Benign Neglect: The Team Four plan’s legacy in north St. Louis

By George Sells | Metro STL

How did north and south St. Louis become so different? Why have neighborhoods in south St. Louis seen so much development while many north St. Louis neighborhoods fall further and further into decay?

How did it come to this? Some will tell you it’s the result of something called benign neglect. And it didn’t just happen. Some say it was all part of a plan.

This series of reports from MetroSTL.com seeks to explore the source of the problem and how it came to be. Was it racism? Dirty politics? Simply forgetting about the poor? The experts and witnesses we have interviewed paint a picture of all those things’ being ingredients in the recipe for the benign neglect that allowed north St. Louis to crumble while south, central, and downtown St. Louis experienced billions of dollars of investment and development.

Our story begins, essentially, where it ends: on the streets of north St. Louis in spots where you can see the gleaming Gateway Arch, but the prosperity and investment around it seem a million miles away.

The latest solution being offered comes from two billionaires: Jack Dorsey, the St. Louisan who co-founded Twitter, and Bill Pulte, a mega-rich Detroiter from a building background. They have formed what they are calling the St. Louis Blight Authority. They say tearing down the crumbling, abandoned structures that mark many neighborhoods is the answer to the problem. They started in July in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood. The local alderman is right on board.

“We’re getting rid of the slum and blight so developers can see the vision of rebuilding of our community,” 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffery Boyd told the crowd that hot day. “We are standing on fertile soil for development.”

But what if we told you all this was the end result of a plan? A document written more than four decades ago, essentially calling for triage on a dying city and offering step-by-step instructions on how to let neighborhoods crumble.

That document exists. The official name was “Citywide Implementation Strategies: The Draft Comprehensive Plan.” But for those around in the early and mid-’70s when it was written and published, it’s identified by the name of the consulting company that wrote it. They call it Team Four.

Some still have strong reactions to the phrase.

“In America everybody should have an opportunity to do whatever it is they want to do as long as they weren’t breaking the law,” retired Third Ward Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. said.  “But that Team Four plan, it was kind of racist, too.”

Bob Lewis, who joined Team Four as a consultant in 1978, not long after the plan had emerged, asks rhetorically if there was any way to have done what the city was trying to do without looking like it was attacking one class of people.

“Could you have done it without sounding racist or looking racist?” he wondered aloud. “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”

The plan was a response to a report from 1973. The Rand Report, as it was called, read like an obituary for the city.

“As things stand, the most likely prognosis is continued decline,” it read. Then it went on, “The city of St. Louis might assume a new role as a large suburb among many suburbs.”

This sent city leaders into a near panic, and led two young aldermen – Richard Gephardt, who went on to be our most powerful member of Congress, and John Roach, who would eventually run the Community Development Administration – to lead a charge to respond to Rand.

They put a pair of bills in front of the Board of Aldermen. Board Bills 19 and 20, which to this day some feel were a roadmap to the 1975 Team Four plan.

A November 1973 article in the St. Louis Argus laid out the outrage elicited among African-Americans, quoting one of the bills, which calls predominately black north St. Louis “an insignificant residential area not worthy of special maintenance effort.”

The bills called for 74,000 buildings in predominantly white south St. Louis to be preserved, and more than 70,000 others in north St. Louis to be torn down. The African-American community was collectively beside itself.

“They were gonna allow for north St. Louis to die on the vine,” longtime activist Percy Green, now 83, said of the proposal. “And that’s when some folks became upset. Especially with this term, ‘benign neglect.’”

“Benign neglect” was a phrase thrown around a lot back then, and on certain blocks in certain north side areas it appears to have been implemented.

“I don’t know if the phrase ‘benign neglect’ is in the Team Four plan,” Lewis said, “but if you’re being kind it actually is kind of what’s happening, and it happens everywhere.”

Lewis left Team Four in the ’90s, formed his own firm, then retired.  He now teaches urban planning at St. Louis University. We asked him to lay out some of what the plan said and what the intentions were. He said it was more about numbers than people, and that was largely the problem.

