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Nov 2003 / communities :: email this story to a friend

Why People Remain in Struggling Neighborhoods
By Sean Thomas

Prompted by negative news reports about incidents or conditions in what could be called "struggling neighborhoods" of the city, outsiders may wonder why people continue to live in the city rather than doing the sensible thing by moving to the suburbs.

Sean Thomas I don't know if it's a representative sample, but most city residents I've met, including those living in struggling neighborhoods, think the good of city living outweighs the bad. In my work with residents of some of these neighborhoods, I have encountered a few individuals who continue to live in the city because they can't afford to move anyplace else. Most folks, however, do have options, and they choose to continue living in their neighborhoods for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. They have an optimistic outlook and hope for the future. No matter how serious the issues are that their neighborhood is struggling with, they have faith that the rough times will pass and their neighborhood can and will get better. They've seen a lot of changes in their time and know that if the Soviet Union could collapse, if the Berlin Wall could fall, if Nelson Mandela could be freed, and if apartheid could be dismantled, then it is not so outrageous to believe that they could revitalize their neighborhood.

  2. They believe in honoring the unwritten commitment they've made to their community. Whether out of stubbornness or loyalty, these individuals are not going to let anybody or any circumstances run them out of their home. They are going to do whatever it takes to beat back the forces of deterioration.

  3. And even if others define their neighborhood as struggling, they like where they live. These residents can find a lot to appreciate about their neighborhood, and many would argue with the label of "struggling," since they know of other neighborhoods that are worse off, and they know that supposedly "good" neighborhoods have problems of their own.

Despite the great variation in quality of life and neighborhood conditions among the city's 79 neighborhoods, residents of both struggling and vibrant neighborhoods tend to mention four aspects of city living that they like the most: the people, the affordability, the convenience, and the culture.

City residents often mention the sense of community with their neighbors. They say that their neighborhoods offer much of the best of small town life, where people know their neighbors and look out for each other. At the same time, these communities reflect one of the best characteristics of a cosmopolitan city, a diverse population. A good portion of the city is fairly integrated, despite its "tale of two cities" reputation as being divided into black and white sectors. As a white person, I have had positive experiences as a minority in the neighborhood where I grew up and in the neighborhood where I now live. In Skinker-DeBaliviere, where I grew up, and in Shaw, my current neighborhood, I have had friends and neighbors from Nigeria, the Philippines, England, India, Mexico, Russia, and Peru. Shaw also offers diversity beyond race and nationality. Residents represent a broad spectrum of incomes, renters and homeowners, and dozens of faiths and religions. The three most recent neighborhood association presidents were Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic.

In a metro area known for its low cost of living, the city is among the most affordable portions of the region, primarily due to the price of housing. When my wife and I were in our mid-20s, with a lot of student loans and not a lot of income, we were able to afford a 2,600-square foot brick home built in 1898. If we tried to buy a suburban home of similar size, it would cost us two or three times what we paid for our house.

The cultural treasures of the city are just too many to list here, but many of them are right around the corner, and most are free! As a child, I spent much of my free time in Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the nation. And now, just blocks from home, my children play soccer and baseball in Tower Grove Park, one of only three U.S. parks (along with Central Park and Boston Common) listed as a National Historic Landmark. Throughout the year, my family can walk to various festivals, such as the Historic Shaw Art Fair or the Festival of Nations, and almost every week during the summer we can attend children's activities and band concerts in the park or jazz concerts at the Missouri Botanical Garden. And I haven't even mentioned the shops and restaurants of South Grand.

The convenience of city living is largely a function of the proximity to employment centers, commercial and retail services, and the cultural resources I described earlier, as well as multiple highways. Because of the density of development within the city, it is easier to get by without a car. As a child, I couldn't imagine anyplace I would want to go to, other than Six Flags, that was outside of walking distance or not accessible by bus. When I was in graduate school, I was able to walk to the grocery store, the university, various jobs, nice restaurants, and a world-class park, in addition to having easy access to public transit. My current job is only an eight-minute drive from home. This short commute allows me time to walk my children to school in the morning and still get to work by 8 a.m. In the evening I can get home from work with time to spare before dinner.

The decision of where to live may boil down to abstract feelings more than logic, but city residents logically have concluded that the city's problems are not the only part of the quality of life equation. If that equation includes being part of a culturally rich and friendly community, with a low cost of living and more time to spend with family, then city living is a rather sensible choice.

Sean Thomas was most recently the deputy director of the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations, and is the new executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

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