. He did gain control over spending $35,000,000 in Federal Community Development block grants, in a bout with the Board of Aldermen.
Mayor Conway succeeded in getting the $25,000 city salary limit removed from the charter. In the primary election of August 5, 1980, the voters approved this amendent to the City charter. Duplication of services at City and Homer Phillips Hospitals concerned Mayor Conway. His movement toward changing the role of Phillips Hospital occupied much of his time. Consolidating most hospital services at City Hospital led him into conflict with residents from the City's north side. The transfer of patients and equipment from Phillips to City Hospital came in 1979.
Conway had more problems with north side residents when he recommended the construction of the long considered North-South Distributor Highway  brought controversy with North Side residents. These conflicts were largely responsible for the delayed budget ordinance for the year 1979/80. This budget was passed by the Alderman eight months after the start of the fiscal year.
Mayor Conway sought control over the Police Department budget, as had former Mayors. Since 1861 the City police have been under State control but with the city paying the bill. Mayor Conway did not succeed in having this changed by the 1980 legislature.

Sounds like Conway had a rough go with the north siders.  I guess the north/south, us/them thing was alive and well during Conway's term, and he upset the applecart a bit.

Things were pretty bad in the 1980's too.  We lost 12% in both the 80s and 90s.  Vincent Shoemehl ran the show for 3 consecutive terms.

When he took office in 1981, Vincent Schoemehl was one of the City's youngest mayors. He was interested in historic preservation and urban design. Schoemehl worked to save the Cupples Warehouses from demolition. Mayor Schoemehl was interested in good urban design and rehabilitation of St. Louis. His administration promoted 'public-private partnerships' that led to more than 600 successful rehabilitation projects.
Schoemehl also formulated the idea of Operation Brightside, a beautification program reflected in cities around the county. Schoemehl led the effort to plant millions of daffodils in the City, as well as a variety of urban clean-up and planting programs.
Schoemehl worked to transform the office of mayor from a 'weak mayor' system into a political powerhouse. In 1992, Schoemehl was defeated by then Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan in his bid to become Missouri's Governor.

That actually doesn't sound too bad.

Then came Freeman Bosley Jr:

After winning the April 6, 1993 election by 66.5% of the vote, Freeman R. Bosley Jr. became the first African-American Mayor of St. Louis. Early in Bosley's administration, he oversaw the battle against the Flood of 1993. He helped to orchestrate the $70 million bailout of Trans World Airlines. He also help moved the Rams football team to St. Louis from California. Two property tax increases were passed during the Bosley Administration. 

Clarence Harmon:

Mayor Harmon portrayed himself as a non-politician in City Hall, restoring honesty and dignity to City Hall. Mayor Harmon worked to stabilize neighborhoods which increased property values. He reorganized the city ambulance services and health services for the poor. He encouraged housing developments and a convention center hotel.

and our current mayor Francis Slay:

During the first year of his administration Slay worked to win aldermanic support for a new Cardinals baseball stadium and a revitalization plan for the Old Post Office district.  He also worked on city redistricting, Washington Avenue improvements project, and health care for the uninsured.

Every decade has been pretty bad since the 1950's. So maybe the worst mayoral administration should be recognized as the Joseph Darst era when the bleeding began....but he only served 1 term due to his death in 1953.  However, the "urban renewal" policies and the institution of the earnings tax during the Darst administration were very damaging to the city:

Darst was elected mayor of St. Louis in April 1949. Darst was a proponent of urban renewal through slum clearance and the construction of large scale affordable public housing. This approach to urban renewal has been criticized by later generations of urban planners and theorists such as Jane Jacobs. During Darst's time as Mayor, approximately 700 public housing units were completed. When he left office, an additional 17,000 units were under construction and 4,000 were in the planning stages. Although he was initially opposed to a City earnings tax, Mayor Darst came to believe it was necessary for the City's finances to remain stable. He successfully lobbied the Missouri Legislature to pass legislation enabling the earnings tax.  Source

The next mayor, Raymond Tucker, served 3 consecutive terms from 1953-1965.

Mayor Tucker ran for re-election successfully in 1957. He backed the proposed City Charter that was defeated August 6, 1957. The increase in the Earnings Tax from one-half percent to one percent became effective August 1, 1959. He opposed the Metropolitan District Plan of 1959 and the Borough Plan of 1962; each would have restructured the relationship between St. Louis City and St. Louis County. He became president of the American Municipal Association (now the National League of Cities) in 1959 and headed the United States Conference of Mayors from December 1963 to April 20, 1965. The City Charter was amended in August 1960 to raise the City salary limit from $10,000 to $25,000. In 1956, the Mayor had appointed a committee of building industry people to draw up a new Building Code, which he signed into law on March 31, 1961.
In April 1961, Tucker was elected to a third term as Mayor. Significant civil rights legislation was passed in the City during this time, including the Public Accommodations Ordinance in 1961 and Fair Employment legislation in 1963.
In March 1965, during his bid for an unprecedented fourth term as mayor, Tucker lost to Alfonso J. Cervantes in the Democratic primary.  Source

Man, it's easy to be re-elected in this town.  Lose ~20% of the residential base?  No problem....he's a good guy.  Maybe his opposition to the Borough Plan was the beginning of the end for St. Louis vs. St. Louis County.  Who knows.

Looking back at St. Louis' massive population loss, one could conclude that Francis Slay is the best mayor we've had in the last 51 years. He's still weak, but he's the best in my short time living here (Bosley??? Harmon???).  As I mentioned before, the massive population decrease from St. Louis really started post WWII. I realize the automobile, school deseg/cross-town busing which got rid of the "neighborhood school" philosophy which valued residential property near schools, racial upheaval and social pressures contributed as well; but govt. policies had to play into it as well.  Does the mayor have anything to do with all this?  I think so, at least on the surface.  To me the mayor won't make me stay or leave St. Louis...I'm one of the committed. I'll be here no matter what.  But, I think the mayor's actions/policies can be a regional measure of STL confidence or pride.  If there is constant corruption and scandal, it makes the city look even worse.  If he is inept or idling on the sidelines, he appears weak.  I think a strong mayor with vision and good collaboration skills between white/black, city/county and city/metro east would go a long way toward drawing more people to the city.

Anyhow, if you use population trends as an indicator of success/failure, Slay could use a numeric increase as a big political move.  I hope to see an increase in St. Louis' population when the 2010 U.S. Census data is published.  Will Mayor Slay and his admin take credit for this?  Would you if you were in his shoes?  I'd at least try to parlay it into a positive spin for my work and direction the city is headed.  It seems reasonable, and I wouldn't blame him for it.

Either way, it's quite possible that 348,000 people was rock bottom for a city the size of St. Louis.  Maybe Slay just got elected at the right time.

However it all plays out, I hope to see St. Louis elect a mayor or at least field some candidates that have vision to take us to the next step.  We hit rock bottom....we (may) have a slight increase in it's time to take control and make St. Louis a place that is a national draw as opposed to a just a regional draw.