“What do you do with scarce resources?” he asked, focusing on what was the central element of Team Four and the proposals that followed. “Put ’em where you think you’re going to get the most leverage in order to save the body. And you can’t always put them equally or more or less even equitably if that’s the right word, in every place.”

The plan identified three types of areas. They were called “conservation,” areas that are already “nice.” “Redevelopment,” places that have potential to attract investment and improve. And “depletion.” The depletion areas were the ones essentially being dubbed “too far gone.”

“Depletion areas – key,” the report reads: “no growth policy until firm market and adequate public resources are available.”

And what is a depletion area?

The text of the report says, “They are areas of spotty city services and red lining – where large numbers of the unemployed, the elderly, and the recipients of welfare are left to wait for assistance which does not seem to be forthcoming.”

The plan recommends cutting resources as much as possible without completely abandoning people, but at the same time working to ensure there is no growth, with the idea that, eventually, the land can be cleared and “banked” for other uses. The Team Four consultants doing the writing recognized the contradictions here, and laid them out in their report.

“For example, proceeding with building demolition and assembly of vacant parcels for redevelopment results in a neighborhood dotted with rubble-filled lots and boarded-up buildings. Such neighborhoods do not induce new investment. On the other hand, to expend public funds on new streets, libraries, schools or code enforcement in an area designated for total renewal doesn’t make sense either. “

The plan basically advises the city to provide just enough for those left behind, but no more than that.

Many think those statements from the ’70s sound all too familiar today.

“It’s the plan that caused all the detriment that St. Louis has right now,” current Third Ward Alderman Brandon Bosley said in an interview. “We talk about poverty. We talk about the state of where the city is, population loss, all those things happened around the time the Team Four plan was being talked about and implemented to a degree.”

He says “to a degree,” because in fact the plan was never officially implemented. His father and other African-American politicians were fighting it at the Board of Aldermen, and area activists were battling as well.

Percy Green may be best known for scaling the Gateway Arch in protest back in the ’60s. But by the time Team Four went public, he saw his neighborhood lacking in resources, and this as a plan to make it worse.

“Therefore allowing it to accelerate the deterioration of north St. Louis,” Green said of the plan and the corresponding board bills. “I would assume the strategy was, if you don’t provide the services to maintain a community, it will dry up, and eventually folks will be forced to move out.”

Why force people out? Simple economics: Depletion areas would, in theory, generate more tax revenue with factories and warehouses than with poor families.

“Racism has always been a business proposition,” Green said.

But was it flat-out racism? Lewis said that might be going too far.

“I would say, certainly not going in, it wasn’t a racist plan,” he told us.

Lewis said the issue might have been that they didn’t think enough about race, and how not to discriminate. He said they didn’t appear to give much thought to the fact that African-Americans occupied the vast majority of the neighborhoods that would seemingly be allowed to fail.

“The bad news is that the kind of neighborhoods that were falling apart the most, and probably shouldn’t be the recipient of a lot of resources given that there are too few resources, tended to be black,” he said. “Black neighborhoods for the most part, so they got associated with a bit of racism, a bit of gentrification and so forth.”

And so, with backlash from African-Americans, the Team Four plan, as far as being a piece of city legislation, was dead. But as a practical matter, many believe it was just getting started.

Green summed up his own skepticism at the time, saying, “Whatever appears to be a victory momentarily is not necessarily a victory in the long run, because the people who had the wherewithal and had the resources, it’s just a matter of time; they took the strategy of trying to wait us out.”

Author

George Sells
George Sells

george.sells@metrostl.com George Sells is an Emmy Award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of experience in news. He has spent the last decade on the St. Louis media scene, working for KTVI Fox 2, HEC Media, and more recently as a host for KMOX Radio. His wife of twenty years, Julie, was born and raised in St. Louis. They have two kids and a dog.

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