The first thing I said to my dad when we drove across the Mississippi was, “this is Memphis.”
It wasn’t Memphis, it was St. Louis, but the sentiment stands. When you cross through from Illinois, it’s clear that St. Louis is a working town, from the dreary barges and tugboats in the river to the smog-braised buildings. The city’s outwardly industrial appearance is an excellent mask for its deeply racist history, a history contrived from and bolstered by a century of institutional and societal segregation coupled with seemingly aeonian, systemic civil rights failures.
St. Louis feels exactly like all the other sub-hub cities of the Midwest: Milwaukee, Cleveland, Kansas City, Cincinnati, etc. They’re the cities most affected by the modernization of transportation and the delocalization of commerce. They are the cities that were once waypoints for products moving from the agricultural mid-west to the commercial east, before trucks and boats became so fuel efficient, before airplanes became major cargo carriers. The importance of these cities in national trade meant that these sub-hubs turned into thriving cities, growing regional banks, department stores and large working class populations.
In a sense, it wasn’t necessarily tough economic times that wiped these cities from national importance, it was the good economic times for the cosmopolitan coasts that did it. It was neither Reaganomics nor Clintonomics that took these cities down, but the leaps and bounds that the technology industry took in those times and beyond. While highly-paid economists in New York City or San Francisco argued the efficacy of trickle down economics, the working class of St. Louis found their employment increasingly hung in the balance, watching with fear and resentment as automated machines encroached on their jobs. The more mechanized certain industries became, the less important the working class got, and the less hegemony they had for collective bargaining.
In 1974 the National Maximum Speed Law was signed by President Nixon, prohibiting speeds higher than 55 miles an hour. It was a relatively reactionary law, created to curb the harmful after effects of the ’73 oil crisis, and by 1987 the national speed limit had increased to 65 miles an hour. By 1995, the national speed limit had been repealed. This evolution of the speed limit is indicative of a lot of characteristics of American life: oil and gas prices, the buying power of the population, the overall state of the economy, and most importantly, innovations in and accessibility to transportation technology.
In 1974 when the national speed limit was set at 55 mph, that was a fairly accurate representation of what the average street-safe car could do. By about 1984, cars were capable of comfortably cruising at 60 or 70 miles per hour on the highway. By the mid nineties this comfortable cruising speed had reached 80 miles an hour, and the need for the repeal of the national speed limit was imminent.
This innocuous history actually means a lot for the Midwestern sub-hubs. At a basic level, as cars became capable of faster and faster speeds, fuel efficiency increased — the two were directly proportional — if you will. Now you could get from point A to point Z at much faster speed and a significantly lower price, without having to stop at points B, C, D,etc. in between. So John Doe’s Fruit Company based in Oxnard, CA could ship their goods cross country in half the time, for half the price, without having to stop in St. Louis, Indianapolis or Columbus on the way.
If you drive south on Route 1 from DC to Richmond, Virginia, you’ll find yourself on a stretch of road flanked by permanently closed motels. These are relics from the epoch of lower speeds and lower fuel efficiencies, when Coca-Cola truckers driving from Atlanta to New England would need to spend the night, unable to complete the trip in a day. The motels that once served these Coke drivers now stand empty, evidence that a tank of gas has not always meant what it means now. Most Midwestern cities were just large-scale motels for some trades, midway points between industry and commerce. When transportation became more efficient, some of these cities became drive-thrus. The real nail in the coffin for the sub-hubs, however, was the delocalization of the American economy.
For most of the 20th century, commerce and finance were handled regionally. You went to college down the road from your high school (if at all). You earned a paycheck a town over from where you were born. You cashed your paycheck five minutes from your home, bought your clothes in a regional department store, and bought your food in a regional grocery store. The money you earned at your local job went to pay for goods at your local store, which were sourced by your local industries. Everything was local (take a moment now to turn on John Mellencamp if you’re from the Midwest, or Bruce Springsteen if you’re not, I’ll let you relive your glory days).
Around the early ’60s, local economies became regional economies. In the early ’80s those regional economies blossomed into national economies, only to later become an integral part of the international economy during the Internet age. Cities like St. Louis flourished during the periods of local and regional economies because they were regional hubs. When it costs a quarter of a paycheck to pay for gas to drive between Clayton, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois, not very many people are going to go to Chicago. Instead, they’re going to go to their local city: St. Louis.
