The Century-Old Urban Policy That Divides St. Louis

Those of us who grew up in St. Louis have a pretty cool parlor trick we can perform for you. We can basically predict the conversation that will occur, word-for-word, when we meet another person who grew up in St. Louis. Here is the first question we will ask each other: "What high school did you go to?"

This week's events in Ferguson, Missouri have drawn attention to policing tactics and racial issues across the country. This is a special edition of What's Ruining Our Cities.

The local lore is that the St. Louis high school you attended can instantly tell the other person everything they need to know about you. "What high school did you go to?" is what neighborhood you grew up in, what church you went to, which political party you support, and how much money your parents made, all in one. It's such accepted shorthand that it was recently memorialized in a frighteningly accurate infographic for the Riverfront Times that packed every reference into an easy-to-follow flowchart.

"What high school did you go to?" seems like an innocent question, one that, at first, seems purely logistical, an analog geolocating tool. But it's not. Asking someone where they went to high school is a complicated thing to explain in a place like St. Louis.

Until 1948, blacks were not allowed to live in the swiftly growing suburbs of St. Louis due to the housing covenants that were prevalent in many other cities at the time. Even after the Supreme Court ruled the covenants unconstitutional, white homeowners in the suburbs did everything they could to protect their new real estate investments with restrictive zoning designed to keep blacks out.

The "white flight" seen in so many cities during the 50s and 60s, as higher-income residents abandoned their urban cores, was exaggerated to an astounding effect in St. Louis. As the New York Times explains well, Ferguson is one of those historically white neighborhoods that slowly was abandoned by its residents as the "city" got too close for comfort. It's the same story for many of the communities just adjacent to the city/county border: blacks moved into the existing infrastructure, and whites built a shiny new world in a ring around it.

The Century-Old Urban Policy That Divides St. Louis

"White flight" from St. Louis city from 1940 to 1950. Map by Colin Gordon for the University of Iowa

In 1972, several black families brought a lawsuit against the St. Louis Public School Board of Education, accusing the city's public school system of institutionalized segregation. It was tough to disagree with the argument. The schools simply reflected the starkly divided region. The city had historically experienced such difficulty integrating its schools that the struggle was the subject of a 1956 Oscar-nominated documentary A City Decides, directed by Charles Guggenheim.

As part of a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1981, a desegregation program called the Voluntary Interdistrict Transfer Program was established which would send some black students to historically white county schools and some white students to historically black city schools. The state of Missouri would pay for transportation and tuition, with a goal to eventually enroll the predominantly white suburban schools with 25 percent black students. A pilot program was launched in partnership with six school districts in the county. One of those schools was mine.

In the early 1990s, when I was in high school, 13,500 students were bused every day from their homes in in the city of St. Louis to schools in the county (about 1,100 county students also went to magnet schools in the city). The idea was that the program would offer parents and students the ability to choose where their child could go to school. Today, the program has even been renamed the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, although it's about a third of its early-90s size.

From what I saw, there was no explanation to the students about why this was happening, no attempt to give some larger context to the initiative. I don't think I knew at any point that I could have had the choice to go to a school downtown. I do remember being confused about why the girl sitting next to me in sociology had to ride the bus for 45 minutes to get to school while I only had to ride it for five.

I can't speak for all my classmates, but to me, it never felt like the program was a success. It's not to say we didn't try. We had our moments. But for the most part, we still went to two completely different schools.

The Century-Old Urban Policy That Divides St. Louis

A 2010 map of St. Louis's racial divide, made by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, via Wired

It was only after high school that I was able to look back on the experience with some context. To me, the desegregation program is still a haunting reminder of those covenants from the early 1900s. It admits a systemic failure in the way the city works. The city of St. Louis chose a bizarre way to "serve" its citizens—instead of working to improve its most disadvantaged schools, it chose to scatter its students around every day like marbles, hoping just the act of mixing us up would be better for all.

Instead of allocating its resources locally and strengthening communities at their core, it still feels like St. Louis is drawing lines around "good" and "bad" neighborhoods. It reinforces divisions that make people believe they should be afraid of the "other" side of town. The high school game, is sadly, one of these things, too. Because when I ask that—when anyone does—what I'm really trying to figure out is if you grew up in the same St. Louis as I did.

What's happening in St. Louis this week is complicated, but it goes back more than 100 years. The poor decisions that reverberated from that first housing covenant rendered all the residents of St. Louis—city and county, white and black—as unwilling victims of bad urban policy. My hometown's metropolitan area is now consistently named one of the most racially divided places in the U.S., and is often named as the posterchild for segregated cities. There are similar problems like this in American cities—I live in L.A. now, which has plenty of its own segregation issues—but St. Louis has now been thrown into the spotlight, and it has a chance to serve as a model for change.

There is still a lot of anger and cynicism in St. Louis. And rightfully so. But change is happening. While I haven't lived in St. Louis for almost two decades, I've spent the last few years writing about the work of several inspiring groups that are trying to undo this century of poor decisions. Downtown is undergoing a revival. Young people of all races are moving into the urban core. The desegregation program is supposed to end in 2019. There is a lot more work to be done, but St. Louis truly feels poised for a new direction. Our city—my city, and it still is my city after all these years—deserves better.

Top image: A 1950s protest against segregation in St. Louis schools/AP