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Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Politics and Culture in Modern America) [Hardcover]

by Colin Gordon
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 15, 2008 0812240707 978-0812240702

Once a thriving metropolis on the banks of the Mississippi, St. Louis, Missouri, is now a ghostly landscape of vacant houses, boarded-up storefronts, and abandoned factories. The Gateway City is, by any measure, one of the most depopulated, deindustrialized, and deeply segregated examples of American urban decay. "Not a typical city," as one observer noted in the late 1970s, "but, like a Eugene O'Neill play, it shows a general condition in a stark and dramatic form."

Mapping Decline examines the causes and consequences of St. Louis's urban crisis. It traces the complicity of private real estate restrictions, local planning and zoning, and federal housing policies in the "white flight" of people and wealth from the central city. And it traces the inadequacy—and often sheer folly—of a generation of urban renewal, in which even programs and resources aimed at eradicating blight in the city ended up encouraging flight to the suburbs. The urban crisis, as this study of St. Louis makes clear, is not just a consequence of economic and demographic change; it is also the most profound political failure of our recent history.

Mapping Decline is the first history of a modern American city to combine extensive local archival research with the latest geographic information system (GIS) digital mapping techniques. More than 75 full-color maps—rendered from census data, archival sources, case law, and local planning and property records—illustrate, in often stark and dramatic ways, the still-unfolding political history of our neglected cities.

Editorial Reviews


"Colin Gordon combines intellectual rigor, a compelling argument, and extensive archival research with the latest geographic information system digital mapping techniques. Dozens of color maps, together with numerous figures and tables, allow the reader to examine the data with fresh eyes. Gordon's focus on a single city, a single neighborhood (Greater Ville), and even a single house (4635 North Market Street) gives his comprehensive analysis an immediacy and power that it might otherwise lack. And the prose is so thoughtful, so well written, and so engaged with recent scholarship that scholars on the topic will be fascinated."—Kenneth Jackson, Political Science Quarterly

"Knowledgeably argued, exhaustively researched, and accessibly written, Gordon's book also employs the latest in digital mapping technology. . . . For brick-and-mortar urban specialists . . . Mapping Decline is nothing short of monumental."—Urban History

"A searing indictment of policymakers, realtors, and mortgage lenders for deliberate decisions that sacrificed their own city of St. Louis on the altar of race. Colin Gordon's use of cartography to visualize this painful pattern of injustice and bad sense is a forceful exemplar for a new kind of history: one told visually as well as textually; analyzed spatially as well as chronologically. Written with empathy, Mapping Decline is a new milestone on the road toward a necessary reckoning of the precise responsibility for the extended urban crises of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries."—Philip J. Ethington, University of Southern California

"Colin Gordon has infused the 'old' story of urban decline with new energy and urgency. His mapping of St. Louis's evolution is a powerful indictment of the distorting, segregating, and wasteful effects of public policy over several generations. Yet the book is not just about history. Incredibly, as Gordon shows, current national and state policies and governmental fragmentation continue to undermine the recover of American cities at the precise moment when they matter again—economically, environmentally, and socially."—Bruce Katz, The Brookings Institution

About the Author

Colin Gordon is Professor of History at The University of Iowa and author of Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health Care in Twentieth- Century America and New Deals: Business, Labor, and Politics in America, 1920-1935.

Product Details

  • Series: Politics and Culture in Modern America
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press (April 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812240707
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812240702
  • Product Dimensions: 10.2 x 7.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,866,962 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Colin Gordon is Professor and Chair of History at the University of Iowa, where he has taught since 1994. He is the author of New Deals: Business, Labor and Politics, 1920-1935 (1994), Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health in Twentieth Century America (2003), and Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (2008). He is also a senior research consultant to the Iowa Policy Project, where he writes on state labor, health, and economic development policies. Colin Gordon received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1990.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Colin Gordon has put together an excellent reference for those interested in the economic history of St. Louis over the last 80 years, but with lessons that could easily apply to any other central city in the United States. We've all seen anecdotal evidence of these problems in run-down inner city neighborhoods, empty buildings in inner suburbs, and gleaming new parking lots in the outer suburbs, but Gordon uses data to back up these assumptions.

