Meet me in St. Louis: When One Golden Gate Closes, Another May Open


Sacramento politicians and the urban growth lobby they so diligently serve have created a narrative that there is something very wrong with living in (or wanting to live in) a single-family neighborhood. Single-family neighborhoods are -- so the narrative goes -- “racist,” “immoral,” and “evil.”

Three sub-narratives disseminated by density fetishists dominate discussions aimed at demonizing what for a vast majority of Americans, represents a lifestyle preference.

Single-family neighborhoods are racist (OK, ignore the role of banks and the real-estate industry in suppressing Black homeownership, and reward them by effectively putting them in charge of urban planning).

Single-family neighborhoods preclude housing affordability because urban density is required for affordability (well, not exactly, according to demographer Wendell Cox).

Single-family neighborhoods accelerate climate change (except it isn’t the lack of density that causes climate change, but increased consumption).

The reasons Sacramento politicians cling to these narratives when carrying the water for the density lobby is fairly self-evident: money and power. For them, the commodification of housing serves numerous constituencies --- developers, Big Tech, the construction unions, and Sacramento politicians. These are aided and abetted by a vocal Twitter mob of WIMBY (Wall my back-yard) true-believers.

Of course, these policies are at odds with what most Californians and Americans prefer. The move to force ever more urban density down the throats of Californians has left many of the state’s residents feeling helpless and frustrated. In effect, their preferences (are being derided by efforts to discourage homeownership and turn us into a state of renters ( a nifty and reliable source of recurring revenue for corporate landlords and private equity investors.

Now that Sacramento politicians have taken measures to eradicate single-family neighborhoods, reduce homeownership, and to force density upon communities, other states should take notice and react accordingly. The same vested interests have power in many communities and would like to impose this approach on them.

But those states throughout the nation that are willing to accept a diversity of lifestyle choices and to embrace housing pluralism, should promote this as a virtue and use it to their advantage. . States that are willing to embrace tolerance, including when it comes to people’s housing preferences should let people in states with fewer housing options know that they exist and would welcome new community members.

California’s historical tolerance of people of all stripes has been a strength and a way for the state to attract new residents. But as the “progressive” (well, really corporatist) clerisy tightens its grip here, there is an opportunity for other states to attract people of all stripes. This could turn the tables on California --- usually brashly seeing itself as harbinger of the future --- for a change. Other states have the opportunity to turn California’s lack of tolerance into a strength, into an asset, into a way to make people feel accepted, welcome, and at home within their states and within the communities in their states.

The notion that California is simply somehow “better” than other places is increasingly outdated --- except of course for our weather.

If Sacramento politicians take the state’s residents for granted and are comfortable telling them that they are not allowed to look for and live in the housing they prefer, then other states can offer a that opportunity to attract the talented and dynamic current residents of the Golden State, many of whom like living in a home with a garden in a neighborhood of homes with gardens.

We can already see an advertising campaign in California touting the virtues of Ohio as a place to relocate to. Why not consider Ohio as a place to lay down roots? And while Ohioans might not give a damn for the whole state of Michigan, why not Michigan, for that matter? Californians have headed to Texas, Arizona and Nevada, states not more attractive in physical terms those in the Midwest.

Last month I was in St. Louis for a few days. It’s a city I had never spent an appreciable amount of time in.

If we’re going to “build back better,” then there aren’t many better places than St. Louis to do so.

The population of St. Louis is currently just above 300,000 residents. This is less than in 1870. It’s a mere 35% of the St. Louis population in 1950. In the 50 years from 1970, St. Louis has lost more than half its population, even as its suburban population rose dramatically.

Like any city, St. Louis may have its share of problems. But it is quite simply a great city. Wholesome Midwestern values (on a human, person-to-person level; I am not making any political commentary here). Extensive infrastructure. Good food. Nice people. Great beer. For all the talk of Austin, Boise, Bozeman, and Nashville, St. Louis seems like a great place to live, laugh, love, and work. And it definitely deserves to be a success.

St. Louis has a beautiful, historic downtown. It has world-class universities, major museums, impressive cultural institutions, huge, well-maintained parks, and great professional sports teams. It has one of the most incredible man-made landmarks anywhere in the world.

Maybe it’s time we started to focus more on encouraging people to move back to the Midwest. There we can create greater geographic equity and regional equality, and allow people to pursue their dreams of homeownership and independence.

Maybe it’s time for us to really look to build back better, rather than just building back bigger.

St. Louis, Ohio, Michigan, and other parts of what has become known as “flyover country,” are all prime candidates for building back better, especially in the wake of the Great Resignation and with all the potential of remote work to offer Americans of all stripes more choices.

While urban supremacists who shun urban humanism in favor of concentrating more people (and opportunity) into “superstar” cities,” most Americans have no desire to live in the kind of dorm-like apartments that are the dream of these new urbanists.

Cities like St. Louis and states like Ohio should focus on promoting the quality of life they can offer Americans who, in the wake of the ongoing Great Resignation and the success of remote work now have choices they didn’t have before.

You like living in an historic, dense downtown? We have that. Do you prefer living in a medium-dense triplex or fourplex with easy access to the urban center? We have that, too. Do you want somewhat more spacious accommodations, maybe even a home with a garden in a neighborhood of homes with gardens? We have that, too.

And they’re all affordable compared to coastal “superstar” cities.

As a native Californian, I love my state and my community. But I also understand that California is not Jerusalem. Everywhere is Jerusalem. Jerusalem is wherever we choose to make it.

When California ceases to be a place of opportunity for all, and when it constrains choice and tries to force a housing Gleichschaltung upon its residents, then the Golden State has lost some of its luster as increasingly the state’s gold is reserved for the corporate oligarchs rather than the residents.

I recognize that those who have profited from the overconcentration of opportunity might vigorously resist decentralization and a deconcentration of opportunity. But when something is overconcentrated, the proper remedy is, of course, to deconcentrate it. We all suffer when a few places attempt to monopolize opportunity.

Remote work opens up new horizons. For regions. For states. For cities. And, perhaps most importantly, for people. We should embrace its potential, not try to stifle it like the Luddite Californian urban supremacists.

We now have an opportunity to restore the kind of balance restored to the country through policies that embrace urban humanism rather than the dehumanizing scale prescribed by the density fetishists and urban supremacists.

I’m rooting hard for places like St. Louis and Ohio and Michigan. And I understand that if they can offer tolerance for people’s preferences and can welcome a diversity of housing and lifestyle choices (and, yes, some of these places undoubtedly have room for improvement here), they may, in the long run, force California to become more hospitable to its own residents, whom the state’s powerbrokers and Sacramento politicians all-too-often seem to take for granted.

California has effectively told its residents who live in – or want to live in -- single-family neighborhoods: you are not welcome. Not opening that golden gate for you if you’re dreaming of your Blue Heaven.

But golden gates don’t only exist in the Golden state. They can be anywhere we want. They should be anywhere tolerance, choices, and respect for people from all walks of life can co-exist.

Californians now being told they aren’t welcome in their own state because they prefer living in a home with a garden -- or perhaps simply want a bit more space -- may be receptive to other places. A message along the lines of the following would likely resonate among many Californians:

“Your home is your castle. Your home is your home, and it’s for you to have a garden. It’s OK for you to live in a neighborhood of homes with gardens. Or in a denser urban center. Whatever you prefer. Welcome home. Welcome to St. Louis (or Dayton or Des Moines or Detroit or Toledo or Kansas City or…).”

John Mirisch was elected in 2009 to the Beverly Hills City Council, where he has served three terms as mayor. He is currently a garden-variety council member.

Photo: Sam Valadi via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.