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The Delmar Divide in St. Louis

In St. Louis there isn’t a wrong side of the tracks so much as there’s a wrong side of Delmar. Delmar is an east-west drag in north-central St. Louis that separates the haves and have-nots, very visibly. The protests in St. Louis in 2020 brought this out very visibly, if unintentionally.

The Ken and Karen meme

On June 26, 2020, St. Louis mayor Lyda Krewson read the names and addresses of people who had written her letters asking for police reform. Out loud, on a Facebook broadcast. This led to immediate calls for her resignation, especially after one of the letter-writers was arrested during a protest in Florissant, a St. Louis suburb with its own police issues.

That weekend, protestors located where Krewson lives and organized a protest. But there was a problem. It’s on Portland Place, an exclusive gated community in the Central West End, the subject of a book by veteran St. Louis journalist Julius Hunter.

The protestors opened a gate (early reports that they broke down a gate are incorrect) and marched through, where they met two of Krewson’s neighbors. A husband-wife team of personal injury lawyers grabbed guns and stormed out the front door of their Gilded Age mansion originally built by members of the Busch family. That’s Busch as in beer. She waved a pistol at the protestors while he pointed an AR-15 alternately at his wife and at the protestors. Photos and video quickly surfaced and they became the Ken and Karen meme.

There are photos of a broken gate. The gate was indeed damaged at some point, but in photos and video taken at the start of the protest, the gate was clearly intact and undamaged. Twenty four people who live in the neighborhood wrote an open letter expressing outrage at the gun incident. Within a day, 14 additional neighbors agreed. The former conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, Leonard Slatkin, who once lived five houses down, wrote an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calling it unacceptable.

But in a poll conducted by the Post-Dispatch, 47% of respondents agreed with the urban rambos, while 53% sided with the protestors. A slim majority indeed.

Reports of a “credible threat” against their lives and property circulated on social media soon afterward. This threat turned out just to be another demonstration on July 3, this time on the public street that faces their house.

What drives a person to keep an AR-15 by the front door, and why does 47% of St. Louis think this is acceptable behavior? Let’s talk about the Delmar Divide.

Delmar Boulevard

Delmar Divide in St. Louis

These century-old mansions are within walking distance of the Delmar Divide in St. Louis. The poorest part of St. Louis starts just a block or two north of Delmar.

You could walk from Portland Place to Delmar Boulevard if you wanted to. It’s only about seven blocks away. Not everything immediately south of Delmar is a 15,000-square foot mansion like you’ll find on Portland Place. But if you’re wealthy and need to live in the city rather than in one of the upper middle-class suburbs, the Central West End is a likely landing spot. You can get an old and decadent home with some history in the area for a more modest $300,000-$350,000 if you’re not super rich yet. It just won’t be behind a gate on a private street.

Delmar itself is a business district, and there are businesses on both sides of the street. But stores like Family Dollar and Aldi tend to be on the north side, and the expensive specialty shops and boutiques tend to be on the south side.

Go a block or two north of Delmar, and then you see the Delmar Divide. The houses are run down, surrounded by vacant lots because the neighboring houses deteriorated beyond repair and were torn down, and they sell for a fraction what a comparable house a few blocks to the south would fetch.

North of Delmar is 99% Black, with a median home value of around $78,000 and a median income of $22,000.

South of Delmar is 73% white, with a median home value of $335,000 and a median income of $50,000. The yuppies in the $335,000 homes provide some buffer between the social elite and the people who don’t look like them.

It’s an extreme example of the phenomenon called the Up South. While there probably aren’t crosses burning on your front yard, there are restrictions on where you live. Off-the-books restrictions, but still, restrictions.

I should also note that Delmar extends to the west into the suburb of University City, and there is no Delmar divide there.

My Central West End Experience

I used to attend a lot of estate sales. Estate sales on exclusive streets like Portland Place are rare, but once every couple of years or so I’d find one. These streets are gated, and there are strict instructions which gate us nonresidents can use.

