Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

8, February 2017
Halftone of a rendering of St. Louis as it was predicted to look in 2010This 1910 halftone predicting what St. Louis would look like 100 years later shows residents' confidence in the city's continued prominence. Missouri History Museum.

America’s cities are sources of controversy. Some people see them as places where the American dream has gone to die; others celebrate them as places where the American dream is alive and thriving.

How did communities that were once the sites of such promise—especially St. Louis—become ground zero for seemingly every major ongoing political conflict? Mapping Decline, a new traveling exhibit created by the Missouri History Museum and the Missouri Humanities Council, provides some much-needed historical perspective on this very question.

Inspired by University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon’s acclaimed book of the same title, this exhibit explores the problems facing St. Louis and other cities nationwide, from the past to the present. It also illustrates how a complex array of decisions led to the de-valuing of the American city over the course of the 20th century. These decisions weren’t born out of recent trends. Rather, they were decades in the making. The gradual and systematic removal of jobs, revenue, and other resources from America’s urban areas crippled the economic and political growth of entire states and regions.

Mapping Decline augments this troubling story with—you guessed it—detailed maps that help visitors visualize otherwise abstract themes, such as housing discrimination. Gordon built these maps by combining innovative digital-mapping technology with raw data, such as census records, archival manuscripts, and court cases, much of which came from MHM’s extensive collections.

Color screenshot of 1970 map from Mapping Decline websiteColin Gordon's maps in Mapping Decline reflect the urban dynamics that crippled St. Louis and other American cities over the course of the 20th century. Image courtesy of Colin Gordon.

As the assembled maps, stories, and images in this exhibit show, the decisions leading to disinvestment in urban St. Louis played out on a variety of scales, shaping demographic and economic trends in the city, the surrounding county, and the state as a whole. Often these decisions had even larger ramifications, particularly as St. Louis became infamous for its job losses, segregation, and decreasing revenue throughout the 20th century.

Sepia-toned photo of dilapidated housing in Mill Creek ValleyBy 1959, St. Louis's Mill Creek Valley had fallen victim to the mid-20th-century upheavals happening in the country's urban areas. Photo by Larry Gray. Missouri History Museum.

As St. Louis and other cities were suffering these startling examples of decline, they also became more vulnerable due to shrinking tax bases and disappearing services that further eroded residents’ quality of life. Suburban-based municipalities and construction projects arose specifically to take advantage of these urban hardships. They poached cities' resources in patterns that often mirrored disturbing aspects of American life, such as racist lending practices in banking and restrictive housing covenants that helped hasten segregation.

Along the way, however, Mapping Decline also explores an essential and perhaps more uplifting point: Love ’em or hate ’em, America’s cities aren’t going away anytime soon. Despite attempts to undermine and cripple them, cities have endured against the wishes of their most vehement opponents. In fact, many today are thriving, ready to fight for a more democratic future.

You can catch the Mapping Decline exhibit at the Missouri History Museum from now until about mid-February and at MHM's Library and Research Center for some time after that. You can also contact the Missouri Humanities Council to see where the exhibit will be next or to request it at your location.

—Jesse Gant, Exhibit Content Lead

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