Cities and regions don’t stagnate and die by accident. It takes a lot of thought and purposeful action to take an area with world-class institutions and reduce it to irrelevance. St. Louis managed, though, through a century and a half of selfish decisions that were often racist, usually the brainchildren of the rich and powerful, and almost always greedy.
In the 1860s, magnates from the dying steamboat industry delayed a railroad bridge across the Mississippi, guaranteeing that rail and rapid growth moved to Chicago. In 1876, the City of St. Louis divorced itself from St. Louis County, kick-starting division and stagnation. In 1916, St. Louis mandated apartheid, declaring most of the city off-limits to black residents. In the 1940s and ‘50s, city whites fleeing de-segregation founded dozens of small county towns, zoned to keep black people out. In 1963, Gussie Busch stopped Disney from putting its first giant theme park outside of California in St. Louis because Disney refused to serve beer in its parks. St. Louis lost. Orlando won.
There are dozens of inflection points like that in St. Louis’ history. The result is a dying central city and a stagnant surrounding region where average incomes have fallen, well-paying jobs have largely vanished, and the best and brightest young people flee.
Regional leaders and politicos think that can be cured by eliminating all cities and towns in St. Louis County, merging the county with the city, and creating a new metro government for a new City of St. Louis that would stretch from Wildwood to Soulard. The new St. Louis would contain around 1.1 million people and would be the 10th largest city in the U.S.
According to the St. Louis Business Journal, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger are on board with the plan. So is right-wing billionaire Rex Sinquefield, who funded a group called Better Together. Better Together’s idea is that a unitary metro government, similar to successful ones in places like Nashville and Indianapolis, would save money, improve services, and achieve a critical mass that will get St. Louis off of life support.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, based solely on public policy and good governance.
Would a larger unified city be better able to tackle crime and poverty? Would more attention be paid to bombed-out, crime-ridden sections of North City? Would a new police force be more efficient and less racist? Would a city of a million-plus be better able to attract new talent and new jobs than a shrinking central city and a surrounding county with 88 (!) cities and towns? Would taxpayers’ costs be cut? Would more attention be focused on issues of inequality that boiled over during the Ferguson unrest? Can you trust anything that uber-Libertarian Sinquefield and his deep pockets are associated with?
This being St. Louis, though, you can bet questions of good governance will take a back seat to questions about power and race. Many white residents live in St. Louis County because they wanted to get away from black people in the city. They and their elected politicos will bleat about “local control” and “government close to the people,” when they’re actually saying “Eek! Negroes!”
Meanwhile, some black politicians in the city will oppose any uni-gov movement because, in the city, black folks make up half the population. In a uni-gov city/county, blacks would make up about 35 percent, roughly 390,000 of the 1.1 million total population. That’s a serious dilution of political power.
But before we have to start decoding what area residents and elected representatives actually mean when they open their mouths, we need to look at two relatively close cities and at what a uni-gov system did for them.
The New York Times recently called Nashville “the rising star among mid-sized American cities” and compared its success with the failures of shrinking, troubled Birmingham, Alabama over the same period. It was sad to read, simply because you could have inserted “St. Louis” for “Birmingham” anywhere in the article and it would have still been accurate.
In 1962, voters in Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee merged their governments. Initially skeptical politicians, black and white, were persuaded to endorse the merger. Fast-forward 57 years, and we find Nashville has the third-fastest growing economy of any American city. Former Nashville Vice-Mayor Jay West has written that the combined metro government was the secret sauce that allowed growth to happen.
“The main advantage is the ability to briskly respond to economic challenges that arise, as well as develop at a faster economic rate overall,” West wrote in a monograph for California’s Chapman University. “Without a consolidated government, there are typically issues with repetitive areas of government and multiple government operations simultaneously co-existing. This can be problematic.”
Eight years after Nashville merged with Davidson County, Indianapolis did the same with surrounding Marion County, Indiana. In 2014, a Baltimore non-profit called the Abell Foundation commissioned a report on uni-gov in Indianapolis since 1970.
The Abell report laid out a compelling economic case for the uni-gov concept. Researcher Jeff Wachter wrote, “The unified economic development operation and a broader vision for the city’s future fostered by consolidation helped prevent an economic decline and population exodus.”
The report concludes that “some of the benefits of consolidation might not have been dependent on unified government as much as a unified vision for the region’s future.”
Right now, of course, St. Louis has no such vision. We do have economic decline and population exodus. We have selfishness and parochialism. We have racism and small power fiefdoms. But a vision for the future? Nope.
The 9/11 Commission report concluded the U.S. was vulnerable to a terror attack because our leaders displayed “a failure of imagination.” That same failure that helped bring down the World Trade Center towers has brought down St. Louis, brick-by-brick, for decades.
Maybe St. Louis needs uni-gov. Maybe not. But we desperately need imagination, not more selfishness.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.