This week NPR is running a series on cities. Today's edition focused on Washington DC. In particular, the series is looking at changing demographics. In DC, a noticeable trend has been the return of white families to the city.
DC has been a majority black city for a long time. But that's been changing, and soon, DC will be less than 50% black. Meanwhile, suburban Prince George County has been a popular destination for middle income African-American families exiting DC. That county is becoming majority African-American. So in DC, there's a trend where white families are returning to the city and black families are moving away.
DC's Anacostia River is a dividing line where traditionally lower income, depressed neighborhoods are located. Low cost by DC standards, home prices in Anacostia are in the $250-$300,000 range. Many DC neighborhoods see prices 3 to 4 times that amount. With its low prices and sense of upside potential, Anacostia is becoming a vogue target area for developers and white home buyers.
In today's segment, NPR previewed that they will also be covering Portland, Oregon. Portland is often held out as the vanguard of progressive hipness and cool urbanism. NPR noted that Portland is one of the "whitest cities in the country". That surprised me. When people think of big cities in particular, or urban places in general, they usually don't think of them as being heavily white. They think of them as places of diversity. Portland has its own challenges: how cool it is to be known as one of the "whitest cities in the country"?
The DC story featured a delivery driver and his wife, a two income black family who had moved from Anacostia to Prince George County. The husband felt sad about leaving his old neighborhood, but moved away to get more house for the money, and because of pressure from his wife who had grown up in the suburbs. In Prince George County the family could buy a 4-5 bedroom home for the same price as a 2-3 bedroom home in the old neighborhood.
So what does all this have to do with St. Louis? When cities are compared, how will St. Louis fare? St. Louis' challenges are much different than Portland's or DC's. St. Louis isn't the cool destination that Portand is (but maybe it should be). And, unlike DC, St. Louis city neighborhoods, especially the blighted ones, don't outprice its suburban neighbors.
St. Louis is high cost in terms of construction, and low priced in terms of values. Like DC, for decades, St. Louis experienced heavy black and white flight from its neighborhoods, especially on the north side. Today St. Louis is experiencing renewal in many parts of the city. There is a noticeably white demographic at city booster events. "City Affair" gatherings are usually 90% percent white, and meetings for the renewal of the Arch grounds were about the same percentage white.
Cherokee Street, the emerging hip district of South St. Louis, is largely a mix of white and hispanic entrepreneurs, while the surrounding neighborhood is high percentage African-American. With an election for alderman coming soon, given the interesting demographic mix of the area, what will the lead issues of the campaign be?
Trends in St. Louis seem to be more elusive. It's hard to make broad generalizations. Things vary greatly from block to block and neighborhood to neighborhood. There are places such as Old North St. Louis and Cherokee Street which get a lot of attention in terms of their renewal, but geographically they represent a tiny percentage of the city. Look at the city's strategic land use plan and you see that roughly 75% of the city's area is designated "Neighborhood Preservation".
Maybe the story of St. Louis is that we have a good thing, and our goal is to keep it that way by working smart on a combination of things both large and small, those with the biggest impact and greatest leveraging?