Getting Street-Wise in St. Louis
Want to slash crime rates and revive declining neighborhoods? And do it without spending a cent of tax money? Try the St. Louis Solution.
THEODORE GAGE | FROM THE AUGUST 1981 ISSUE | with the permission of Reason magazine and https://reason.com/1981/08/01/getting-street-wise-in-st-loui/
Tom and Susan Jonas stand on their front lawn talking to neighbors. Their two young sons play tag nearby, tumbling gleefully into a wrestling match on the grass. Other children are playing in the middle of a street that seldom sees traffic. It could be a scene from a tree-lined suburban street anywhere in the country.
If Susan Jonas looked away from her children, though, past the wrought iron gates 100 yards away, she would see the autos and 18-wheel rigs roaring past her street—would see the drunken old man staggering by, clutching a brown paper bag with one hand and stroking his grizzled beard with the other.
On this warm Sunday afternoon in St. Louis, thoughts of the apartment manager who was murdered a few weeks ago in his roach-infested room only a few blocks away do not trouble the Jonases. They do not fear the young toughs who congregate around a boarded up storefront less than two blocks from their quiet neighborhood.
A decade ago, the young toughs and winos were just as close. And most urban planning experts would have predicted that by 1981 the vandals, drunks, and prostitutes would have taken over this quiet street on the west side of St. Louis. In 1970, Westminster Place was a dying street. The peril of urban blight had chased many of its middle-income families—white and black—to the suburbs. Real estate values had plummeted during the 1960s, and even the small enclave of mansions just west and south of this neighborhood was threatened by the creeping urban decay.
But in the early 1970s, people like Fred Hale—a professor at Washington University in St. Louis—got tired of prostitutes strolling past their homes and of watching 6,000 cars a day race down their streets as they bypassed stoplights on nearby boulevards. And people like the Jonases decided that these neighborhoods, with their spacious and lovely three-story brick homes, were worth the effort to save. They moved into an area for which even the experts in urban urban planning held little hope.
Today, Waterman Place West, the street on which Fred and Lucy Hale live, and Westminster Place, where the Jonases live, are thriving as private streets. Standing up to the urban blight, the crime, and the fear that causes residents to flee, the people in these neighborhoods called on a St. Louis tradition. They found an unconventional solution to a common problem—they bought their neighborhoods.
St. Louis has had private streets since the late 1800s, when the industrialists and businessmen of the booming river city built estates on the outskirts of town and placed barriers around their neighborhoods. Their goal was exclusivity. Later, residents in other neighborhoods would take advantage of the precedent in St. Louis's law books and use private streets to achieve security and stability.
In the 1950s, faced with growing crime rates and declining property values, middle-income residents of some streets petitioned the city to deed the streets to them. This the city did, in return for the residents' assuming responsibility for street, sewer, and streetlight maintenance; garbage pickup; and any security services beyond the normal fire and police protection.
The transfer of ownership is effected via deed restrictions attached to each property on the street. These restrictions require that title to the street be vested in an incorporated street association to which all property owners must belong. They also limit the uses to which the homeowners' property may be put and provide for the association to collect funds from the owners to cover the costs of maintaining the common property.
Most of St. Louis's street associations cover just a block or two. In addition to obtaining legal ownership, residents achieve control over their streets by closing them off to through traffic. With anything from sawhorse and chain to iron fence and gate, a barrier is put at the end of streets, creating cul-de-sacs. The only way to enter these dead-end streets is from other public and private residential streets. The only cars on the streets belong to residents and their visitors.
The result is that on the private streets of St. Louis unfamiliar pedestrians, autos, and even delivery and repair trucks are usually observed by one or more neighbors. It is their street, and that ownership gives the neighborhood a high degree of cohesiveness. Unusual noises coming from a neighbor's home, a stranger wandering up and down the street, or even something as harmless as an unfamiliar car parked on the street will draw neighbors out of their homes and elicit phone calls.
