Towns Too Small to Succeed - Part 2

Last week we examined why municipal court abuses and policing for profit occur in the St. Louis region. The underlying reason is that many towns lack sustainable tax and consumer bases and have low property values. Simply put, they are too small to succeed. To make up for revenue gaps they turn to predatory practices in order to sustain themselves. Now we will examine why these towns are so small in the first place.

As UMSL professor E. Terrence Jones claims, St. Louis is 'fragmented by design' in order to give residents greater local control. This is true to an extent. However, University of Iowa professor Colin Gordon's book Mapping Decline more accurately outlines how St. Louis was and is segregated by design. Many of these small towns intentionally came into existence during a period of white flight and rapid development post World War II. Incorporation, municipal zoning, and redlining were used to secure tax bases and to protect property values from the effects of 'blight.' The Fundamentals of Real Estate Practice explicitly outlined the later in 1943:

“The prospective buyer might be a bootlegger who would cause considerable annoyance to his neighbors, a madam who had a number of Call Girls on her string, a gangster who wants a screen for his activities by living in a better neighborhood, a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites….No matter what the motive or character of the would-be purchaser, if the deal would instigate a form of blight [emphasis added], then certainly the well-meaning broker must work against its consummation.” Mapping Decline (83)

In 1962 the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers defined neighborhoods as areas, "exhibiting a fairly high degree of homogeneity as to housing, tenancy, income, and population characteristics." (83). Only the Supreme Court cases Shelley v. Kraemer and Jones v. Mayerboth originating from St. Louis—would eventually declare such policies unconstitutional. Yet, the language and practices would adapt, engraining themselves into the culture and boundaries of St. Louis. 

During the fifties, St. Louis experienced a mania of incorporation largely driven by frenzied residential development. Development standards were set by the benchmarks of private construction and realty companies which adhered to criteria like those above. Subdivisions incorporated in order to stave off annexation by their neighbors in order to maintain 'local standards' or to secure precious tax bases.

mappingdeclinesegregation.pngProviding basic services was simply a secondary objective of incorporation. Only 33 of the 86 incorporated municipalities in 1957 had more than one paid police officer. "Residents had little interest in attaching themselves to existing municipalities and often pursued small-scale incorporation as a means of sustaining local standards [emphasis added]," (41). 'Local control' became code for protecting neighborhoods from blight as blight had become code for black. Later, municipal zoning would become an extension of realty redlining practices.

"Suburban ordinances followed a logic of systematic exclusion," (131). In 1970, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch labeled University City as undesirable noting, "a great influx of minority groups," as its primary reason (88). The residents of Black Jack sought to protect themselves from the same fate as University City. So, the 98 percent white town of Black Jack incorporated in order to annex the proposed site of a multi-family housing development and "impose single-family zoning over everything, "(147). However, as sprawl and white flight continued the demographics would change. Today Black Jack is now 78% African-American and is home to 6,924 residents (as a reminder 48 municipalities have 5,000 residents or less) with an income of $25,060 per capita and poverty level of 15 percent.

Berkley and Kinloch provide even starker examples. Berkley incorporated in 1937 after disputes with neighboring Kinloch and failing to maintain school segregation. Kinloch, early on considered the "lone black enclave" of the county, incorporated in 1948. However, "its tax base was so meager that it moved to disincorporate a year later." Kinloch still exists today and is rife with problems.

The answer as to why so many small municipalities exist is indeed a long one; however, the conclusions are clear. Redlining, exclusionary zoning, and small scale incorporation effectively segregated the region not only by race but also by economic status. In essence, small cities originally existed to keep people out. Now, because of the economics, many of them trap people in.


In Part 3 of "Too Small To Succeed" we will discuss economies of scale and how that concept relates to creating healthier municipalities and a stronger region. Some municipalities are already making strides like those in the Normandy School District through the 24:1 initiative

We recommend reading Colin Gordon's Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City or examining his maps for a more exhaustive explanation.

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