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New mayor will inherit an old city death spiral

At the current rate of population loss and decay, St. Louis will cease to exist except as a collection of abandoned buildings around the turn of the next century. For the first time since the Civil War, the city’s population has dropped below 300,000. 

Since 2010, an astonishing 14 percent of St. Louis’s African-American population has fled the city. Census estimates show that fewer than 80,000 people now live in the half of the city north of Delmar Boulevard, as those who can move out to escape rampant crime, collapsing buildings and constant gunfire. In three north city ZIP Codes, children have a better chance of dying before age 1 than do infants in Malaysia.

But those brutal statistics are just part of the story of the city’s decades-long collapse.

St. Louis is now an academic case study for how cities fail: the 13th highest murder rate on planet Earth, the highest building abandonment rate and percentage of population loss of any major city in North American history, collapsing public schools with an enrollment below 24,000, a city government too cash-strapped to buy new garbage trucks, a police force incapable of making arrests in two-thirds of high-crime neighborhood murders but still capable of having a nationwide reputation for racist behavior, vacant skyscrapers downtown as businesses leave, miles-long stretches where it’s easier to buy a Glock than a fresh head of lettuce, and – most importantly – a sclerotic political and corporate ruling class that has made bad decisions based on race, cronyism, favors, grudges, money and power over decades.

That’s why the March 2 mayoral primary and the April 6 mayoral general election may be the most important in the city’s history. The philosophy of managing decline doesn’t work when the decline has reached Stage IV. 

In St. Louis politics, as in academia, the disputes are so vicious because the stakes are so small. To much of the South Side white Catholic Democratic Party, the north city limits are at Delmar. To much of the North Side Black Democratic Party, their ward boundaries define the limits of their personal mini-kingdoms. And the new generation of progressives are often suspicious of both, and of each other.

Given the crises the city faces, that sort of nonsense should expire more quickly than a Pfizer vaccine at room temperature. The problems the city faces are crystal-clear and require bold, concerted action.

St. Louis police arrest and beat a Black man, not realizing he is a fellow officer working undercover, during a protest on Sept. 17, 2017.
The city has a violent crime problem because desperate poor people in lousy neighborhoods have guns, and refuse to become involved with a police force so marinated in racism that it has had to pay a $5 million settlement because white cops beat a fellow officer working undercover during 2017 protests because he was Black, and they then tried to cover it up.

Dealing with violent crime, of course, starts by dealing with the poverty and lack of jobs that have gutted so many neighborhoods.

But those are long-term solutions. What about triage?

St. Louis Democrats being Democrats, the focus has been almost exclusively on early intervention programs such as Cure Violence. The buzzwords are “focused deterrence,” where people from a community intervene early, to prevent beefs from escalating into deadly violence and equally deadly retribution.

Those programs need a lot of people and a lot of funding. Right now, St. Louis has neither. But what about law enforcement?

That leads to discussing what works and what doesn’t. Stunts such as the federal Operation Legend don’t work. St. Louis has tried variations of the idea of using federal prosecutions to cut crime for years. None of them reduced the crime rate.

What works is community co-operation with police, and police response. Both are now missing in St. Louis. Many Black people don’t trust the police. And police response, based on their ability to solve murders, is also weak. The editorial board of the Post-Dispatch seems to think hiring the 100 cops the city police force needs to bring it up to full strength is the answer.

No, it’s not. The next mayor can only patch relations with the community, and cut crime, by going full medieval on weeding out police racists, and then building on so-called “hot spot” policing that floods violent neighborhoods with police. To do that, they’ll have to take on the powerful police union.

The schools crisis is largely a matter of funding. And since school funding is based on property taxes, the new mayor needs to stop the use of tax increment financing to lure new business development. TIFs cost the city over $30 million in badly needed property tax revenue every year.

All this, and more, needs to be done now, with a sense of impending doom. Because that’s precisely what St. Louis is facing.

If you can find a candidate with that urgency, and who gets that we’ve just about run out of time, vote for them.

The clock’s running out.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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