"One night about 11 o'clock, I was walking the dog and she got away," related Susan Jonas. "I called out, and the lights in about five houses went on and a couple of people stuck their heads out their doors. It's the kind of thing that makes you feel pretty secure."
During the '60s, the people on many of St. Louis's private streets lapsed into apathy, forgetting the problems that had led them to privatize. They neglected their neighborhood associations, forcing them to make do with a bare minimum of funding and involvement. Consequently, the neighborhoods began declining again, and their middle-income residents turned their sights to suburbia. The familiar problems of changing urban areas were driving residents of both private and public streets from the solid old three-story homes in the heart of the city.
For some people committed to urban living, though, the private street concept again offered a solution in the '70s. Some of them, like Fred Hale, convinced the city to dust off the old laws that made privatizing possible. Others, like the Jonases, bought homes on historically private streets and joined residents working to revitalize their long-dormant neighborhood associations.
Today, not only the Jonases' and Hales' and other private streets but some of the surrounding areas have regained stability. Homes sheltering transients, roomers, and large groups of unrelated people during the '60s are now owned by families with children. Homes that sold for $13,000 in 1969 are valued at $120,000 today and compare favorably to similar homes in St. Louis suburbs in price and quality. Despite the lingering urban problems like crime, vandalism, prostitution, boarded up storefronts, and abandoned apartment buildings that exist only a few blocks to the north on Delmar Boulevard, the area has gained a sense of stability.
Oscar Newman, an architect and urban planner and founder of the Institute for Community Design Analysis, supports the concept of private streets. He has authored books and articles on the subject of possible alternatives to troubled urban living conditions, and he has noted the positive psychological effects of privatizing. "Property is something most people want and identify with," he says. "When you can get people to have pride in their property and a sense of belonging in their community, a number of positive things often happen."
In the mid-'70s, Newman did an in-depth study of St. Louis and its private streets. His surveys yielded some intriguing results. For example, on the section of Westminster Place that was private, the crime rate between 1966 and 1973 was far lower than on the adjacent public streets. Relying on the same city police patrolling as the public streets received, Westminster had a crime rate that was 26 percent lower than on Waterman Avenue, one block south of Westminster, and 52 percent lower than on Washington Boulevard, one block north. Although long-time residents said that Washington had historically been a more desirable place to live, between 1960 and 1973 two-thirds of its housing stock, which was similar to that on Westminster, was converted to multiple-occupancy structures, attracting lower-income residents. Not a single home on Westminster had been converted.
More recently than Newman's survey, an informal study by one St. Louis police district showed that during an eight-month period ending April 30, 1981, a particular five-block area of the district consisting of private streets had 34 criminal offenses. The adjoining five-block area, which has no private streets, suffered 120 crimes. The number of reported criminal offenses during the same period in other nearby residential areas without private streets and of equal size and population density ranged from 69 to 137.
The few crimes that occur on the private streets are generally burglaries, home invasions, and thefts of bicycles and lawnmowers from garages. Crimes against persons and "crimes of opportunity"—assault, purse snatching, and thefts from autos, all of which usually occur on the street—have been effectively checked by private street residents.
The private blocks that have hired guards and off-duty policemen to bolster security have fewer crime problems than the blocks that don't. For example, the burglary rate on the 5200 block of Westminster, which employs security guards in the evening, is only a third that of the 5100 block, which employs no private guards but relies solely on city police protection. Still, crime rates are far lower than in adjacent neighborhoods, and the nature of the crimes differs.
But Lt. James Shea of St. Louis's seventh police district, which encompasses much of the private street sector, said he works continually to remind residents that simply constructing gates does not make crime go away. While privatizing streets may cut down crime and allow for tighter control by residents over their neighborhoods, it is not the entire solution.
"It's true that you have two different worlds a few blocks apart," he explained. "But as long as you have poverty three blocks away from affluence, you'll have crime. It's tempting to hide in your fortress and simply ignore what's going on outside. But the way to continue the stabilizing process and to strengthen the neighborhood is to reach out and help improve the blighted areas."