Of course someone like me can’t afford the furniture and antiques and other high-end items at these sales. And I don’t fit in especially well. I’ve encountered people in these sales who speak in the obscure Mid-Atlantic accent that William F. Buckley Jr. did, still taught at some of the exclusive St. Louis-area private schools. I’ve also encountered people in suits, or at least sportjackets. I don’t bother putting on a sportjacket to shop estate sales.

But I’ve picked up a lot of interesting trinkets and interesting books at these sales, including stuff that had good resale potential, when I was moonlighting doing that kind of thing.

I recall one unusual sale. I don’t recall exactly where in St. Louis it was, but I’ll never forget the contents. It was in a very large, expensive house. The estate had a huge collection of DVDs on extremist topics. I recall an instructional DVD on surviving a gunfight in your home. Another DVD was titled Combat Shotgun. There were others about the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, but most of it was about guns, and I’m not talking about use of guns at shooting ranges. This person, from the looks of things, thought about home invasion a lot.

When I saw this middle-aged husband and wife brandishing guns in their front yard, I thought of this sale. The guy with that unusual DVD collection might have kept an AR-15 near his front door too.

Don’t Cross Delmar!

My first experience with the Delmar Divide probably happened when I was 16 or 17. I was out with friends, probably trying to find a record store that used to be in that area in the early 90s. I wasn’t used to driving in the city and didn’t know my way around all that well, but this time, for whatever reason, I was driving. And I missed my turn, so I figured I’d continue going north and try to find a place to turn around.

“Dude! Don’t cross Delmar!” one of my passengers said.

I dismissed him. What’s wrong with Delmar? It’s just a road.

I went through the light, and had to swerve to avoid a beat-up car that had a lot less to lose in a collision than I did. It looked like it had just been in a wreck and the driver didn’t seem to mind getting in another one. And once I was past the businesses, I noticed the houses looked a lot like that car. St. Louis’ reputation for being dangerous is overblown, but this neighborhood looked scary.

I got turned around as quickly as I could to get back onto the other side of Delmar.

How Delmar became a divide

St. Louis has a race problem, but it also has a class problem. St. Louisans are notorious for asking each other where they went to high school. The answer to that question tells you two things: what part of town you grew up in, and how rich your parents were. If you went to an exclusive private school, that opens doors for you that attending a more pedestrian school might not. If you’ve ever wondered why sportscaster Joe Buck is more likely to mention where athletes went to high school than to college, that’s the St. Louis still in him.

St. Louis had laws to enforce segregation, but even after those laws were struck down, the white neighborhoods took off-the-books measures to keep their neighborhoods white. The area north of Delmar was where middle-class African Americans settled. If you discounted the mansions, it was almost a separate-but-equal arrangement. There’s not a ton of difference in square footage between the homes on either side of Delmar, and you can find stellar architecture north of Delmar too. Technically it was legal for a Black family to buy a house south of Delmar, but first they had to convince a realtor to show them the house. Then they’d have to convince a bank to give them a loan on that house. And then the seller would have to accept the offer. The odds of all three of those things happening weren’t good if you didn’t look like the neighbors.

The neighborhoods north of Delmar stayed separate but swung away from equality after World War II. Gentrification targeted the poor African-American neighborhoods. And when the time came to tear down neighborhoods in the name of progress, whether it was to expand St. Louis University or make room for the interstate highway system, it was generally the poor black neighborhoods that were chosen. As the white middle class left North St. Louis, displaced African Americans settled there. And eventually the middle class African Americans also left for the suburbs, opening that area near Delmar up for poorer African Americans. The area remained segregated, but with a class division in place along with the racial division, the neighborhoods north of Delmar fell into a worse state of disrepair.

Fixing the Delmar Divide

Realtors pitch properties just north of Delmar as ripe for rehabilitation. Many of the homes are large and have the distinctive St. Louis architecture. There has been some gentrification north of Delmar, and that trend is likely to continue in decades to come.

However, there is a difference between displacing a problem and fixing the problem. Making the homes near Delmar more expensive doesn’t solve the problem of people in the neighborhood making $22,000 a year and only having a 10% chance of having a bachelor’s degree. The tens of thousands of people who live in those neighborhoods now have to live somewhere.

