Life and Death In America’s Most Dangerous City
I have lived in America’s Most Dangerous City: St. Louis. I lived in a city apartment once where the din from traffic and sirens and the occasional gunshot outside was so loud you couldn’t hold a conversation on the balcony without shouting until you were hoarse, and a row of abandoned buildings just down the street gave the impression of having recently been firebombed.
I’ve lived in a crumbling brick duplex behind a seedy 24-hour restaurant, where cars on my street were broken into or stolen at least once a week, and an amateur brothel operated less than a block away.
I’ve also lived, in the very same city, in the center of a vivid-but-gentrifying bohemian community of immigrants, artists and musicians, where my lost wallet was cheerfully returned to me by a stranger on the street.
I’ve lived in a beautiful three-story, 100-year-old mansion right across from Forest Park, the enormous living heart of the city. It is an oasis of picturesque fields, lakes and century-old trees that is bigger and, some say, more beautiful than New York’s Central Park.
I’ve lived in a sleek high rise building with a private library, a heated pool, a stunning view of a century-old cathedral and a secured garage full of privileged med school students’ gleaming BMWs and Porsches.
I could walk, if I were feeling ambitious, from any one of these places I’ve lived to the others. They are all within a few miles of each other.
That’s how St. Louis is.
Anyone who has ever driven to get to a baseball game in downtown St. Louis, or played in a modern 21st century brick edifice built to look just like a perfect old-fashioned ballpark, knows that parts of St. Louis look like a war zone. In places, warehouses, storefronts and homes, many more than 100 years old and once part of thriving historic neighborhoods, sit abandoned and crumbling.
Sixty years ago, the city had nearly 900,000 residents. In the wake of decades of lost industry, white flight and poor urban planning, it now houses less than half that number. Though the suburban population outside the city has swelled to nearly three million, the official population of St. Louis City, proper, is 356,587.
So in large swaths of northern and downtown St. Louis, buildings that once proudly housed half of a bustling city sit empty. Their fading facades are ravaged by arsonists’ fire and gaping holes left by roving gangs of black market brick and copper thieves, giving entire city blocks the appearance of having been bombed.
As the city population shrank decades ago, closed factories and stores collapsed neighborhood economies and left entire communities without access to local jobs, setting off an all-too-typical urban decay cycle of poverty and crime that continues today.
Car thefts are such a regular occurence in some neighborhoods that the city actually posts signs in public parking areas reminding city visitors not to leave valuable items in their cars.
There are places in St. Louis where murders are an ordinary enough event that their mention might be pushed off a local evening television newscast in favor of coverage of a particularly exciting high school football game. There have been 126 homicides in St. Louis City so far this year — a murder happens every few days. St. Louis has a yearly per capita murder rate of 40 murders for every 100,000 people. That’s about four times higher than the murder rate in New York. Recently, two men were shot and killed in St. Louis City while attending the funeral of another murder victim.
But the decaying parts of the city are often outshone by the brighter side of the city: the places people have worked hard for decades to preserve or revitalize. The neighborhoods where row upon row of renovated homes look as well-maintained as in any architecture magazine. The neighborhoods where children ride bikes in the street, and people leave their doors unlocked in the daytime. Where upscale restaurants abut bustling farmers markets and traditional Italian bakeries and quirky coffee shops. Where gleaming modern glass highrise office buildings shine right across the street from impeccably restored historic buildings. Where tourists wander manicured public gardens full of sculptures, or ride horse-drawn carriages that rattle across cobblestone streets.
These are the places most suburban St. Louisans stick to when visiting the city so many of them stubbornly call home, even while living on the outskirts of town. These are the clean parts — the safe parts — the parts city-dwellers want to live in. They are the parts city natives rightly love to boast about. The parts we as a community want the world to look past that “Most Dangerous City” ranking to see.
Which is why, when St. Louis City received the dubious honor of being named the Most Dangerous City in America by CQ Press — for the second time in five years — the mayor’s Francis Slay’s office responded by noting that the city crime rate for 2010 is down seven percent over last year. “A vast majority of our neighborhoods are safe and are getting even safer,” asserted Karen Bowlin, a spokeswoman for the mayor. The police department said, “It’s irresponsible to use the data in this way.” Statisticians noted that while many other cities’ crime rates are tempered by the inclusion of statistics from affluent suburbs, St. Louis City’s boundaries end at the edges of the city’s urban core and don’t encompass the suburban places where most “St. Louisans” actually live — St. Louis County.
And St. Louis City defenders are quick to point out that St. Louisans certainly haven’t been the only ones to question the validity of dangerous city rankings by CQ Press. The FBI, the agency which produces the crime statistics that CQ press bases its reports on — has stated that its data should not be used for ranking purposes. The U.S. Conference of Mayors rather colorfully called the CQ report “a premeditated statistical mugging of America‘s cities.”
But those who would defend the city from this “Most Dangerous” label by attacking CQ Press’s questionable ranking methods–noting that the crime rates are lower in the county, or noting that certain areas of the city are much safer than others–are missing a vital point:
The fact that certain neighborhoods in the St. Louis area are so dangerous that the statistical weight of crimes committed there could cause an otherwise fairly safe region to be mislabled as one of the country’s most dangerous places is a serious problem.
St. Louis’s high crime areas are, after all, not just a set of unfortunate statistics on a map. They are real neighborhoods populated with real, live human beings, most of whom are not criminals — they are simply too poor, or too stubbornly dedicated to a neigborhood, to move elsewhere.
And while the rest of us argue about ranking methods, those real people in real St. Louis communities afflicted with poverty and violence must live with the fear and consequences of violent crime on a daily basis. Does the question of whether St. Louis is actually America’s Most Dangerous City really matter to the people who live on St. Louis’s Most Dangerous Streets?
Most of the nearly three million Americans who call themselves St. Louisans do not own homes in the dangerous parts of St. Louis City. In fact, most “St. Louisans” don’t live in the city at all. The people of a vast and varied metropolitan region at the confluence of two rivers that sprawls across two states will tell you, however, that they live in St. Louis, because in a cultural sense, they do. The city, with its parks and businesses and great hopeful futuristic metal arc marking the symbolic opening of the American West, feels like home to the nearly three million midwesterners who call it their hometown.
We work in the city. We shop in the city. We visit the free zoo, the free art museum, the theaters, the nightclubs, the restaurants, the art galleries, the botanical garden. We bike or jog or picnic in the city parks. Whether we live in the city proper or not, we name St. Louis as our home. Yet every day, thousands of us hurry past the failing parts of St. Louis with our eyes averted, as if by failing to look directly at the crisis next door, we could make it disappear.
The St. Louis promoted on tourist brochures and defended by the mayor’s office has a shadow. There are two versions of St. Louis existing side by side: a friendly, quirky, industrious midwestern town determined to recover from urban decay, surrounded by prosperous, growing suburbs, and a neglected, crumbling city, filled with ghost houses, plagued by poverty and violence.
But we cannot live in one St. Louis while ignoring the other. Both of these towns are ours. And if the city is to succeed in the revival we all hope for, both must rise together.
Photo of historic St. Louis Avenue building damaged by brick thieves taken by Architectural Historian Michael R. Allen, author of the excellent St. Louis blog, Ecology of Absence. Used with permission.