America’s Wealth and the SuperZIPs of St Louis

Eric Garland Uncategorized Leave a Comment

The Washington Post has a great article out about how wealth in America is clustering into intense, contiguous regions: SuperZIPS. These are places where the wealth, education and world views of the residents are becoming ever more homogenous, and as income gaps grow, are becoming less accessible, even as an aspiration.

Zip codes are large swaths of territory, and people from many different walks of life live in them. But many Washington neighborhoods are becoming more economically homogenous as longtime homeowners move out and increasing housing prices prevent the less affluent from moving in. The eventual result, in many cases, is a Super Zip. And because the contiguous Super Zips are surrounded by areas that are almost as well-off, it’s possible to live in a Super Zip and rarely encounter others without college degrees or professional jobs.

“It’s a megalopolis of eggheads,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. Frey said Washington is an example of how the country is compartmentalizing itself into clusters of people with different backgrounds and world views.

Read it. It involves people wondering whether to get a live-in soccer pro or tennis pro for their kids as a way to increase the chances of a scholarship. Fo’ real.

There’s a great application at the top of the article that lets you punch in your ZIP code to see how you stack up in your town. I did so for my metropolitan area, Saint Louis, Missouri.

Saint Louis Super ZIP

Saint Louis is a classic case of “white flight,” or more accurately, “capital flight.” One hundred years ago, the color scheme of the map would have been considerably different. The light-colored bits would all be closer to the bow-curve of the Mississippi river, downtown. It would spill over across the river to East St. Louis, Illinois, a prosperous black community. (You may have heard of one of its most famous former residents, the son of a successful East St Louis dentist, Miles Davis.) People would move from neighborhood to neighborhood by one of the world’s largest networks of street cars. They would walk by one another cheek and jowl, headed to manufacturing jobs, housing, churches, shopping, or even burlesque shows, all piled on top of each other in the old fashion. This is what led St Louis to be called, non-ironically, the Paris of the Midwest.

Unfortunately, as in so many American cities, this pattern of infrastructure was built on a barely-hidden weakness: the stain of racism that has marked America for centuries. Then, as now, whites and blacks lived side-by-side without resolving the tragedies of the Civil War and Jim Crow. American cities confronted two major shifts in the middle of the 20th century – the Civil Rights movement and the adoption of the automobile. The former led many American cities to seethe with tension that broke out at times into riots and police brutality. As the 50s became the 60s, this reached a fever pitch just as the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system blossomed, opening up huge tracts of land for development. The suburbs exploded as moneyed interests, usually white, looked for a way out of the boiling cauldron of the “inner” cities.

Where did all the money go? Well, look at the contiguous yellow SuperZIPs. That’s your money. Interstate I-64 runs the East-West narrows down the SuperZIP, right to downtown. Need to get to work? Want to catch a Cardinals game? Hop on I-64 in Creve Coeur and you can be at Busch Stadium in seventeen minutes, without any uncomfortable side trips through neighborhoods where the street lights don’t work and the schools are being abandoned. And since St Louis City and St Louis County agreed not to share tax bases, “those neighborhoods” are not really the responsibility of any other citizen in the metropolitan area. It’s “their” problem, whoever they might be.

Oh, and East St Louis? That’s not even part of St Louis, you see. Now, that is considered “Illinois” and its terrifying poverty is not considered a shame to which St Louisans must claim shared responsibility. Only the very old remember a time when it was any different.

In my fair city, you have St. Louis Place, which has a median household income of $14,600 – the bottom percentile in the US – and Town and Country clear at the other end of the scale with $137,800 – the top percentile in the US. We live a fifteen minute drive from one another. Consider the social tension inherent in this urban design.

Where do I live? Well, as it so happens, Town and Country. My wife and I have fifteen years of university between us, so we’re the eggheads that William Frey references. We are surrounded by likewise. Some people from out this way tell me that they “almost never” go into town any more. Occasionally, I meet someone older who tells me about growing up downtown. “It was different back then, you see.”

As the Washington Post article shows, this is the pattern all over America. It is growing ever more intense. The institutions that are supposed to imbue wealth with a meritocratic façade, as opposed to a feudalistic determinism, are faltering. College tuitions increase yearly. Jobs with benefits evaporate. The tax on hoarded capital remains low. Unpaid internships are the hurdle for knowledge economy jobs. Infrastructure crumbles. Some neighborhoods pool their excess money to buy auxiliary police services. The political rhetoric stays roughly on script.

How long can this go on? I hope not forever.