There is evidence, though, that the mere existence of the private streets is already helping the area. These neighborhoods have provided a nucleus for private enterprise urban renewal efforts.
People from streets like Westminster refer to Delmar, two blocks to the north, as "the DMZ" or "the trenches." Many of the merchants on Delmar have fled their stores, and many of the apartments remain abandoned. But to the south, developers have been restoring apartment buildings and townhouses. Protected by the private streets, which developers agree act as a buffer against the blight to the north, the apartments will be rented to middle-income residents while other buildings will become condominiums.
"At one time, the original private streets and neighborhoods were surrounded by fine apartments," explains Daniel Feinberg, a leading St. Louis real estate agent. "It got to the point where only the private streets were left. The apartments got so bad they had to be vacated. But now developers have the stability of some residential areas to sell and they're back. Besides, most are local developers, and they have a stake in the city's welfare."
The private streets of St. Louis have not been a panacea for all urban problems. Continuing crime in adjacent areas, poor public schools, and the financial burden of maintaining the streets present ongoing difficulties for the residents. But the overall success of this St. Louis Solution has prompted some rethinking of traditional urban renewal efforts and traditional approaches to crime in middle- and low-income neighborhoods. As Oscar Newman writes in his book Community of Interest, "These residents have been able to create and maintain for themselves what their city was no longer able to provide: low crime rates, stable property values, and a sense of community."
Privatizing a street is viewed as a drastic move—if ever even considered—by most cities. Even in St. Louis, where the tradition dates back to the last century, local government officials resisted the concept when proposed by residents of the West End in the '70s. But because it seemed to give hope to an almost hopeless setting of spreading urban decay, the city granted the go-ahead for several more formerly public streets to turn private.
Today, the move to privatize streets in St. Louis seems to have come to a halt. Instead, some residents have asked the city to close off their streets to through traffic while allowing them to remain public—a more palatable solution for cities. The increasing high cost of services and street repair has made residents doubt their ability to pay for private garbage pickup, street and sewer maintenance, and guard services.
Washington Boulevard, for example, has been closed off. This street, with private Westminster Place on its south side and Delmar Boulevard on the north, was one of the streets used for comparison in Oscar Newman's studies in the '70s. Washington had a 52 percent higher crime rate and 67 percent versus zero conversions to multiple-occupancy residences.
From the back yards of homes on Washington, residents could see the prostitutes on Delmar. A few of the people still living on Washington remember when police hated to raid the now-vacant apartments on Delmar. Anyone entering the buildings, which stand only 50 yards from some of the homes, had to be fumigated for lice when he left. Drug dealers cruised Delmar and carried their business onto Washington.
Almost two years ago, at the request of a few residents and some young urban pioneers who had recently bought homes on the street, the city agreed to block through traffic on Washington. And it changed the zoning for the area from multiple- to single-family housing. Today, the street still has a long way to go. But the progress from when Newman studied it has been astounding.
Developers, encouraged by the stability of the adjacent private Westminster Place and by the presence of other private streets, have bought some of the single- and two-family homes on Washington and have started renovation. Young, lower-middle income couples are purchasing and restoring the old, spacious homes themselves.
There are still a number of abandoned homes, empty lots, and homes housing illegal boarders. But slowly, some of the white and black families living on the street have banded together to form neighborhood associations that they hope will result in citizen crime watches and serve to unite the residents. They have received assurances from the city that it will replace the temporary street barriers with concrete cul-de-sacs and knockdown barriers.
"We are in the trenches," said Eric Smith, president of his block association on Washington. "Over there," he said, pointing to Delmar, "is the front line. We need all the support we can get. But I feel confident we are here to stay."
Eric Smith, a salesman for a steel company, lives in a three-story brick home with his wife, Trudy, and two daughters. The Smiths are renovating the home themselves and use the extra income provided by a student boarder on the third floor to help fund the project. Trudy has less fear of physical violence in her neighborhood than she did two years ago and now lets her daughters play unsupervised in the back yard for short periods—something she would never have done even a year ago.
