As black families who can afford to move continue to leave the North Side, and as younger, more affluent, college-educated whites continue to trickle into the Central Corridor and parts of the South Side, the moment demographers have been predicting came sometime last year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, St. Louis ceased being a majority-black city sometime in 2018.
The Census Bureau now estimates that the population of the city is now made up of 146,672 white people and 137,802 black people. The “white” figure also includes Latinos and mixed-race people who identify as white, but once updated figures are published in a few months, it seems clear that non-Latino, non-mixed-race white people will be the single biggest population group in the city.
As it sits now, the city is 47.2 percent white, and 46.5 percent black. The influx of younger whites hasn’t stopped the city’s population loss. It’s merely slowed it. Between 2010 and 2017, the city lost another 3.4 percent of its population. And most of those leaving were, and still are, African-American, leaving the bombed-out, bullet-riddled hellscape of parts of North City for North County, where at least buildings still stand, and there are supermarkets and drug stores a short drive away.
Even though the diaspora rate has slowed slightly, it still seems a good bet that by the time the 2020 census rolls around, St. Louis will drop below 300,000 population for the first time since 1864. But with the rate of loss slowing down, it’s also a good bet that the city’s population could stabilize at around 280,000, and then possibly start increasing again. That, of course, is a guess.
What’s not guesswork is that the city has actually become three cities. Much of the North Side is pockets of residents trying to keep their blocks and neighborhoods intact despite the wreckage left behind by racism, redlining, and disinvestment.
The South Side is mostly intact, and more-or-less stable. Gentrified neighborhoods are just blocks from dilapidated structures where low-income residents struggle to pay next month’s rent.
The Central Corridor is booming mini-Seattle, with tech, research, shops, restaurants, new development, housing, Cortex, and a $300 million investment from Washington University.
And the figures are pretty clear about what’s happening among the three cities. An exodus of African-Americans from both the North and South sides is driving much of St. Louis’s population loss. The decline is being slowed, and may stabilize and even reverse, because of mostly white, 25- to 34-year-old professionals with college or graduate degrees who are moving in, largely due to the Central Corridor’s boom.
As a (relatively) low-income black population is slowly replaced by a (relatively) affluent white population, we need to ask a number of public policy questions:
What’s driving African-Americans out? Mostly crime, and fear for their children’s safety.
Why is the influx overwhelmingly white? Unlike Atlanta, St. Louis is a magnet for neither the black upper-middle class nor black entrepreneurs. Young whites with degrees see a chance to succeed in a city where the cost of living remains low. (Unfortunately, that’s due to supply and demand. Still, not too many people want to live in St. Louis, so housing remains affordable.) Yet, because of the St. Louis area’s well-documented history of racism, many young African-Americans with degrees avoid us.
What does this mean for the city’s schools? Unfortunately, the enrollment decline will probably continue. Affluent young whites will either leave the city once they have kids, or enroll them in charter or magnet schools. Couple that with a declining black population, and you have a school system struggling with declining enrollment, and a student population that’s often homeless, sometimes malnourished, and almost always on the bottom of the income scale.
What about St. Louis’s famously high gun-related, violent-crime rate? Since poverty is the number one driver of crime, one might expect the crime rate to drop as the city becomes more affluent. We’re a long way from that, and violent crime remains the number one concern for the entire city, North and South side.
Is St. Louis becoming gentrified? As a whole, no. Given the huge amount of vacant housing, and affordable homes and apartments, the city would probably have to double in population before that becomes an issue.
Does this mean the city’s decades-long decline will bottom out? If you mean population, probably. If you mean jobs that match the skills of city residents, no. The new jobs in tech and finance require skills, and degrees.
The city’s changing right under our noses. Slowly, because it’s St. Louis, but changing. We’ll see if that’s a good thing.