The delocalization of economies (helped in no small part by the modern transportation revolution) centralized finance and commerce on the coasts, as it had been in pre-Civil War America. In very elementary terms, it could be said that commerce in Missouri was handled in Missouri, and commerce not in Missouri was not handled in Missouri. But with delocalization, commerce in Missouri could be handled in either San Francisco or New York, dependent on which city promised better outcomes. Why would workers choose to go to their regional banks with volatile protections if they could go to regional branches of national banks with excellent reputations?
With easier and cheaper transportation came more extensive expansion of corporations and franchises. No longer were Daytonians buying their clothes at Rike’s, but instead at Hex, Macy’s, or Lord & Taylor. This is emblematic of the changes that were happening in the Great Midwest in the 70s, 80s and 90s. This delocalization has of course been exacerbated in the 2000s by the rise of Internet commerce, but the primary demise of these sub-hub cities happened in that mid-century thirty year period.
So what does all this say about St. Louis? A lot. Because of the systematic segregation that is so integral to St. Louis and Missouri’s history, most of these economic changes most directly affected the white working class who generally lived south of Delmar Boulevard (known colloquially as the Delmar Divide), and not the black working class who lived north of the Divide. Even now, just days away from 2015, the difference between the two cities of St. Louis is blatant. North of Delmar, roughly 98% of the population is black, and south is roughly 73% white, and that in itself is almost all the information you need to distinguish the two cities.
One of St. Louis’ most famous inhabitants wasn’t even (legally) a person. Dred Scott v Sanford (1857) is not the first event on St. Louis’ racist timeline, but it’s certainly a monumental one. The case ruled that former slave, Dred Scott, was not a legal person, and therefore did not have access to the rights enumerated in the Constitution. According to many activists, this has been the Modus Operandi in Missouri since.
The next big stop on the grand tour of Grand Wizardry in St. Louis is the year 1917, when a race riot of epic proportions broke out as white mobs rampaged through East St. Louis, attacking any black person they could reach. Another white riot occurred in 1949, when a group —200 strong — of angry whites rioted to prevent black children from swimming in the same pool as white children. Several people were hospitalized. While a 1948 Supreme Court case (Shelley v. Kraemer) declared racially restrictive property rules, or redlining, unconstitutional under the Fourteenth amendment, far more clandestine racially divisive property practices continued, leading to the stark Delmar Divide seen today.
St. Louis was one of the last cities in America to be desegregated, with public school parents continuing to fight for educational desegregation past the seventies and well into the late nineties .
The history of the black working class is also emphatically different to the history of the white working class. Where the white working class arose out of the industrial revolution, the black working class arose out of slavery, emancipation, and many decades of uneven, and unjustly compensated work. At a time, black urban employment was higher than white urban employment, until amoral redlining laws and other racial restrictions negated the ability of black men to work, driving up the rates of black unemployment. The history of urban antebellum slavery is also inextricably linked to the emergence and subsequent denigration of the black working class. Urban black slaves often functioned as a form of contract labourer, where the contract existed only between foremen and slave owners. After emancipation, freed slaves and their sons acted as strike breakers, an attempt from industry bosses to hinder the collective bargaining powers of white workers (do you see where the resentment arises from?). The frequently inconsistent working patterns of black men in America prevented black men from establishing themselves in any one industry, as white workers were afforded the right to do, especially in the brewing and docking industries of St. Louis.
When you drive into St. Louis from Illinois, you’re seeing the white, industrial part of town. It seems like the rest of the mid-western hubs because it is a Midwestern hub. Honestly, when I initially compared it to Memphis, I was pretty wrong in my comparison because where central St. Louis is 74% white, central Memphis is 63% black. Memphis’ Midwestern comparison would be Detroit (83% black), and St. Louis’ comparison would be Green Bay (77% white). But still, attempting to make comparisons between St. Louis and any other city is pretty misguided, because of how unique the city is.
Though the city may often get categorized with other Midwestern cities, the city of St. Louis is steeped in a lot of highly racialized history, from its early beginnings with the Missouri Compromise, to the more recent Ferguson protests. The discussion surrounding the city, and whatever social movements that may occur within it is meaningless without a solid, contextualized understanding of what the identity of St. Louis truly is.