Street closure is being tried in other communities, too. In Columbus, Ohio, in a neighborhood of low-income federally built row housing, the Metropolitan Housing Authority is constructing concrete cul-de-sacs and putting in fencing at the end of some streets, hoping to reduce much of the traffic, both pedestrian and auto, that makes physical crimes, robbery, and vandalism easy to commit and that facilitates escape. Neighborhood associations have also been started.
"Something like this gives people a stronger sense of their own personal stake in a community," says Steven Bollinger, who headed up the Columbus Housing Authority before taking a job recently as assistant secretary in the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. "By limiting access to the neighborhoods, people who have no business there other than to make trouble have a much harder time. They are highly visible to residents, and the residents often band together and watch out for each other."
In downtown Hartford, Connecticut, in a Department of Justice experiment, the closing off of some streets and narrowing of others has been combined with neighborhood police teams and citizen advisory groups to work with police to improve the physical quality of the neighborhood in a high-density residential area. The Center for Survey Research, associated with the University of Massachusetts, Boston, studied the area from 1973 through 1979 to determine the effect of the program.
To the disappointment of the project directors, police statistics did not show any dramatic drop in crime. Floyd J. Fowler, Jr., director of CSR's study, offers several explanations: Changes in record-keeping procedures may make comparison of police statistics from one year to the next inaccurate. And the percentage of crimes reported to police increases, he notes, as people come to believe that they can have an effect on the incidence of crime in their area.
But in any case, says Fowler, the records do show an increase in the rate of arrests for reported crimes. And the project did have an effect on residents' attitudes about the neighborhood. In 1973, only 20 percent of the people living in the area said the neighborhood had improved during the past two years, while 40 percent noted improvement in 1979. And while only 20 percent of the residents in 1973 saw hope for reducing crime and improving the quality of life during the coming five years, 57 percent of the residents in 1979 expected significant neighborhood improvements in the next five years.
"When people feel their neighborhoods are out of control, that's when you get deterioration, crime, and fear," says Fowler. "It is a crucial observation for all future urban planning. It shows that instead of attacking crime and blight by increasing the numbers of patrolling police, you work to stabilize the neighborhoods. By getting things under control, both in terms of the quality of the physical housing and in residents' attitude toward their neighborhood, you can get things under control so people feel secure. That stability is a prerequisite to any efforts to keeping an urban area economically sound."
For maintaining economic stability in neighborhoods comprising owner-occupied residences, Oscar Newman contends that mere closure of streets, even when combined with block associations, is inferior to privatization. Although closure can foster a sense of community and may reduce crime, the residents have no legal mechanism to protect themselves from declining property values, blockbusting, zoning changes, or abandonment.
The residents of a private street, however, have a charter stipulating the payment of dues for street services and, in St. Louis's case, for example, generally requiring residents to agree not to use their homes for anything but a residence for their families and not as boarding houses or even to house a single unrelated boarder. If any resident doesn't follow the regulations, the other residents have the power to get a court order for compliance. These private street associations have legal teeth and can place a lien on the property in question.
That legal power is one of the greatest advantages of private street associations. Residents have the ability to force compliance to maintain neighborhood quality. In a few cases during the 1970s, homeowners on private streets in St. Louis asked for and got court-ordered compliance from residents who were not caring for their property or who bought homes with the intention of converting them to boarding houses.
"Closure without privatizing cannot be as effective because there is no legal entity to ensure compliance with things like maintaining a lawn or renting the third floor to boarders," observes Newman. "Block associations get some things done, but they are still not legal entities. And while closing public streets may help, a public street can always be reopened by the city and the old traffic patterns can resume."
Going private, as well as closing off public streets, has not been without its critics. The City of Memphis, when it heeded a residents' petition and decided to close off a street and two alleys to protect residential neighborhoods from an increasing flood of traffic, met resistance from several civic groups that claimed the move was racially motivated.
