For the past month, I’ve been providing highlights from Colin Gordon’s provocative study, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Penn Press, 2008). This week, I want to reflect on the book and bring this discussion to a close.

Mapping Decline is a heavy book. I mean that both literally and figuratively. It’s a hefty tome, not light reading. Along with the rather dense text are scores of detailed (but for me, sometimes hard-to-read) maps that show the story Gordon is telling about the decline of St. Louis.

But more than this, the story Gordon tells is heavy. He really does map the decline of St. Louis (and by extension, reflects the story that could be told about many other American cities). What’s striking in the case of St. Louis, however, is how egregious the examples are – the stark pattern of white flight, the stunning visual display of hypersegregation in the City and the County.

“What gives this story its plot, and its sorry ending,” says Gordon, “are the many ways in which private and public policies shaped or frustrated . . . choices” of real estate and residence. “While black and whites had similar aspirations (safer neighborhoods, better schools), they faced starkly different opportunities and horizons. Neighborhood surveys in the late 1960s suggested that most blacks moved merely to stay ahead of the urban renewal bulldozer, choosing public housing, another ‘blighted’ neighborhood, or the transitional neighborhoods spilling northwest into the County. Whites, by contrast, moved largely to escape the path of racial transition, settling in the City’s southside or in the County’s suburban reaches.”

And just as Gordon shows in grim detail the story of St. Louis’s decline, he also points to its “disconnected and halfhearted pockets of urban tourism,” its inability to “reinvent” itself (as other cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Minneapolis were able to do). But St. Louis is not alone in this sad tale: “Most American cities emerged from the heyday of urban renewal in similar shape – central city decay punctuated by the occasional stadium or convention center; urban problems (segregation, poverty, unemployment, fiscal crisis) spilling into the inner suburbs [think Wellston]; employment and the tax base continuing to sprawl into the outer suburbs. The elusiveness of the solution reflected both a set of common conditions (deindustrialization, fragmented governance, limited resources) and the elusiveness of the problem itself.”

Gordon’s ultimate conclusion is about as despairing as it gets. “Cities,” he says, “represent perhaps the most fundamental failure of public policy in modern America. In an economy of unparalleled abundance . . . , central cities and inner suburbs have become progressively and dramatically poorer. In a society of steadily increasing diversity and tolerance . . . , central cities and inner suburbs sustained and encourage the most insidious forms of racial segregation. In a polity so fiercely proud of its democratic traditions, central cities and inner suburbs house a population that is largely disconnected and disenfranchised.”

I’ve spent so much time highlighting excerpts from Mapping Decline because – while it is a depressing story – I also believe it is an important story. As Ray Suarez points out in his book The Old Neighborhood, we look back nostalgically to a time and place that no longer exists, but we don’t often stop to consider the reasons why the “old neighborhood” is no more. Colin Gordon gives us insights into the processes that erased that time and place – and in so doing, gives us much to ponder.

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