While the national media can't seem to get enough of the narrative that pretty, popular, once-thriving San Francisco is in the thralls of a drug- and crime-fueled nightmare, city officials keep trying to remind everyone that violent crime is actually pretty low here. Not so in St. Louis, where the downtown is even more deserted, and actually dangerous.
St. Louis has spent years among the country's most violent spots, with a homicide rate that is either the highest or one of the highest of any major city. But like in San Francisco and New York, the pandemic emptied out St. Louis's downtown core, and like in San Francisco, workers have been very slow to come back to their offices. And the picture has been bleak for years and growing bleaker.
Kevin McDermott, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has written a guest essay for the New York Times this week pointing out that while San Francisco has become "the national poster child of a city on the verge of a dreaded 'doom loop,'" the media has largely ignored the woes of second-tier St. Louis, which was losing population even before the pandemic began.
Part of this inattention may simply be that St. Louis's heyday as a midwestern hub and immigrant melting pot happened around 160 years ago, when San Francisco was just taking shape in its first boom. St. Louis had its population peak in 1950, when it was the country's eighth-largest city, with a population larger than SF's is today, 856,796. By 2019, that population had fallen to just over 300,000 and has since fallen further — and once-major employers like Anheuser-Busch and TWA have either disappeared or shrunk their rolls significantly in recent decades.
In other words, like Detroit's, St. Louis's "doom loop" is old news at this point.
But McDermott also points to the fact that St. Louis hasn't been much of a fixture in Fox News coverage and the like, because "St. Louis’s significantly more dire problems don’t neatly fit that conservative-media narrative" that is usually applied to San Francisco.
Basically, Republicans would like everyone to believe that liberal policies and lax law enforcement are always the biggest culprits in urban woes. But Missouri's legislature is Republican-dominated, and they have gone to great pains to counter every effort that St. Louis's Democratic city leadership has taken to limit the prevalence of guns.
"Virtually anyone can walk around [St. Louis] 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," McDermott writes.
McDermott goes on to point out that while the national media was breathlessly covering the San Francisco stabbing death of tech executive Bob Lee — for the ten days between his death and the revelation that his suspected killer was a fellow tech-employed acquaintance — some actual random violence was occurring near dailiy in St. Louis.
"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."
St. Louis has a progressive mayor and progressive district attorney, who are regularly blamed by the legislature for being anti-cop and being too soft on crime.
But while defunding the police might not be the answer in a place like St. Louis, they are simultaneously dealing with economic equalities, drugs, and the kinds of larger societal problems that often lead indirectly to criminal activity.
At least California has a $15.50 minimum wage, and the state hasn't tried to undermine San Francisco's local policy, which is set to go up to $18.07 on July 1. St. Louis had to get a referendum passed to skirt the Republican-led effort to reverse its $11/hour minimum-wage policy — statewide it was $7.65 per hour until just a few years ago, until voters approved a hike $12 per hour that began in January.
When making an honest living isn't possible, as it basically isn't at $8 an hour, you're going to see more criminal activity and more dependence on welfare. But saying things like that is incredibly controversial in Republican halls of power, where for decades the party platform has basically been that handouts are bad, but so are livable wages, and everyone should be able to own guns, shoot anyone who looks suspicious, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps without any help.
The Times piece doesn't even touch on the scourge of fentanyl, which may not be quite as prevalent yet in St. Louis as it is in San Francisco — but overdoses are the #1 cause of death among 18- to 44-year-olds in Missouri, and the numbers have been climbing steadily.
And, just to drive this point home: A bunch of other American cities are struggling post-pandemic, and this narrative about San Francisco as being somehow exceptional is getting tired. A study of cellphone activity in urban downtowns from December 2022 to February 2023 found that Minneapolis, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Portland, Oregon saw just slightly more activity than San Francisco did, but they are still hovering around 40% of their pre-pandemic activity levels.
Chicago also has a major downtown mall that is half empty, where a Macy's jumped ship on a flagship store two years ago.
So, there are your talking points for the next time your mom or Fox News-loving uncle asks you why the hell you're still living here.
Photo: Tiffany Cade