Auto traffic from a predominantly black area of the city was traveling through a racially mixed but primarily white neighborhood. Residents of those streets asked the city in 1973 to dead-end one of the streets and adjacent alleys. The city council agreed in a 6-to-5 vote, and several civic groups took the case to court.
In 1979, the city went ahead and built the dead ends, and in April of this year the US Supreme Court ruled that the city had the right to close the streets. Justice John Paul Stevens, speaking for the 6-to-3 majority, argued that the action by the city was not racially motivated but was "motivated by its interest in protecting the safety and tranquility of a residential neighborhood."
The stigma of racism attached to street closure and efforts to protect neighborhoods—especially middle-income neighborhoods—has discouraged efforts to close or privatize streets even in St. Louis, says Oscar Newman. Bud Holmes, a Memphis city attorney who worked on the case, said he is sure that "the kind of trouble we had to go to in defending our position has discouraged other communities from even considering such action. But we feel this decision may give cities a green light to preserve middle-class neighborhoods as long as their motivations are legitimate and nondiscriminatory."
It is undeniable that the original private streets in St. Louis were rooted in elitism. The massive gates and palatial mansions built by the wealthy in the 1880s still stand. But the fact that there are several black families on many of the private streets—and the existence of private streets in predominantly black neighborhoods—steals the credibility from an argument that private streets remain a bastion of white affluence against the onslaught of blacks. "It's safe to say that no one on these streets cares what color the person is who moves in, so long as they agree to the principles set down in the street's charter and pay their dues," says Missouri State Sen. Steven Vossmeyer, a private street resident.
Still, it remains an unsettling fact that in the West End of St. Louis the area north of Delmar is predominantly black and poor while the private streets and surrounding residential area south of Delmar are predominantly white and middle-class. Newman insists, however, that, while private streets and similar actions represent efforts to keep middle-income residents in urban environments, it is an economic and not a racial phenomenon.
People must lay aside the stereotyped misconception that trying to save neighborhoods for the middle and working classes automatically means racism, says Newman. "Twenty years ago, I was vulnerable to the argument that by saving middle-income neighborhoods, you were preventing lower-income families from having the chance to buy homes and condominiums," he explains. "I also felt that by saying 'income,' you meant 'race.' But I have watched what has happened. In St. Louis, you have low-income people moving into decent housing stock, and it's three to five years before it deteriorates until it is uninhabitable. Welfare families cannot care for this kind of housing." It is a politically sensitive issue, but one Newman says must be faced.
Concerns about racism are not helped by the fact that in almost all urban situations the school systems are a particularly thorny problem. In St. Louis, most of the residents of private streets send their children to private schools. The St. Louis public school system, typical of many urban systems, is inadequately funded, poorly staffed, and charged with politics. Its students are primarily black—especially in the areas where the private street children would attend. But even the children of black private street residents attend private schools.
"It is an inferior school system, and if you want your child to have an adequate education, you have to make the financial sacrifice required to send kids to private schools," said one mother. Several of the parents, however, are active in local efforts to improve the public school system. "It is my hope that some day the public schools here will be good enough to provide a quality education," said Judy Murphy, a resident of private Kingsbury Place. "But right now, they are not."
These outlooks have prompted additional criticism that residents of the private streets are isolationists and not really involved with the surrounding community. Perhaps the observations have some truth, but without the ability to isolate themselves somewhat from the surrounding urban environment, these residents would probably have moved to the suburbs long ago. As city officials point out, St. Louis would have lost a considerable tax base. And the loss of stability in these neighborhoods might have thwarted all the urban redevelopment now taking place in the surrounding area.
Although acknowledging that it does not offer a short-term answer for the housing problems of the cities' poor, Newman insists that if cities would allow middle-income residents to help themselves, it would be an all-around benefit to the city. The misconception that there is something wrong with housing that is exclusionary because of price must stop, he declares, or there will be a "complete polarization in this country with all the working and middle class in the suburbs and totally dead cities loaded with poor unable to lift themselves up." Private streets and other efforts to keep middle- income people in and near the cities are not racially motivated, he repeats. They are a matter of common sense—a potential private solution to a problem that has resisted the traditional government solutions.
