Nearly every American city has a neighborhood that has suffered from decades of disinvestment and blight, thus crippling the economic opportunity of its residents. Often, these neighborhoods are predominantly black. And we know that attempts to revitalize these neighborhoods through “trickle-down economic development” have failed — and will continue to fail.
Yet despite the global pandemic that disproportionately kills black Americans, I believe that St. Louis could become a model for mid-sized cities hoping to rebuild their blighted communities and recover from the pandemic.
Accelerator for America’s work in St. Louis, together with our partners at the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Drexel University’s Nowak Metro Finance Lab, and Washington University’s Social Policy Institute, is focused on supporting a number of leading institutions on the ground — including the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) and North Star — that are focused on the communities experiencing the most challenges and the people who have been driving real change there.
In St. Louis and so many American cities, it is extremely challenging to attract any kind of capital to the most distressed communities.
At the same time, it is easiest to attract capital that fosters economic activity by encouraging outside businesses and wealthier residents to move in, rather than by directly empowering the businesses and residents already there.
An unfortunate result of this external influx is that a large proportion of native residents end up being priced out, and they never experience the improved public services, lower crime, better schools and other benefits this outside investment brings. When gentrification does not result from outside investment, the result too often is dollar stores and other predatory businesses.
The issues we’ve seen in St. Louis are pervasive in so many other mid-sized cities today — deindustrialization, racial and economic segregation, blight, and vacancy.
There is no more striking example than St. Louis’ Delmar divide, the well-known “line” separating the city’s historically black and white neighborhoods. North of Delmar is 99% black with average home values of $78,000. Across the street, South of Delmar is 70% white with average home values of $310,000. In the face of this inequity (or directly because of it), institutions have finally been established to focus on vitalizing the North Corridor through the creation of community wealth — the institutions are focused on strengthening the economic security and fortunes of current residents and businesses.
Focusing directly on creating wealth within the communities themselves makes capital attraction harder, but, upon success, more impactful. It is a challenging problem to solve, but the communities that have made the most headway have created and/or empowered local institutions to facilitate the allocation of capital in a manner that prioritizes fairness, equity, and justice.
And it starts from within the city. The St. Louis Development Corporation has been so capably-led by Otis Williams, who is widely respected for his focus on the communities that have been left behind for so long. Additionally, Daffney Moore (the Development Corporation’s Chief Opportunity Zone Officer), has catalyzed and led the hard conversations that we hope will lead to material improvement. Local institutions and capital allocators are critical.
It has always been our belief that the focus of benevolent corporations and institutions should be on completing projects led by local communities, rather than imposed from outside.
Invariably, there are community organizations that have been the bedrock of predominantly black communities for generations, but these organizations are woefully undercapitalized. In North St. Louis, five social service organizations and economic development entities have joined forces under the banner of North Star Community Partners to pursue community-based development that prioritizes projects like the redevelopment of the Martin Luther King Corridor. Institutions like Invest STL and others led by young, black natives of the city portend good things for black St. Louisans.
St. Louis is as poised as any of its peers throughout the country to model the type of inclusive development needed to equitably revitalize the city. The leading candidates in the upcoming mayoral election are each focused on rebuilding and recovering all of St. Louis, and they are complemented by institutional and business leaders who have spoken publicly about the need to focus on the issues of economic segregation and racial uplift, especially since the murder of George Floyd. The question now is whether these promises, like many made before, will be capitalized and grounded in the black communities they intend to serve.