Opinion | St. Louis Is the Struggling Downtown You Haven’t Heard Of — and Right-Wing Policies Are Making Things Worse

Empty storefronts dot most of the blocks around my downtown neighborhood these days and have overtaken some of them. Once a buzzy destination for shoppers and diners, downtown today frequently looks deserted, its visitors presumably repelled by reports of violent crime, homelessness and blight. Upper-floor offices, once packed with white-collar workers eager to hit the bars at quitting time, now sit mostly empty. The comforting sounds of sidewalk diners and live music that used to hum along with the traffic on summer nights has been replaced by sirens, or silence.

Based on extensive media coverage, I could be describing post-pandemic San Francisco, currently the national poster child of a city on the verge of a dreaded “doom loop.” Major outlets have breathlessly reported San Francisco’s every blow, but conservative media were the first to hold the city up as evidence of the utter failure of progressive urban policies.

Yet St. Louis’s significantly more dire problems don’t neatly fit that conservative-media narrative. Unlike San Francisco, St. Louis is a blue island in a red state, and conservative state policies have at least partly driven the city’s decline. More apt parallels to St. Louis are places like Kansas City, Mo., Memphis, Nashville and Little Rock, Ark.: liberal enclaves that in a macrocosm of the worst kind of family dysfunction are at the mercy of conservative state governments. The consequences of this dysfunction can be far-reaching.

In 2015, for example, St. Louis passed an ordinance to gradually raise the state’s $7.65 minimum wage for workers in the city to $11 by 2018 — prompting passage of a state law that retroactively prohibited cities from passing their own minimum wage hikes and dropping St. Louis workers’ minimum by more than $2 overnight. (Missouri voters later responded with a statewide referendum that stepped around the legislature and gradually raised the state’s minimum wage to $12 by this year.) The pandemic magnified that kind of dysfunction just as it became a primary battlefield in the culture wars.

St. Louis has been steadily losing population for years, dipping below 300,000 in 2020 for the first time since the mid-1800s — but the virus accelerated the decline. The effects were acute in my downtown neighborhood, particularly in emptying out the office workers, who scattered away to Zoom from their suburban homes and have never fully returned.

A July 2022 Brookings Institution analysis described urban population loss during the pandemic as “historic.” The report highlighted cities like San Francisco, New York, Washington, Boston — and St. Louis. Some downtowns have since bounced back. St. Louis, like San Francisco, isn’t among them.

The reasons are debatable, but St. Louis’s politically fraught relationship with its Republican-controlled state government certainly hasn’t helped. Even as St. Louis leaders and schools struggled to navigate the once-in-a-century plague by following federal pandemic guidelines and expert advice, they had to contend with a barrage of lawsuits from Republican Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt (now the state’s junior senator) demanding that they drop their mask mandates.

And while San Francisco is certainly struggling with the fact that many of its office workers haven’t returned, its violent crime rate — despite so much discussion suggesting the contrary — has not yet equaled prepandemic levels. St. Louis, in contrast, has been at or near the highest annual homicide rate of any major city in America over the past several years.

To combat crime, the legislature offered the helping hand of attempting a state takeover of the city’s police force. The narrative from the right was that the city’s soft-on-crime policies were to blame for the unmoored violence that is driving the city’s economic decline, so the police need to be under outside control.

Left out of that narrative is the fact that gun crime here is abetted by Missouri gun laws that are among the loosest in the nation. Virtually anyone can walk around the city with a gun, with no state-mandated background check and few state-level restrictions, and there’s next to nothing the police can do about it until the shooting starts. The state has rebuffed all entreaties from the city to be allowed to enforce some kind of permit requirement.

St. Louis is hardly alone in this. That kind of tension between blue cities with higher-than-average crime rates and red-state legislatures that have forced unusually loose gun laws upon them has played out repeatedly in courtrooms, statehouses and city halls.