There are indications that the new guard at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development favors such private solutions to urban problems and has plans to encourage and facilitate efforts by citizens and local governments to institute such programs. In mid-May, Newman had a week of meetings with HUD officials. They are consulting with other outside housing experts, too, he says, and, more than any administration in the past 20 years, are open to nontraditional solutions.
"The people at the top feel they are getting a snow job from HUD staffers and city housing authorities," Newman explains. "Even at this point, they sense they are getting the same old solutions, which didn't work, in a different package. They are looking for new ways to do things."
One of the new ways to do things that Newman urged is the St. Louis Solution—private streets. The concept, he told HUD, can be effective in saving the remaining single-family-home neighborhoods in cities and adjoining suburbs, regardless of their racial or ethnic makeup. The hope that young middle-income people are moving back to the cities is just a hope, he pointed out; cities are still rapidly losing their middle-class tax base.
Neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens in New York City and other neighborhoods in other cities have considered privatizing for years, he says. "Now they have finally decided, and they come to me and say they're ready. I tell them it is too late. Their neighborhoods have already gone too far down. Too many people have left."
The advantage of a private or in some cases even simply a closed street, he reiterates, is that it encourages residents to stay put and spend money on their homes because they have a sense of stability. "Right now, the individual homeowner in the city is alone. Our government has made each person a pioneer, and people are afraid to put money into their homes because they see the neighborhoods around them crumbling. A private street allows people who were victims of blockbusters and city hall types to have a protection in collective strength. They no longer have to face the problems alone. That is the magic. We need a way to allow governments to give them that collective umbrella—to be the force that encourages these people to unite and find their own solutions."
In many cases, cities put up arguments against nontraditional solutions. Even in St. Louis, Fred Hale and other residents of the now-private Waterman Place West fought for six years to convince the city that closing the street to through traffic would not throw traffic patterns on the west side of the city into disarray. Privatizing and closing a two-block section of Waterman five years ago meant disrupting a bus route and halting the flow of 6,000 autos a day past the residences on that street. The bus route was moved to a thoroughfare two blocks away, and the cars now use alternative thoroughfares that, city officials admit, have easily accepted the extra traffic.
"I had such a fight to convince the city planners that their fears of total chaos were unfounded," says Fred Hale. "Before the street was closed, this area was a madhouse. Now it's quiet, property values have soared, people are no longer fleeing, and nothing catastrophic has happened to the traffic patterns."
"Cities have a self-protecting bureaucratic mentality that keeps them from supporting nonbureaucratic solutions to their problems," says Dr. Steve Savas, HUD's newly appointed assistant secretary for policy development and research. "The notion of private streets and neighborhood associations has a lot of possibilities. It gives residents the chance to do something about improving their neighborhoods.
"I think this kind of idea would definitely be accepted by this administration. The respect we have for the autonomy of state and local governments would prevent us from issuing directives, but we can act as a clearinghouse and research center. We can and I'm sure will encourage these alternatives."
What could local governments do besides deeding property back to residents? They could provide tax incentives. Of the municipal services normally provided in St. Louis, private street residents get only police and fire protection. Yet they pay the same amount of property taxes as other homeowners do. In addition to paying a full city tax, they also pay dues averaging about $350 a year to their private street associations to cover the costs of maintaining their streets, sewers, and so on. This double jeopardy undoubtedly discourages residents on other St. Louis streets from considering the private street alternative. Most other cities don't even have laws that allow privatizing, let alone tax credits for such activity.
Having proponents of private streets and nongovernmental solutions to urban problems in HUD is promising. At this point, encouragement at the federal level seems necessary if local municipalities are to clear the way for nontraditional answers to their problems.
