Is St. Louis America's Greatest City?
Months ago we published the results from a study we conducted trying to find the “unicorn city”: the city that best balances attributes of livability (affordable housing and easy transportation) with performance as a global hub of commerce and culture. While most cities excel in one of these areas, not many strike a solid balance between both, so finding those unique gems that excel across the board was a captivating exercise. While a few cities that scored highly on both axes of this matrix weren’t surprising – among them hot new growth cities like Dallas, Houston and Charlotte – there were others that came in under the radar, most notably the forgotten Rust Belt hubs of Cleveland and Cincinnati, as well as the city once dubbed the Gateway to the West: St. Louis, Missouri.
That St. Louis scored so impressively on the axis of commerce and culture mightn’t have been a surprise in the first half of the 20th century. In 1900 St. Louis was America’s fourth-largest city, and in 1950 it reached its population peak at nearly 900,000 residents. It was a hub of commerce, culture, education, healthcare and athletics in those days. But today St. Louis is a city barely a third that size, ranking only 69th-largest in the nation. For eight decades running it has been losing population, and it is rarely mentioned among the elite cities of this country.
Nothing underscores the loss of St. Louis’ status in the popular zeitgeist as a major-league city quite so much as the cruel fate of losing its NFL football team, the Rams, to Los Angeles in 2016. That was the same year I started regularly visiting St. Louis, primarily for some work I was doing on the city’s north side. St. Louis is a segregated city, and that north side has seen the brunt of St. Louis’ decline. In some areas 70 percent of lots are now empty, and of the homes that remain 70 percent are vacant. Buildings are falling in on themselves, some smolder in fires, the streets are crumbling in disrepair, and crime is rampant. Schools once occupied have been shuttered, and the city lacks even the funds to properly sanitize and lock down these decaying buildings. As such, student artwork from 25 years ago remains decaying on the walls, covered in moss amid exposed electrical wires, collapsing ceilings, and graffiti that tells the stories of vandals who have squatted in the unsecured structures. These structures in neighborhoods that once housed Chuck Berry and Arthur Ashe, which were the epicenter of black cultural innovation in America, but which today are rarely visited, sitting literally on the wrong side of what is colloquially referred to as the city’s Mason Dixon line, Delmar Boulevard.
North St. Louis needs help. So too does East St. Louis across the Mississippi River in Illinois. In 2016 there was talk of the government possibly relocating a major federal installation there that would bring with it 3,500 jobs to the city’s north side. It didn’t happen. And a year later there was talk of Amazon bringing its HQ2 to the city, which might similarly have helped it fill in. That didn’t happen either. Today, the decay of these once-thriving areas has crossed a threshold: once bearing a look and feel similar to many other disinvested neighborhoods in major cities of this country, today they are so vacant that the growth of nature on the vacant lots makes them look more like ghost towns in the rural countryside than but a mile or two from the downtown of a major city.
What happens in north St. Louis will be interesting to see. But in a way the decay of these once thriving neighborhoods is merely a sort of “ruin porn” – a story that is important, but which detracts from another most optimistic story that could be written about St. Louis. After all, the metrics that landed St. Louis high on our list of the most balanced cities were inclusive of the statistics of those neighborhoods. Outside of them, the city bears many positive attributes, and especially across its east-west urban core bears attributes that one could earnestly contend make it a contender for the most underrated city in America. And so the rest of this article will make its case: for all its failings, is St. Louis, aging rival to Chicago and granddaddy of the west, lurking in the shadows of its splashier competitors as a darkhorse contender for America’s greatest city?
The Case for St. Louis’ Greatness
The case for St. Louis’ greatness begins with its history, and it says something for St. Louis that Chuck Berry’s tenure in the city is but a footnote to its larger story. Perhaps the greatest prize of the Louisiana Purchase and commerce capital along the Mississippi River, St. Louis has, for over two centuries, carried proudly its legacy as the gateway to America’s pioneering spirit. Few cities boast its laundry list of local heroes: Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain, home to America’s first Olympics, the birthplace of Budweiser, and its longer legacy of Cahokia, arguably the largest pre-European settlement on the American continent. Well beyond its famous Arch, the depth and diversity of its history is felt in all corners of its surprisingly large downtown. The buildings exemplify every era of architectural history.
More than just cultural curiosity, St. Louis’ history, along with its eight consecutive decades of urban shrinkage, imbues within the city a characteristic identity of scale, confidence, and grizzled antiquity that is unique among literally all other American cities, especially those similar to its size. And it is this fact that is the key to St. Louis’ case as a great American city.