Meanwhile, a very loud and vocal minority lives in constant fear of that population. Consuming a steady diet of fear-based television, they are convinced that hordes of criminals stand at the gates, ready to break in and steal their big-screen TVs, burn down their house, and who knows what else.

The fear problem is the harder problem to solve. Crime television sells big. And unfortunately, it increases the perception that crime is getting worse, even though the overall trend of crime has been on a downward trajectory for decades. There was a spike in violent crime in the mid 1980s but crime levels have decreased since then. Unfortunately, that story doesn’t get good ratings.

Fixing desperation

One thing is generally true, however. Desperate people are more likely to commit crimes than people who have their basic needs met. And someone who makes $22,000 a year or less has a hard time meeting their basic needs. At $22,000 a year, you can’t afford to spend more than $600 a month on housing. If you can get a loan the numbers work, but not if you rent there. Based on the property values, $780 would be average.

The usual answer is to get an education, work hard, and better yourself. But the St. Louis Public School District was unaccredited from 2007 to 2017. That means any adult under the age of 31 in the area today received a subpar education for at least part of their educational career.

Community college is another frequently cited answer, but that’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. If you’re making $22,000 a year and struggling to pay rent, it’s hard to come up with the $3,500 a year it costs to go to school. It’s also hard to work 39 hours a week, attend classes for 15 hours a week, and still spend the 30 hours a week studying that it takes to really get the most out of that education. I know it’s possible because I did it, for one semester. My work and academic performance would have suffered if I’d done it much longer than that.

Joining the military is another frequently cited easy cure. And many do exercise that option. The military is disproportionately made up of minorities, at 36 percent. But that’s not an option if you have any significant health issues.

There’s no one single thing that fixes the problem. A combination of raising the minimum wage, funding primary and secondary education, and lowering the cost of higher education is necessary. And these are high on the list of things the white upper class doesn’t want to do. Because unlike forcing people into the armed forces or simply saying minorities don’t work hard enough, those solutions might cost us non-minorities something.

I’ve traced poor African American families through St. Louis for the past 100 years, and the pattern I see is that providing bare-minimum education just results in generation after generation making minimum wage and bouncing from poor neighborhood to poor neighborhood.

Accepting responsibility

Any answer must include the white middle- and upper-class accepting that we’re getting out of the system what we put into it. The wealthy St. Louis suburb of Ladue spends $65 million a year on its school district. Ladue’s population is 8,635. St. Louis spends $300 million on its school district. Its population is 318,000. Ladue spends $7,527 per citizen per year on education while St. Louis spends $1,342. In 2018, St. Louis was spending $943.

Is it any wonder that Ladue gets better outcomes?

Missouri as a whole spends $100 a year more on instructing students than it does on incarcerating prisoners.

We have to be willing to test the theory that given the choice between a life of crime and a path into the middle class, the majority of African Americans will choose the path to the middle class, just like any other race would. We haven’t been providing a path to the middle class, and we’re not even willing to accept the reality that crime is decreasing in spite of ourselves.

The desire to keep property taxes and the price of tacos as low as possible has resulted in an environment that creates desperation and, thus, forces some people into crime. It’s by addressing the underlying issues, measuring the improvements, and repeating them that we can get rid of the things we don’t like, namely, poverty and crime. If we approach it like an engineering problem, it’s not hard to solve.

The result will be higher property values and lower crime if nothing else, and both of those are good things.

As a computer security engineer, I can tell you that when you don’t maintain an IT system, entropy sets in and the system degrades over time. You can get away with it for a while, but eventually it catches up with you. When you do maintain it, the system works well and you catch small problems and correct them before they become big problems. St. Louis north of Delmar is like a computer system that’s been unmaintained for decades. Fixing it is going to take more than simple ideas that fit in 15-second sound bites and don’t cost anything.

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1 thought on “The Delmar Divide in St. Louis”

  1. The usual answer is to get an education, work hard, and better yourself. But the St. Louis Public School District was unaccredited from 2007 to 2017. That means any adult under the age of 31 in the area today received a subpar education for at least part of their educational career.

    Having a very thick gap line between best universities and colleges in the world and unaccredited schools does not help the middle class with their kids education at all.

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