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Bartholomew’s best-laid plans for St. Louis go awry

(this article was originally published in 2008 for the East-West Gateway Council of Government newsletter. It followed an appearance at that year’s East-West Gateway annual meeting by Colin Gordon, author of “Mapping Decline.” For a more current take on racial segregation in the St. Louis metro area, read the recent Where We Stand update:

When Harland Bartholomew died in his home in Clayton in 1989, his obituary in the New York Times described him as “the dean of comprehensive planning in the United States.”

In Colin Gordon’s book, “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City,” Bartholomew doesn’t get such a rave review. Gordon credits Bartholomew with being a pioneer in urban planning. Yet in the case of St. Louis, Gordon documents how Bartholomew repeatedly yielded to the base instincts of local leaders. Those leaders wanted to maintain and even intensify racial and class segregation, which preserved and compounded economic and educational disparities in our political geography and led to the incorporation of multiple small municipalities that makes regional efforts for regional progress and improvement far more difficult.

In short, Bartholomew’s plans ultimately helped petrify the region’s problems and made them harder to solve, even decades after his death.

Bartholomew, 100 years old at the time of his death, was described in his obituary as the “nation’s first full-time city planner” when he went to work for the city of Newark in 1914. Two years later he came to St. Louis as a city engineer and later opened a consulting firm that eventually prepared comprehensive plans for more than 500 cities and counties throughout the country.

His arrival in St. Louis in 1916 coincided that year with the passage by city voters of a racially restrictive zoning ordinance that was an attempt to limit, by zoning, where African-Americans could live. In 1917, the United States Supreme Court ruled the ordinance to be unconstitutional.

From his early days in St. Louis, Bartholomew made it clear he wasn’t going to buck the social status quo. In a legal filing in 1922, Bartholomew stated, “where values have depreciated, homes are either vacant or occupied by colored people or boarding houses.” He further stated at the same time that declining property values force “our people” to suburban districts. With such views, Bartholomew found kindred spirits in local real estate and political circles.
Having failed in 1917 to impose residential segregation by law, local leaders preoccupied by race tried a different method. They devised and promoted restrictive deed covenants that once signed by homeowners, prevented white owners from selling to black buyers.

Those restrictive covenants set strict limits on where blacks in St. Louis could live. Again, it took the United States Supreme Court to trump this local segregationist effort, though it was not until 1948 that Shelly v. Kraemer made restrictive covenants illegal.

Gordon maintains that Bartholomew’s push to incorporate small municipalities in St. Louis County designed for 8,000 or fewer residents was a way of using restrictive zoning to replace restrictive covenants. By only allowing single-family lots of a certain size and keeping the municipalities small, it virtually guaranteed communities that would be homogenous by race and class. Gordon maintains Bartholomew and his planners did this intentionally.

“I don’t think it really was by stealth, it was quite open and candid at the time,” Gordon says. Developers had already gone into St. Louis County and subdivided land and built private subdivisions prior to any municipal incorporation. Every new piece of property had restrictive covenants for 20 years or more, “stating the owner could not sell to Negroes, it was attached to the original deed,” says Gordon.

When the ruling in 1948 threw out restrictive covenants, those white interests who promoted them became nervous.

“What Harland Bartholomew and others planners did in complicity with local authorities was to come in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and say quite candidly, ‘The restrictive covenants are about to expire, we recommend you zone exclusively single family large lot zones as a way of perpetuating the effect of those covenants.’ That subtly shifted the emphasis from race to class although with much the same effect,” Gordon says, because at that time if you kept the poor out, you kept most blacks out. “These single family zones were created and justified quite explicitly, if you read the correspondence of the time, as a way of sustaining the effect and the spirit of race restrictive deed covenants.”

Gordon acknowledges that Bartholomew and others may have thought what they were doing was merely facilitating the free choices made by people in a free market. “We want to move out, have greener pastures and a bigger house, the whole nine yards,” Gordon says. “Yet, what was less openly acknowledged was that this was sustained by restricting who could make those kind of choices. African Americans were essentially barred from moving to the suburbs until the 1950s.”

Even after restrictive covenants were voided, the Federal Home Administration used local realtors as guides to rate homes on a block-by-block basis. Often those federal mortgage decisions only allowed loans in areas that had been covered by restrictive covenants, thereby giving the illegal covenants a lasting effect.

Bartholomew and his fellow planners may not have created the demand for racial and class separation, though Gordon’s analysis contends they enabled those desires to become reality and thereby created long-lasting problems. By obstructing blacks from bigger houses, safer neighborhoods, and better schools, Gordon believes Bartholomew’s guidance helped perpetuate their economic and social disadvantage.

Once residential patterns were set, under the “peculiar American tax system” African-Americans were forced to live in areas of “direst need” that because of their tax base were least able to raise funds to meet those needs. For example, a troubled school district that is funded by a tax base limited to an economically distressed jurisdiction is doubly burdened.

Gordon’s analysis of the evolution of St. Louis does not single out Bartholomew as a villain.
“Bartholomew is an interesting character. Next to Robert Moses he’s probably the most influential urban planner of his generation,” says Gordon. “He was an engineer by training and basically what he was doing, as a sort of a problem-solving exercise, was try to find ways to create and sustain small, homogenous, safe suburban neighborhoods. This is what he was directed to do by his clients. In a sense he gave them good, what in retrospect seems like racially tinged, advice which was to sustain restrictive covenants through zoning.”

Trying to do otherwise would have amounted to swimming upstream.

“If you think about planning, real estate and development interests, between the 1940s and the 1960s, I would say their highest ethic and their highest goal is the protection of property values,” says Gordon. “What it meant was facilitating escape from what was initially the industrial filth of the city and later what was seen as the racial transition of the city. They wanted to make it possible for people to escape.”

The problem was by “escaping” the city, Bartholomew and his planners gave those who fled not much more than temporary havens from their anxieties and by doing so helped legitimize a pattern of thinking that discouraged residents and politicians from thinking and acting regionally.

The plans Bartholomew offered to please his clients’ desire to maintain race and class boundaries created lasting obstacles to the type of inter-jurisdictional cooperation needed to improve the quality of life in St. Louis. The metro area’s dozens of school districts, more than 100 municipalities, and hundreds of special purpose taxing districts are often credited with limiting efforts to stimulate the St. Louis economy and put up roadblocks to equity in taxation, adequate citizen services, and quality public education for all regardless of location.

Bartholomew’s plans took unfair situations and tried to perpetuate them, at his client’s request and in the name of “good government.” He was the architect of a political and geographic reality that made attempts to improve life in St. Louis far more difficult for his successors to achieve, long after he was gone.


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