It is the characteristic opposite of “new growth” cities like Columbus, which are growing quickly and by consequence whose cultural dimensions are racing to keep up with their growth. In contrast to Columbus, which spent most of its history as a modest cow town in the Ohio farmlands and as such bears only a modest cultural landscape and a struggling urban sense of self that makes the city seem smaller than it is, St. Louis enjoys the physical, cultural, and historical infrastructure of a city nearly three times its size built on centuries worth of history already in its books. It is the epitome of urban gluttony: its roads were built in an era in which the city was thrice larger, and are thus comfortably oversized. Its downtown rivals Chicago’s, despite the city's smaller size, rich with deeply invested and carefully built constructions. Its museums are excellent, built for a cultural community many times larger than its current condition. And its general sense of self – its urban form, its parks, and its overall orientation to the world – is that of a city on the scale and significance of Paris or Chicago, not a city sandwiched between Irvine, California and Lincoln, Nebraska, way down on the list of the country’s largest cities. St. Louis is an ordinary laborer wearing an Armani suit.
That infrastructure brings to its residents today myriad practical benefits. Driving around St. Louis feels different than in other large cities. Because the roads date to an era of a larger and denser city, they feel spacious and wide. Traffic is negligible, and St. Louis enjoys the shortest average commute times in the nation. One can enjoy large and affordable suburban real estate and not fret about fighting the urban rush hour, even to enjoy working downtown in a grand piece of architecture designed by an architect, the fees for whose work the urban rents of the city would never justify hiring to design a project there today.
Residents can enjoy a city of large and spacious public parks that are never overcrowded. In this way the city is breathable, embodying the spirit of the City Beautiful movement. While it is dense and urban, it is green and even somewhat relaxing. Its downtown Citygarden is one of the most interesting large urban parks in the nation, organizing downtown along a spine of open spaces that frame its iconic arch. Westward, Forest Park, a veritable suburban Central Park, frames the city’s zoo and countless cultural assets.
Organized in a layout that befits a larger city, St. Louis enjoys the grandiosity of great cities like Chicago and Washington, DC, but without the misalignments of scale and awkward urban grid layouts of those cities, where interrupting diagonals create awkward triangles repeatedly disrupting the urban fabric. In St. Louis, most of the city’s fabric, as well as its historic neighborhoods, are intact.
In St. Louis, the cultural core of the city has concentrated along an east-west spine that if experienced unto itself is one of the better concentrations of lively neighborhoods of cultural assets in the country. Public transit, including both a subway and a trolley, connects a string of great museums and cultural institutions linking downtown St. Louis westward to its multiple universities, including one that is on an Ivy League-caliper. This core feels generally safe, a concentrated hub of cultural activity away from the areas of disinvestment.
St. Louis is replete with mature trees and interesting neighborhoods. Much of the city is a sort of Brooklyn with fewer people. And because the city hasn’t exactly been chic in a long time, it hasn’t succumbed of the same palpable extent as other cities to the generic influences of millennial and Gen-Z cultural transformations. While there is enough young investment for the city to be interesting, that it hasn’t been as affected by the trends of “new growth” hipness as even a city like Detroit makes it feel uniquely of its own identity, rather than of generic nationwide trends. Its downtown cultural district along Washington Avenue thrives nightly, but hasn’t yet become a generic millennial playground. It still feels like St. Louis.
One other point on St. Louis’ greatness: as opposed to most other cities that share its richness of history, it isn’t a port on a major coastline. It’s an inland river city, but because it was the gateway to the West, it functioned in its heyday like a coastal port. As a result, it is probably the city in the country that is imbued with the greatest combination of history and size that isn’t on a major water body. One could easily make the case that St. Louis is the most historically significant flat inland city in the country. St. Louis is a cultural gem in comparison to new growth flat cities like Indianapolis or Phoenix. For those looking to avoid the land rent premiums that make living on the coasts expensive, St. Louis offers a lot of value.
St. Louis is a value city overall. Think of it as a three-for-one. Here you get everything you’d expect in a much larger city, but with the low-stress cordialities of living in a smaller one. Light traffic, affordable housing, and a general manageability of scale. But packaged together in a place of intrinsic historic value of cultural import whose existence has been pivotal to the trajectory of our nation.
Is St. louis in fact America’s greatest city? Perhaps not anymore. But walk through its Arch and discover a great forgotten place. It packs both history and promise, and, as Lewis and Clark established well over two centuries ago, it’s an affordable gateway for chasing the American adventure.