Visualizing Our Changing Cities

Photos by Brian Villa for St. Louis Public Radio and Richard
Moore via the Missouri History Museum
In 1950, St. Louis was the eight-largest city in America at a bulging 850,000 residents. It was a twentieth-century city, buoyed by diverse manufacturing and a busy port. It was also a highly-segregated city, split strikingly into a largely-black north city and whiter, richer south citybut the entire urban core suffered from flight to the suburbs and industrial Midwest decline.

Six decades later, the city is drastically different. The County bests the City's 300,000 population by three-to-one after sixty years of uninterrupted population loss.

Understanding the causes and consequences of urban decline and evolving city life is difficult. It requires ten-, fifty-, and hundred-year perspectives and a close knowledge of economic and political contexts. One way we can better appreciate how our cities have changed is to visualize the effects of time, in maps and data.

I was drawn to the hypnotizing displays of changing Midwest cities put together by the University of Oklahoma's Institute for Quality Communities. Simple sliders reveal cities universally carved up by the Interstate Highway System and uniquely altered by the effects of and responses to urban decline, such as the Arch grounds and Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis. In each case we can directly observe how dense, residential neighborhoods were transformed into offices, or simply wiped clean by population loss and decay.

One of my first exposures to the stark changes that St. Louis has undergone since its mid-century heyday was the simple and excellent Mapping Decline website to accompany Colin Gordon's book of the same name. Four maps show the great exodus from the city center and the racial covenants that forced black residents to remain in decaying neighborhoods, patterns that resulted in an intentionally divided region. The consequences of these policies and demographic shifts are felt now, decades later. Ferguson became a household name this past August in part because of unaddressed divides, seen clearly in Gordon's work.

Visualizing how my city has changed is simply fascinating as well, not always so serious. I stumbled upon Elizabeth McNulty's St. Louis Then and Now at Dunaway Books on South Grand, just the kind of architectural coffee table book I was keeping an eye out for. In almost 70 paired photographs, McNulty shows us a St. Louis rising at the end of 19th century, barreling into the 20th, and the state of its urban neighborhoods today. The dramatic shift from bustling port to sleepy, abandoned riverfront is especially striking to see. Similar sets of photos were assembled as part of St. Louis' 250th anniversary celebration, where streetcars make way for regular ones, and grand boulevards were once populated by throngs of downtown residents that have since left.

Cities are as dynamic as the people who inhabit them and bring them to life. Many Midwestern cities have struggled for several decades, while coastal cities have largely prospered. The pendulum may be swinging back now as peopleespecially the youngincreasingly seek out cities for their liveliness and density. These once-grand cities have serious problems to contend with, from racial divides to ailing school systems, but perhaps the twenty-first century will again see a rise of the cities that seemed to peak in the middle of the twentieth.