One of the most infuriating moments that I ever experienced took place about 25 years ago in the bar of an Italian restaurant on “The Hill” in St. Louis.
We were in town visiting our good friends, Mary and Gus Buttice (a faithful blog reader), and talking with some of their friends while waiting for a table. A fellow in his 20s — an upbeat, lippy sort — was recounting that he had been living in Kansas City for a while but was delighted to have moved back to St. Louis recently. Kansas City didn’t hold a candle to St. Louis, he said. Then, he gestured at me and said, “Ask him; he knows.”
Flustered and on foreign soil, I didn’t know what to say or whether to say anything, so I kept my mouth shut. Inside, I fumed.
That was when St. Louis still led Kansas City (according to the 1980 Census) by about 5,000 residents — 453,000 to 448,000.
The worm turned in 1990, though, when Kansas City passed St. Louis (well, took the lead by losing far fewer people than St. Louis in the 1980s), and the margin has widened considerably since.
According to Census Bureau figures released last week, Kansas City gained 18,000 residents between 2000 and 2009 for a population of nearly 460,000. St. Louis’ population, meanwhile, fell 8.3 percent, to about 319,000. Perhaps even more startling, the population in St. Louis County, where St. Louis City residents have been fleeing for decades, also fell — by 1.7 percent, to less than a million people.
The Census story caused barely a ripple in Kansas City, but from my reading of articles in The New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the story had people in St. Louis grabbing the left sides of their chests.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said: “This is absolutely bad news. We had thought, given many of the other positive trends, that 50 years of population losses had finally reversed direction. Instead, by the measure of Census to Census, they continue…Combined with the news from St. Louis County, I believe that this will require an urgent and thorough rethinking of how we do almost everything.
“If this doesn’t jump-start regional thinking, nothing will.”
When I told my wife Patty about the St. Louis population figures, she paused for a moment and said, “That could happen to us, if we don’t fix the schools.”
I think she’s right. Unlike St. Louis, which is hemmed in on all sides, we have a Northland, where there is plenty of elbow room for growth. I couldn’t come up with specific figures, but I feel sure that the losses have continued south of the river, due mainly to people moving to the Kansas side for better schools.
We can’t count on the Northland to offset south-of-the-river losses forever. At some point, the Northland will cap out. What will south of the river look like at that point? I almost hate to think about it.
So, the stakes are as high as the hopes in this situation with hard-charging Superintendent John Covington and the “new and improved” Kansas City school board, headed by the young, dynamic and seemingly driven Airick Leonard West.
More specifically, regardless of what happens at a majority of the schools, if Covington and the board can’t put a stop to the fights and fires at Southwest High School, many of the young families banking on better days ahead (and trying to tough it out until it gets to that point), will bail.
Southwest is the crab that will not release its grip on the image of Kansas City schools.
Frankly, I don’t care for Kansas; its residents freeload off Kansas City but don’t want to pay its earnings tax, which fuels the core, which makes this a great area.
There are things I like about St. Louis, but I would never trade it for Kansas City. I wonder if that guy I talked to in the bar that night so many years ago would make such a harsh comparison to Kansas City now? Probably not.
I’m really glad and proud to call myself a Kansas Citian. But I’m worried.