The book is roughly 1/2 maps and 1/2 text - and strikes the right balance at that. The maps serve to illustrate visually the scope and scale of "white flight," poor planning decisions, and the lunacy of a fractured metro government. While the city atrophies, suburbs further and further away compete for the same employers, the same stores, and the same residents.

While Gordon shies from making many overall conclusions based on the data and focuses more on presenting the history of what happened - this book provides a model blueprint for civic, business, and academic leaders to understand what to avoid in promoting "growth."
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This rings too true November 27, 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Mapping Decline does that and much more, following and explaining how St. Louis fell from the fourth largest U.S. city in 1910 to the 48th largest in 2000 and how the population fell from a high of over 800,000 in the 1940s to about 350,000 in 2000. Gordon's history rings true. His tale of racism, lack of leadership, suburban distrust of the city, political fragmentation, and mis-use of federal and state policies led policy makers across metroploitan St. Louis to ignore deteriorating residential neighborhoods to chase after high income residents and commercial development, assist developers rather than residents, and become more concerned with capturing taxes and jobs from neighboring municipalities than the good of the metropolitan area or its less-than-upper-middle class residents.

I am a native of St. Louis and an urban economist. I knew much of what Gordon writes, but it was great to have it all in one place and nicely tied together. Except for the chapter on the ever-evolving post-WWII urban renewal programs, the book reads easily, though the message is painful. His maps are useful, though those not familar with St. Louis geography will probably want to have a road atlas or GIS website handy. The message is important to anyone interested in the modern American city.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The sad story of a once-great city in decline February 12, 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book, though well-written and quite interesting, is as difficult and disturbing to read as your best friend's obituary, if, like me, you grew up in Saint Louis during the '40's and '50's, that city's last two decades of greatness - "First in booze, first in shoes, last in the American League" - before its decline into its current level of inconsequentiality. The population loss has been so great that, the last time that I was in my old neighborhood, the few houses still standing on my old block, though long-abandoned, still had the glass in their windows. The neighborhood is so deserted and empty that it lacks even vandals. I was surprised that I could see the Arch from in front of my former house. Then it struck me: there was not a single tree left standing anywhere, where once there was a virtual forest of London plane trees, spaced so tightly that nearly every house was shaded by its own tree.
The book tells how now-clearly-stupid decisions, some made back in the 19th C., almost inevitably led to to the death of the modern city. The decision to stick with the steamboat and block easy access to the city by railroads, the decision to make the city into a political entity separate from St. Louis County, yet forcing it to maintain the usual political entities needed by a county, but of no consequence to a city, e.g. there is a Sheriff of St. Louis County and a Sheriff of the City of Saint Louis, in addition to the expected Chief of Police usual in cities.
The book is centered around the history of a single house, located in my former neighborhood and once occupied by a family with whom I was personally acquainted.
Anyone interested in the history of a city and the social, political, and real-estate manipulations that brought it to its metaphorical knees and then killed it will find this book unputdownable.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful indictment of overt racism in St. Louis April 9, 2009
As someone who has pursued a career in urban public policy, and a native St. Louisan, this book is almost physically painful to read. I have read widely about the reasons for the decline of older American cities in general and St. Louis in particular, but nothing prepared me for the powerful impact that Professor Gordon's research, and his graphic depictions of his findings, would have. The fact that St. Louis went from a population of 800,000 people in 1950 to 350,000 in 2000 is bad enough. The fact that 'white flight' to the St. Louis suburbs occurred in part to avoid racial integration is common knowledge. But to see the GIS maps showing the extent and pace of these changes is just devastating.

While Professor Gordon argues that St. Louis is not unique among American cities, I find it hard to believe that other Northern cities experienced such overt racism, prolonged for so long a period of time. I cannot help but wonder whether this degree of racism, which seemed to pervade all levels of the public and private sectors into the 1970s, and distorted the city's federally funded programs intended to ease its problems, is a significant factor in the city's precipitous decline.
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