In the institution of these programs, there is a need for government protection of people's rights. In Schaumburg, Illinois, a suburb northwest of Chicago, developers of a subdivision kept the streets private and took advantage of the concept to cut corners in their construction. Now, a decade later, unhappy residents have discovered seeping sewers, cracking foundations, sinking homes, and crumbling streets. During their 10 years of ownership, however, the residents did nothing to maintain their streets and collected no funds to cope with emergencies or needed repairs.
Even in St. Louis, some private street associations have suffered from poor organization and a lack of proper planning. Some of the streets need resurfacing, and residents do not have the funds in their treasuries to make the needed improvements.
Newman has suggested that one of the functions of government might be to provide model fund collection methods to help future private street organizations from getting into financial trouble. In Houston, Texas, the city's Planning Department serves a similar clearinghouse function. Houston has no zoning laws; instead, land use is controlled by the residents themselves, through restrictive covenants attached to property owners' deeds—just as the private street associations of St. Louis protect their neighborhoods.
So while Houston's city government does not do the typical planning, it does, if asked, assist citizens in drawing up covenants that suit the characteristics of their neighborhoods, whether made up of single-family homes, apartments, condominiums, commercial buildings, or a mixture. Instead of pouring more funds into urban renewal programs that are almost universally acknowledged to have been a massive failure, government, both federal and local, could take a similar innovative approach to improving the urban environment.
If the St. Louis Solution to urban decay were encouraged by changes in municipal laws and tax adjustments for the responsibilities that private street residents take over from the city, it is likely that private firms would also step in to fill the need for legal and financial guidance. For example, in response to the growing number of condominium buyers in the last decade, there are now companies that help set up condo associations so that they function smoothly in collecting fees, maintaining common property, and controlling the upkeep of units by individual residents.
Could the private street concept be extended to high-density neighborhoods dominated by multiple-occupancy buildings? Newman, a staunch advocate of privatization in single-family-home areas, is skeptical. When pressed, however, he acknowledges that he's seen it work in University City, a suburb adjacent to the West End of St. Louis. Yet he believes that in general private streets in such situations would not have the dramatic effects evident in St. Louis because the residents would not be the street owners and so would not regard it as their neighborhood and take care of it accordingly.
It is evident, however, that the owners of apartment buildings would benefit just as much as homeowners from the stability and reduced crime levels that accompany privatization. If that option were made available to them and its potential benefits made clear, it is likely that they would find it in their interest to join in street associations and take measures to reduce crime and maintain the quality of the neighborhood.
Likewise, commercial areas could benefit from the concept. Here, of course, the opposite of closure without privatization—that is, privatization without closure—would be appropriate. The benefits to merchants' owning their own street would be the ability to control the quality of enterprises on the street (for example, their charter might exclude porn shops or, in a classy commercial strip, fast food restaurants); to require individual owner/members to keep up their property; and probably to jointly purchase private security services, just as some of St. Louis's street associations do.
Extending private streets to more neighborhoods and to untested settings is a radical approach—aimed at a desperate situation. There are so few cases to study that many experts are reluctant to guess how far it might take us toward solving the problem of urban decay. One thing is certain, however: the infusion of billions of dollars in government urban renewal programs has done very little. And the existing evidence on private streets looks promising. For the St. Louis Solution to work on a large scale, though, local municipalities must give residents and merchants tax incentives.
With HUD perhaps ready to steer others in a new direction, the 1980s could be an exciting period for a new kind of urban renewal—one that doesn't depend on government handouts. Instead it can make private citizens and business firms responsible for their own property and welfare. And if some of the nation's leading urban analysts read the signals correctly, the St. Louis Solution stands a chance of working.
Theodore Gage is a free-lance journalist from Evanston, Illinois. He writes frequently for the New York Times and Advertising Age and other McGraw-Hill publications. This article is a project of the Reason Foundation's Investigative Journalism Fund.
(Local note: Oscar Newman lived at 5053 Westminster until 1970. Tom and Susan Jonas lived at 5280 Westminster Place. Steve Vossmeyer lived at 5287 Westminster until 2001.)