The nation watched in April as Tennessee’s legislature expelled one Nashville Democrat and one Memphis Democrat for their role in a statehouse protest demanding tighter state gun laws. When a Black Kansas City teenager was shot in the face in April by a white homeowner after mistakenly ringing the wrong doorbell, police noted that Missouri’s “stand your ground” law, which removes the duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense, may apply to the case. The Memphis City Council’s recent efforts to create a gun-permit requirement in the city has run headlong into Tennessee’s permitless-carry law. The city of Little Rock was sued in 2021 for refusing to allow guns in its city hall, in alleged violation of Arkansas’ gun statutes.

A result of all of this is a strange duality: on one side, a national media-fueled apparition, on the other, an ignored reality. As the whole country was being told about the April 4 San Francisco stabbing death of the prominent tech executive Bob Lee — which attracted a storm of criticism before that narrative was undermined by the arrest of an acquaintance of Mr. Lee — actual random violent crime continued plaguing St. Louis.

In the few days before Mr. Lee died, a St. Louis man was shot to death in the middle of the day, and another was wounded in a nighttime hail of bullets that also hit at least 10 cars in the area. On the day Mr. Lee died, the driver of a getaway car involved in a violent store robbery in St. Louis County allegedly caused a crash that killed another driver. St. Louis police that day also found a body rolled up in carpet and plastic in a parking lot. The next day, a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed on the city’s troubled north side.

Conservative critics inevitably point to the city’s progressive leadership as part of the problem. Mayor Tishaura Jones was elected in 2021 with a campaign that de-emphasized traditional policing, and among her first actions was to cut almost 100 vacant police positions and shift police funding to social services. The city prosecutor, Kimberly Gardner, who frequently feuded publicly with the police during her tenure, was forced to resign in May after her office bungled or dropped a series of high-profile criminal cases, sometimes with tragic consequences.

But while the case might be made that the city’s progressive leaders have hampered law enforcement, it could also be argued that the supermajority-Republican legislature has made matters worse with its annual campaign to push state laws ever farther right in ways that directly affect St. Louis.

A glaring example is the state’s Second Amendment Preservation Act, signed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson in 2021, which prohibits Missouri officials from enforcing federal firearms laws that do not accord with state law. St. Louis and the county that includes Kansas City sued (the city and state governments here trade lawsuits like St. Louis gang members trade bullets), arguing the law is unconstitutional and has made local police hesitant to work with their federal counterparts for fear of inadvertently violating it.

The state has been unhelpful in other ways. The largest-ever Missouri state income tax cut that lawmakers passed last year will inevitably affect St. Louis and every other city in Missouri, where basics like infrastructure and education remain chronically underfunded. Regarding the endemic problem of unhoused St. Louisans, there isn’t wide agreement among city leaders and advocates about how to best address the issue, but few think a new state law that effectively criminalizes homelessness on state property is the solution.

St. Louis, flush with federal stimulus cash, is trying to stop the slide with progressive initiatives that included a pilot program that directed $500 monthly payments to struggling families and a $37 million program to spur investment in the city’s long-neglected north side. The city has earmarked $250 million in federal pandemic aid for business start-ups and affordable housing, and is lobbying private institutions to help raise hundreds of millions more to create housing and small-business loan programs.

Republican critics maintain it is the city’s de-emphasizing of policing that’s the real problem, and as such the legislature in 2021 passed a state law that effectively penalizes cities that cut their police budgets. But even the largest St. Louis police force would still be policing a city flooded with unregulated guns and few tools to confront them, courtesy of those same Republican state leaders. A current effort to pass a statewide ballot referendum that would go around lawmakers to give St. Louis the authority to impose firearms permits and other reforms is the kind of Hail Mary the city is left with. Whatever impediments San Francisco faces in confronting its problems, at least it doesn’t have an adversary rather than a partner in its state Capitol.

Kevin McDermott is the editorial page editor for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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