Urban Exodus Began Early in St. Louis

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past, but beginning in December the newly formed Smoke Elimination Committee signaled that change was imminent. The committee completed its deliberations in early February and began working on its final report, one that promised sweeping changes.

By Bob Wyss

In the years after World War 2 cities across America were depleted when millions moved to the suburbs, leaving blight, poverty and crime in their wake.

Race, better housing and improved transportation have often been cited as the reasons.

In St. Louis that trend began in the 1930s.


Coal smoke was driving residents out of St. Louis in the years before the winter of 1939-40. – B Wyss

While the three reasons blamed in the 1950s exodus were factors, there was one other that was even more important in St. Louis – coal smoke.

That was the conclusion reached by both the St. Louis City Plan Commission and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in reports and news stories in 1939 and 1940.

“The situation in St. Louis city is precarious, both from the standpoint of real estate values and the standpoint of taxes necessary to operate needed municipal services,” said Harland Bartholomew, chief engineer for the plan commission. “It is not hopeless, however.”

To demonstrate why people were moving, the Post-Dispatch compared an older house in the city to a new one in the county, 15 miles away. The city house with seven rooms had an annual property tax bill of $89.47 a year and cost $4,250. The home in the county was only five rooms, but the yearly taxes were $42 and the price was $4,650.

A key difference was that for the urban dwelling “smoke often blankets the neighborhood in winter,” according to the Post-Dispatch. The rural house was “on high ground with a country view and clean air.”

Population had grown “astonishingly” in the county while it was stagnant in the city. Meanwhile construction was also up and wealth, as reflected by income tax returns, had also grown at a far greater disproportionate rate.

“The migration has been of all classes, from small wage earners up,” said the Post-Dispatch and writer Richard C. Baumhoff. “New homes in the suburbs are occupied by bankers and bakers, merchants and mechanics, clerics and clerks. Let your intentions be known and you will be besieged, not only by salesmen and builders, but by men who want to lend you a large slice of the price at low interest.”

Urban planner Lewis Mumford had already forecast the coming migration from city to suburb, warning that these migrants of the future might achieve trees and open space but they would pay by being confined into “a narrow, insular life that was all the class-segregated suburb could offer.”

Bartholomew worried that the city’s tax base was going to erode and St. Louis would struggle to provide the necessary level of services, a reality that came not only to St. Louis but virtually every other municipality by the late 1950s and 1960s.

Yet both the Plan Commission and Baumhoff’s article, while labeling coal smoke the primary problem, did not address how to solve it.

It somehow seemed easier to talk around the elephant in the room, rather than figure out how to move the elephant.

A situation really no different today on another coal smoke issue – global warming.


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