Urban Agenda: Beneath National Party Politics Lay Cities in Grave Distress
As I walk along Page Boulevard in North St. Louis, what impresses me the most is the silence. It is eerie, given that I am in the middle of a city that once housed nearly a million souls. It is not the quiet of the country; such environs reverberate with sounds of life—the contralto drone of crickets, the staccato drumroll of the woodpecker, the mournful call of an owl. The silence on Page Boulevard is a different kind of silence, one borne out of abandonment, the exhalation of an industrial age. There is life here, but it is hidden away, sparse, bare. I walk for miles without encountering anyone on the sidewalk. Few cars pass by.
In the blaze of the summer day, a lone cyclist peddles by a vacant building, and I take a photograph. I do this not because I fetishize ruins for their own sake, or because I see any correspondence between landscapes in decline and the people who inhabit them, who are just trying to get along with their lives. I take the photograph because I love this city with all of my heart, and it hurts to see it in distress. When the shutter clicks, my hope, however fugitive, is that every photograph might secure a sliver of memory, hold a piece of landscape fast against decay, and bear witness to the forces that abet such devastation. It is perhaps too much to ask of a photograph. But there we are.
St. Louis has the highest rate of vacancy of any city of its size; nearly one in five properties is either an abandoned home or vacant lot, heavily concentrated in the predominantly Black neighborhoods on the north side. Vacant properties are signals of pain. They embody stories of loss and the dissolution of memory. And they exert an immense emotional, psychological, and physiological toll on residents. Not only are they breeding grounds for rats, molds, fungi, and other potentially harmful species, they release lead paint and asbestos into the environment, and attract illegal dumping. Abandoned industrial facilities are often riddled with toxic chemicals that leach into the water table and contaminate the soil. The presence of so much abandonment makes those who live among it feel that they have been marginalized and forgotten.
My own relationship with St. Louis goes back decades. My Uncle Dan moved to the city in 1982, and our visits to him always left me thrilled with the red brick landscape. I went to college there in the 1980s, then returned as a professor from 1998 to 2007. Over the years I have learned a lot about the city, its moods and personalities, its achievements and foibles, its pockets of integrity and pools of corruption. But no effort among locals, however concerted, could have stemmed the tide of abandonment. For years I watched the vacant landscape metastasize and spread through the north side, washing over communities in an abrasive flood of disinvestment, foreclosure, and decay.
Recently I had the opportunity to spend time in another north-south border city, Wheeling, West Virginia. As I drove around the neighborhoods south of downtown, I felt that I was seeing a landscape I had seen so many times before. Though a much smaller place than St. Louis, and with a very different history, I could not help but recognize the same patterns of disinvestment in the houses, shops, and streets. Crumbling brick, peeling paint, potholed streets, rusting bridges, empty lots overgrown with weeds: it all seemed so familiar. I got out of the car and walked down Main Street south of Wheeling Creek, the Ohio River just a few blocks to the west. Veering left onto 24th Street and zigzagging through the neighborhood—there it was again: the silence. The uncanny silence. The urban quietude that provides the sonic register of capital flight and systemic disinvestment.
Of course, it is not the entirety of either city that falls under the crushing weight of abandonment. Both Wheeling and St. Louis have their affluent districts, their middle-class neighborhoods, and their pockets of students and young professionals. And even in the most vacated and decayed precincts, signs of care can be seen in new coats of paint here or trimmed lawns there. But both cities suffer higher poverty rates than the national average—30 percent for St. Louis, 23 percent for Wheeling. Caught in the maelstrom of global transformations of the economy, both cities have seen massive shifts in their employment base away from well-paying unionized jobs toward the bifurcated service economy that has left so many behind. The wages of those factory and mining jobs once made these cities hum, as workers channeled earnings into homes, grocery stores, shops, taverns, restaurants, and churches. The taxes on fixed capital once allowed cities to maintain infrastructure, parks, and schools. With the flight of capital, jobs, and people, working-class neighborhoods in both cities have spiraled deeper and deeper into physical decay.
But what is most striking is that these conditions persist regardless of race or the political affiliations of inhabitants. Wheeling is 90 percent white, and has grown increasingly Republican over the last three presidential elections, with over 60 percent of residents voting for Trump in 2016. St. Louis, with a slim majority Black population, has voted consistently Democrat for decades; in the last election only 15 percent of people voted for Trump, while 78 percent voted for Clinton. To be sure, racism and white moral panic over immigration fuel a great deal of the GOP base. And rejection of these values forms a core commitment of Democratic voters. But both parties consistently promise working people a stronger economy and the restoration of communities, while delivering neither. Both parties promise jobs, but fail to mention that that for most people this means two or three low-paying jobs just to make ends meet.
The tragedies of St. Louis and Wheeling are not isolated disasters separated by time and space. Their stories can be found in cities across the country, from the old population centers of the Northeast to the railroad towns of the South, and from the manufacturing heartland of the Midwest to the derelict Main Streets of mining and cattle country. Though Wheeling and St. Louis each have unique political cultures, economic histories, and urban landscapes, their current shared plight reflects the utter abandonment of anything resembling an 'urban agenda' in the United States. Instead, we have an ersatz agenda comprised of triage, tax credits, developer subsidies, and intercity competition over crumbs. We no longer know, if we ever did, what our cities are for, nor have we reckoned with what it means to be an urban society.
The deterioration that has washed over our urban landscapes like some slow-motion Katrina is the consequence of public policies that range from ambivalent to heartless. Culpability for the trauma, loss, and unsettled minds created by these policies belongs to Republicans and Democrats alike. While I do not want to establish some false equivalence between the parties, it is abundantly clear that Republicans do not care about urban dwellers, and Democrats see them as reliable voters. Consequently, both parties ignore the desperate needs of cities, consigning working-class residents of all races and ethnicities to a needlessly cruel fate.