On the edge: middle neighborhoods

Webber joins experts on discussion about disappearing middle neighborhoods

book jacketLike many American cities, St. Louis is a mix of poor neighborhoods like Walnut Park and Baden and enclaves of affluence such as the Central West End and Lafayette Square. And then there are neighborhoods like North Pointe and Bevo, disappearing “middle neighborhoods.”

“These neighborhoods may not be places of grand houses or great attractions, but they are where people very successfully have raised their families and sent their kids to schools for many, many years. And they are very affordable,” said Henry S. Webber, executive vice chancellor for administration at Washington University in St. Louis. “They deserve our attention.”

Paul Brophy, a leading expert in economic development and the editor of “On the Edge: America’s Middle Neighborhoods,” is coming to Washington University in St. Louis on Thursday, April 27, to discuss why middle neighborhoods matter, along with Webber and author Alan Mallach, who both contributed to “On the Edge.” The discussion also will include a panel of local civic leaders, among them Mary McMurtrey, of the St. Louis Community Foundation; Alana Green, of the St. Louis Community Development Administration; St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie; Reginald Scott, of the Lemay Housing Partnership; and Todd Swanstrom, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Here, Webber explains the challenges facing middle neighborhoods and what strategies local leaders could employ to support them.

What trends have you observed in middle neighborhoods?

There is no doubt that economically, some neighborhoods are getting wealthier, many are getting poorer and that there are fewer neighborhoods in the middle. There is a great hollowing out of the middle. That trend is disturbing for an entire set of reasons. It threatens the stability and tax base of cities. It reduces the opportunities of lower-income people. It reduces diversity. It makes wealth accumulation for working-class families difficult. The great promise of America is the promise of equality of opportunity and the ability to, out of differences, become better. As we live together less often, we lose equality of opportunity.

How can these neighborhoods be supported?

The first thing is to recognize middle neighborhoods are important and worthy of our attention. That does not mean we should be diverting attention from neighborhoods of deep poverty. But without attention, many middle neighborhoods in slow-growth cities like St. Louis will decline, and poverty will grow. Because these are middle neighborhoods — not deeply distressed neighborhoods — the interventions can be quite modest, such as programs to help people improve their homes, improved marketing, farmers’ markets or renovating local parks. The key is to build confidence in current and potential residents in the future.

It’s easy to see why city leaders would push middle neighborhoods down the priority list when low-income neighborhoods need much help.

I agree and would never argue that resources should be diverted from low-income neighborhoods. But one of the ironies is that it’s not just poor neighborhoods that currently get attention — wealthy neighborhoods also get attention because that’s where real estate development happens and where millennials often want to be. In some ways, that’s appropriate because those neighborhoods have the institutions that draw people to cities. But in some ways, I think we need more balance. Maybe it’s time to give a little more attention to Bevo and North Pointe.  

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