Mike Jones

Mike Jones, St. Louis American columnist and former St. Louis Alderman approves of reduction and modernization of St. Louis Board of Aldermen, Jan. 20, 2023.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen has started a new chapter in governmental and political history St. Louis. For the first time, 14 Alderpersons were sworn in as the board dropped from 28 members. The change was long overdue.

Back when I was a neophyte alderman in 1981, I thought Board membership should be reduced. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, I didn’t mention my feelings about the issue.

Strong advocates of governmental reform usually believe that a major culprit of dysfunction is inefficiency and ineffectiveness of governmental processes. This is both right and wrong. No entity uses the operating systems today that were structured the same way they were a hundred plus years ago except American governments.

The St. Louis region has existential problems, but no level of governmental reform or reorganization will solve them. 

The 1914 city charter date is significant because the way city government is structured hasn’t fundamentally changed in over 100 years. Even the most casual or uninformed observer would note the difference between the world of 1914 and the world in 2023.

At the beginning of the 20th century (1900), St. Louis was the 4th largest city in the United States with a population of 575,000. It was preparing to host the 1904 World’s Fair. By the end of the 20th century (2000) there were 270 million people in America, but St. Louis had fallen to 51st, with a population of 346,000. So, in those 100 years the country got 4 times bigger, while the city lost 40% of its 1900 population (226,000 people).

If you took a one-hundred-year nap, and woke up in the St. Louis region of 2000, your first question would probably be " where am I?” Followed by, “What the hell happened?”

For the first 50 years of the 20th century, St. Louis still had its mojo working. In 1950, St. Louis remained a major commercial and transportation center, home to the national and/or world headquarters of at least a dozen Fortune 500 companies. Downtown was the commercial and cultural hub of the region.

St. Louis had big city public infrastructure, functioning public transportation, two full service public hospitals along with a network of community-based public health clinics, and year-round citywide public recreation programs that supported the 100,000 plus public school students and their parochial school counterparts.

Passage of the earnings tax, which is considered by some to be an albatross that weighs down the city’s ability to attract and keep businesses, was championed by Civic Progress in 1953.

Here’s the caveat, while the population of St. Louis increased by almost 300,000 to 850,000, the country had doubled in size from 75 million to 150 million. Relative to the size of the country, St. Louis had gotten smaller. It went downhill from there.

If you were born here in 2000, say the grandchild of the person born here in 1950, or came to St. Louis in 2000, there’s no correlation between your St. Louis circumstances and someone born or who arrived in 1950.

You would have found St. Louis with a population of 346,000 and declining (current city population is 293,000), and a regional population that hasn’t changed in 70 years.

In 1950, the combined population of St. Louis city and St. Louis County was 1.26 million. In 2000 it was 1.36 million, and in 2020 it was 1.29 million. This is what stuck in neutral looks like.

Another important context is that the St. Louis of 1950 existed in a different America than the St. Louis of 2023. St. Louis circa 1950 was a major city in an emerging superpower, the world’s economic and political hegemony. As actor and director Mel Brooks said in History of the World Part I, “It’s good to be the king!”

St. Louis circa 2023 is no longer a major commercial center, and just as importantly, it’s in an America that’s beginning to lose its global economic and political hegemonic status. If post WW II America was the Rome of Augustus, then the MAGA America of today is clearly the Rome of Nero or Commodus.

St. Louis needs to be reimagined, before it can be redeveloped and revitalized. How and why St. Louis and the St. Louis region got here isn’t as important as recognizing and acknowledging this is where St. Louis is today.

You can’t afford the luxury of continuing to lament a lost past. “The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on. Nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line. Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.”

This emerging generation of St. Louis political leadership has inherited difficult questions that require hard answers and complex problems without obvious solutions. Unfortunately, it is what it is.

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