Benign Neglect Part II: Letting our neighborhoods die

Benign Neglect Part II: Letting our neighborhoods die

ST. LOUIS – The Team Four plan, as it is best known, is viewed by many as a blueprint for “benign neglect.” Those who framed it would argue it was one way of tackling a situation for which there was no palatable solution.

Whatever your definition, there are some clear facts.

The plan did call for the identification of areas in the worst shape, and suggested expending as few resources as possible in those areas. The plan was commissioned by the Board of Aldermen in the wake of two board bills that called for largely the same thing. Those bills never passed, and neither did any legislation based on the Team Four report.

So if the decay and decline on the north side of St. Louis was not actually legislated, how did it happen? After all, much of today’s north St. Louis looks like the result of the “benign neglect” the plan was accused of promoting.

As it turns out, mandates were not needed to basically follow the plan, which called on the cash-strapped city to take resources out of those poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods and focus them elsewhere.

Bob Lewis, a current St. Louis University professor and former Team Four consultant, says that the plan essentially was implemented and that it all happened, largely, because of math. Even without legislation, city policy and private development were going to naturally gravitate toward areas that provided the most potential “bang for the buck.” Very few of those financially promising areas were in African-American neighborhoods.

“So, I can understand the emotions that came out of reading the policies recommended in that ’74 plan and can understand even to this day why they’re still hanging around,” Lewis said, “partly because it’s still general policy anyway, whether anybody is acknowledging it or not.”

Colin Gordon wrote the book “Mapping Decline,” which documents the erosion of north St. Louis, among other places, over the last five decades. He says the concepts in the plan are far from unique to St. Louis.

“Team Four is typical of what a lot of cities did at the time,” Gordon told us. “We don’t have money to buy up the land. We don’t have the money to put anything in its place. What can we do?”

Read the “Team Four” plan here.

He noted that as the years went on in the 1970s and beyond, St. Louis’ problems were not changing, and much of what Team Four had described was still evident. Those “depletion areas” the plan had discussed were still viewed as lacking a financial future, not so much because they were black as because they were poor.

“No one really wants to accommodate the poor,” Gordon observed. “They just want a better use of the land the poor are occupying. They want better tax revenue out of it and higher use.

“So you’re really talking about a distribution of resources within a metropolitan area. So that makes the idea of planning for decline on a local basis a little more obnoxious. A little more racially tinged. The idea that you’re going to allow some neighborhoods to die and even withdraw services.”

Asked whether, as some critics argue, the plan was a racist undertaking, Gordon stops short.

“I don’t think it was racially motivated, but I think it reflected a deeply racist pattern of private and public policy that created the problem in the first place.”

In other words, these areas became poor to begin with because of policies of racism that date back not years, but centuries.

Retired Third Ward Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. believes the north side was a target long before Team Four.

“Oh, they tried to kill that north St. Louis a long time ago,” he said.

Bosley, now well into his 80s, has firsthand memories of what he believes were racially motivated attacks on north city.

“Certain areas of the city, particularly those south of Delmar, the building inspectors would go check those buildings out,” Bosley remembers. “But between Delmar and St. Louis Avenue, they just let that go to hell in a handbasket because they knew at one time or another that would run down to a point they could come in there, not necessarily through eminent domain, that the properties would get so bad that the city could just take them over.

“People that had money that were up in this area between Delmar and Martin Luther King, Kingshighway, those people moved out.”

So, by the time those board bills tied to the Team Four plan came and went, poor neighborhoods in St. Louis, particularly on the north side, were mostly black and had been that way for years. And although those people were able to mobilize politically to stop the aldermen from implementing the plan as law, the residents could guard against its concepts for only so long.

“People go on with their daily life,” longtime activist Percy Green said. “They can’t afford to sit there and constantly watch what the city is doing 24/7.”

And as the ’70s turned into the ’80s and ’90s, city leaders – a little bit at a time and perhaps without fulling realizing it – were doing exactly what Team Four had proposed: taking resources away from areas already in the worst shape.

Some describe it as urban triage. Others call it benign neglect.

“It certainly wasn’t intended to deprive them of city services, police protection, garbage collection, fire protection, building enforcement and so forth,” Lewis said. “It’s more the re-investment side of things, taking community development monies for example, because we can leverage on strengths that are nearby.”

And Gordon said the same policies actually became “fashionable” a few years after it stirred controversy in St. Louis.

“One of the ironies of Team Four is, much of what they argued became very popular a generation later when smaller industrial cities like Youngstown and Dayton started adopting what they called ‘Smart Decline’ strategies. They said, ‘Look, we’re not going to get any more population. We have this blighted, largely abandoned part of the city, let’s turn it into a park.’”

But there are plenty who believe the racial element of this was not an accident or oversight. Green is of that mindset.

“They must have also realized that blacks were enormously discriminated against in terms of employment and jobs and bank loans and things of that nature that would allow for any group of people to be able to maintain and keep things up,” he said.

And so, like a sort of death by a thousand cuts, the downward slide of many north side  neighborhoods continued with little apparent hope of change.

That’s until the early 21st century arrived, and a new name arrived with it: Paul McKee. But would he be a savior or a slumlord?

We’ll look into that in our next report.