The making of America’s most dangerous city
About this blog: St. Louis has earned a dubious distinction again this year – named by U.S. News and World Report as the nation’s most dangerous city. What is it that puts St. Louis in the forefront of American crime? Adam Arenson looks to history for an answer. In his book, “The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War,” recently released by Harvard University Press, Arenson charts the quest of St. Louisans to make their city the cultural and commercial capital. But their efforts ultimately failed and decisions taken as far back as the Civil War have repercussions today, as Arenson, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso, reveals here.
U.S. News and World Report is out with another ranking of America’s most dangerous cities, using analysis from FBI crime data. And, once again, St. Louis has been ranked #1.
This is the sort of headline that provides fodder for late-night hosts and pundits: One colleague asked if it was the Mississippi River water; another suggested it was Albert Pujols’s salary demands. The notoriety will surely provide headaches for city officials, local tourism efforts, and the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce.
Yet at moments like these I am reminded of a maxim favored by of one of St. Louis’s famous residents, Mark Twain: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
This is pretty evident for the city where I teach; another recent ranking placed El Paso as the second-safest large city in the United States, a statistic that surely did not take into account the extreme suffering of Ciudad Juárez, “the murder capital of the world,” just across the Rio Grande, where more than 3,000 people were killed in 2010.
And I think about how St. Louis’s problems, both real and computational, can be traced back to the city’s Civil War years. As my new book argues, St. Louis’s leaders were some of the first to grasp the possibilities of the rising American West to reshape the politics, economics, and culture of a newly continental United States, and the city’s leaders saw western aims as the way to get beyond the deepening conflict between North and South.
Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri’s longtime senator, envisioned the time when the transcontinental railroad would be “a band of Iron, hooping and binding the States together east and west … a cement of union north and south.” From the Golden Spike to Route 66 to Hollywood and the rise of the Pacific Rim, the bounty of the American West did come to command the national priorities in the 20th century — but St. Louis, despite its early investments in the cause, was left behind.
Why, and what does it have to do with the city’s current ranking as the nation’s most dangerous? Despite the early embrace of railroads, St. Louis suffered delays and disasters while Chicago’s lines steamed ahead; despite nearly bloodless Civil War years, the city suffered during Reconstruction from the obstructionist policies of former slaveholders.
Finally and most significantly, the city embraced home rule in the 1870s, emancipating the city of St. Louis from its county but hemming itself in between the Mississippi River and Illinois on one side, and a new, independent St. Louis County on all other sides.
In the age of the automobile, and then the racially restrictive housing covenant, the county grew prosperous while the city withered, losing one hundred thousand residents each decade between World War II and the turn of the millennium. Once the fourth-largest city in the nation, St. Louis has slipped to 52nd, with a population about the same today as when my book ends, in 1880.
The primary cause of St. Louis’s “undercrowding,” its disappearing tax base, and its rising crime rate is that city-county split, more than a century ago, and the middle-class flight that followed. Within a decade of celebrating their home rule, St. Louis officials sought to combine again with their county, and annex new, prosperous communities — an effort they have tried again and again ever since, to no avail.
Over the years that St. Louis shrunk, the county grew and grew. As a bi-state metropolitan region, St. Louis ranks eighteenth in the country, and the population was up five percent in the last decade, just below San Diego and above Tampa Bay. The city has problems today, including crime — ones that the whole region needs to address. But in this case, the damn lie of the statistics hides the city’s far more important urban and Civil War history.
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