Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The trade-offs associated with sprawl were plain 50 years ago.
The population of the city of St. Louis stands today at about 320,000, just over a third of its peak in the 1950s. How it got there remains one of America’s starkest examples of center city abandonment and suburbanization—twin forces that each star in this remarkable documentary from 1965.
At the time this film was made, St. Louis’s downtown population was already in decline, while “inner ring” suburbs were bulging—and not just with bedroom communities, as narrator and host George Reading notes. Suburban residents enjoyed drive-in movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, and banks within a few miles of home, with “acres and acres of free parking.”
“With all this convenience, and all this free parking space, the modern metropolitan resident is constrained to repeat the question: Why go downtown at all?”
There’s a hint of danger in it—the threat, perhaps, of some kind of social disorganization on an enormous scale... What will happen with the surrounding belt of suburbs if this core simply disintegrates, and then vanishes? Could the suburban belt just go on expanding forever… leaving a bigger and bigger circle of nothing much in the middle?
Fifty years later, Alex Ihnen at NextSTL makes the case that little has changed. He writes:
We continue to talk about rapid transit expansion (a new MetroLink line), and urban transit in the form of streetcars and buses. We continue to preach the necessity of a strong urban core. We continue to complain about traffic and parking. What’s been learned, what’s changed in half a century?
Why are we still asking “Why go downtown at all”?