St. Louis began as a village with only minimum planning. While its initial blocks near the river were platted by Auguste Chouteau in 1764, the area beyond the confines of the village harkened to traditional agricultural patterns.
By 1820 a rich coal vein was discovered in St. Louis and the miners' families moved into houses nearby. New villages became then part of the city and St. Louis became an industrial city.
It was something less than an organized, cohesive whole at the start of the new century. Older industrial metropolises such as St. Louis expanded to meet the demands of burgeoning populations and growing industry without any particular design or forethought. The resulting cities were crowded, dirty, smoky, unattractive places to live. Residents of most cities, as in St. Louis, responded in two ways.
First, they fled to the outskirts for new living spaces. Second, starting at the turn of the century, they introduced the new concept of city planning in efforts to impose order on the urban chaos.
Problems of living in the core city were highlighted in 1849, when the steamer White Cloud caught fire. Other steamboats and wood frame buildings quickly caught; soon much of the southern portion of the city was ablaze. The fire destroyed blocks of buildings and 23 steamers, at a cost of $6.1 million. Soon thereafter, the city required that new structures be built of less flammable material. When portions of downtown and the Soulard neighbourhood rose from the ashes, the phoenix was brick or masonry. As late as the 1880s, property deeds in some new developments in the city required masonry construction. The preponderance of brick structures in St. Louis is the legacy of the White Cloud fire.
Around 1850 wealthy St. Louisians started developing the city. Many private streets originated and a new park was build for St. Louis Victorians.
More moderate homes and neighbourhoods followed the same general pattern of people moving to the outskirts of town and commuting into the city daily. As the city grew, the "outskirts" were farther and farther from downtown. New streetcar line extensions (and, later, expressways) reached farther into St. Louis County, with new residential allotments following close behind.
Since St. Louis set its boundary in 1876, it eventually ran out of undeveloped room in which it could expand. Streetcars and trains carried people from "bedroom communities" in the County to the city daily. As the suburbs expanded, St. Louis County population rose while the city's declined. County population doubled in the 1920s while the city's leveled. City population dropped in 1940, but the County's rose twelve percent.
Creating the “City beautiful”
A new generation of current and aspiring local leaders at the turn of the century saw St. Louis as a typical industrial metropolis. One visitor in the early 1890s commented on a visit to St. Louis that "the air is so rich along the Mississippi, the pasty dust from American coal smoke falls so thick in the streets, that one is satisfied by an afternoon walk in St. Louis as if one had eaten a heavy dinner. Everyone coughs. . . .what smoke, what an atmosphere charged with chimney emanations, in this capital, the name of which seems to betoken only charm and poetry." No wonder people were moving to healthier areas.
This was the impetus for originating "City Beautiful" movement. The head of this movement was George Kessler, a landscape architect, who had already created the boulevard system in Kansas City.
Also, the World’s Fair became the impetus for overdue improvements. Beauty alone was not the issue. City Beautiful reformers sought long-term reform to make cities better places to live. Mrs. Louis McCall of the Civic Improvement League wrote in 1902, “It is gradually dawning upon everyone that a nice, clean, well-kept city is 'money in the pocket' of everyone who lives in the city. . . . Even the coarser sort of politicians are beginning to realize that it makes for their personal popularity to be in favor of improvements such as we urge.” They were demanding clear water for Fair fountains, street paving, trash collection and a new drainage system in Forest Park.
The drainage system in Forest Park appeared as a short-term remedy though. After a flood killed eleven and damaged more than 1,000 homes, city fathers reviewed the problem anew. A permanent subterranean tube for the River Des Peres was constructed between 1929 and 1931.
In 1911 was apparent, that the city implemented the plan only here and there. When seeing the failure of his city plans, Kessler left. The City Plan Commission hired then Harland Bartholomew, a young up-and-coming city engineer from Newark, New Jersey.
Bartholomew cited problems of the "considerable instability" of downtown, public transportation inaccessible to some people, constrictions of set city limits (the ghost of 1876 again), and undue delays and expense in public works. He noted that St. Louis was the largest city in the United States with only surface public transportation. He called for luring business back to the city to bolster its tax base, razing slum areas and moving those living in poverty into housing meeting basic standards. In this way, he is the intellectual father of urban renewal in St. Louis.
Through government incentives in the 1970s and 1980s, more than fifteen major developments started in downtown, and Metrolink finally opened in 1993