Whatever the decisions black communities make are a function of the options available at the time. Other than climate and geography, nothing defines what options are available more than economics.
When you think about the economy of a city, you really need to deal with the economics of the region in which the city is located. The fate of St. Louis has always been and will continue to be a function of the economic strength and vitality (or lack thereof) of the St Louis region.
A metropolitan statistical area (MSA) is a rather imprecise but commonly accepted way of looking at metropolitan areas. An MSA is defined to include not only a city, but also surrounding suburban, exurban and sometimes rural areas, all of which have an economic relationship. I want to use this matrix to illustrate that the economic and social wellbeing of the black community is often a function of forces completely beyond its control. Or, as I have previously stated, what happens to you is in large measure about where it happens to you.
Atlanta is city we’ve talked about my entire four-decade public career. Invariably, we say something like, “How come we’re not like the black community in Atlanta?” or “if white folks here where like white folks in Atlanta, this would be a different place.”
Let’s look at Atlanta and its MSA. In 1950 the population of the City of Atlanta was 331,000, and the Atlanta MSA population was 997,000. The city’s population peaked in 1970 at 497,000 but declined to 394,000 in 1990. Today Atlanta’s population is 420,000, but here is the number that matters: The Atlanta MSA is 5.7 million people in approximately 8,300 square miles. The population of the entire state of Missouri is 6.1 million.
If you notice, Atlanta’s peak population was half the size of St. Louis’s peak population, and during the 1980s and 1990s Atlanta also experienced population decline. But the Atlanta MSA during that period remained one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Atlanta today is not appreciably bigger than St. Louis; both represent a small percentage of their MSA’s population, Atlanta 7 percent and St Louis 11 percent.
Let’s summarize. As of 2010, the population of the St. Louis MSA was 2.8 million and covered 8,400 square miles, the exact same size as Atlanta with half the people. In 1950, the St. Louis MSA had a population of 1.7 million; today it has grown by 58 percent while the Atlanta MSA has grown five-fold since 1950.
The driver for this explosive growth was the increase in people moving to the Atlanta region, and that changed Atlanta. When a region experiences large sustained in-migration, it forces a change in the regional culture. These new residents bring a different history and different experiences that the existing regional culture must accommodate, and that changes the place and the people. There’s some truth to the statement about Atlanta having different white people. These newcomers’ integration with the Atlanta they found created the Atlanta we see today.
The lack of sustained in-migration in St. Louis means almost everybody here has always been here. In 1950, this was a culturally and politically conservative, racially backward metro region. In 2018, St. Louis is pretty much the same place it’s always been, minus the economic muscle.
Political leadership makes a difference, but it cannot create reality. The late Maynard Jackson was a brilliant politician and a transformational mayor; his tenure became the standard by which black mayors are measured. But the black community in Atlanta is what it is today because Maynard Jackson had the intelligence, grit and skill to take advantage of the hand circumstances dealt Atlanta. St. Louis has not produced a Maynard Jackson, and, if we had, he would not have had Atlanta’s cards.
But we are also not the same people we used to be.
To be continued.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weekly by the Missouri Press Association.