Fertile Ground:

Achieving Equity in Development Starts With How We View Neglected Neighborhoods

By Michael P. McMillanJan. 27, 2021

Fertile Ground:

Achieving Equity in Development Starts With How We View Neglected Neighborhoods

By Michael P. McMillanJan. 27, 2021

In a research article entitled Measuring Inclusion in America’s Cities, St. Louis, in 2016, ranked 248th out of 274 cities on overall inclusion, 224th on economic inclusion, and 248th on racial inclusion. From 2013 to 2016, St. Louis’s economic health rank increased from 260th to 254th. Over the same time period, the city became less inclusive, falling from 238th to 248th in the overall inclusion rankings.

Just recently, Zillow published a report indicating the value of homes in St. Louis owned by African-Americans is valued .41 less per dollar than those of white homeowners making our city one of the worst in value of homeownership in the country.

The mission of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Inc. is to empower African Americans and others throughout the region in securing economic self-reliance, social equality and civil rights. Daily, we see the results of the divestment in our community; 83% of the clients we see for initial support come to us for safety-net services: food, utility and rental assistance, and housing support. Equitable investment hasn’t yet hit their neck of the woods.

These are ominous indicators and sadly, not new. The coronavirus pandemic is revealing the consequences of neglecting poor people, people of color, and the LGBTQIA community. Our entire community pays the price for development practices that are not inclusive—flight, blight, and unfulfilled promises are the byproducts. 

The Urban League recently partnered with the Regional Business Council and Fred Weber Construction on a neighborhood stabilization effort including painting the Grand Water Tower in the College Hill neighborhood. Although there is a new revitalization effort underway, this neighborhood, with its sweeping river views and access to a major highway should be a developer’s dream but instead it suffers—community-driven development efforts stall, property values continue to drop and flight prevails. If we are to be true urban champions and meet the standard of a great city, then every neighborhood must be viewed as fertile ground. Equitable development is a requirement not an option.

Fortunately, there is progress. Alderman John Muhammad’s push for development in O'Fallon Place will restore one of the city’s oldest and at one time grandest neighborhoods. Dream Builders 4 Equity is doing amazing work in Hyde Park and Kevin Bryant has exciting new plans for the long-neglected Kingsway East/West neighborhoods. All of these projects represent the promise of our city.

In its comprehensive Economic Development Strategy 2017-2022, the St. Louis Development Corporation noted, “The challenge is apparent. While it is, of course, desirable that the metropolitan area expand, in terms of jobs, population, and prosperity, the City and County are losing ground—both numerically and relatively.”

Despite its population loss and slow embrace of inclusive development, there is room for optimism and even excitement. St. Louis is an important mid-size metropolitan area. Our size is our strength; our challenges are not insurmountable. What excites me most is the fresh thinking and willingness to be nimble.

The pandemic certainly provided a sobering view of the inequalities and impact of divestment but what if the pandemic could also reveal the infinite possibilities that still remain in our great city? What if companies, devastated by supply line challenges during the pandemic, start to look to cities again as manufacturing and distribution hubs? St. Louis’ history as a river city and transportation hub means we’re built for that. Companies looking for land need not settle only for suburbia; our city has enough vacant tracts to suit most any need.

Barclays has said Covid-19 is accelerating the “retail death curve,” the shift of business to e-commerce. They project that in five years, 30% to 40% of still-existing physical shops will close. What if St. Louis had the courage to tackle the digital divide in our city and unleash the creativity of our youth to support retail’s move to e-commerce?

What if we began to see our challenges as our opportunity? I believe St. Louis, with its manageable size, location and commitment to advancement, can lead on the issue of equitable development but it will take systemic change in all of our institutions—education, government, corporate—and long-term investment. 

The Racial Equity Alliance developed an excellent framework for achieving racial equity through equitable development.  Of note is a particular finding: “When we achieve equitable development, we increase the capacity of people of color to strengthen their communities and determine their own future and that of their neighborhoods. We distribute the benefits and burdens of growth equitably among people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, incomes, and geographies/neighborhoods.”

I believe in the power of that premise and I believe St. Louis can rise to the challenge. The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis stands ready to partner with those willing to accept the challenge.

About the author

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Michael McMillan

President and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis
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Michael P. McMillan is the President and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Inc., a nonprofit organization that has been providing social services to the metropolitan St. Louis community since 1918. The St. Louis Urban League is the largest affiliate of the NUL movement headquartered in New York City. The Urban League’s mission is “to assist African Americans and others throughout the region in securing economic self-reliance, social equality and civil rights.” Each year, the Urban League serves more than 100,000 residents with economic opportunity, educational excellence, community empowerment, civil rights and advocacy programs. As an advocate for social and economic parity, McMillan speaks on behalf of Urban League constituents.