Abstract: The 1947 St. Louis City Plan was a momentous document that predicted a glorious
future for the city but the glorious future never came. Instead, city planning in St. Louis has
become problematized as contributing to racial bias and segregation. With semi-structural
content analysis, this research finds twelve narrative components in the 1947 plan. It argues that
the glorious future was a discursive strategy that was promised only to those not labeled as
socially diseased. While the plan was monumental, its connotations clearly imply a great deal of
racial animus. Narratives are useful in public discourse because they can reduce ambiguity by
describing things that are otherwise too difficult or abstract to describe but must be used
carefully to guard against dangerous connotations.
The 1947 St. Louis City Plan was a monumental accomplishment for urban planning as a
discipline. It was comprehensive, visual, technical, colorful, and relied on established planning
principles and specific observations of the city. It was a paradigmatic modernist plan that came at
a time when the United States was charting a new course in a post-World War II world, preparing
for returning soldiers who needed jobs, housing, and transportation. It also served as the
culmination of planner Harland Bartholomew’s career in St. Louis (Lovelace, 1992). The 1947
plan revealed built environment problems of St. Louis, provided specific solutions, and predicted
that a glorious future awaited St. Louis in the coming decades if it could continue to improve as
it had been.
The glorious future never came. St. Louis began to decline as populations declined into
contemporary times. The city lost economic prominence in comparison to its regional neighbors,
becoming a model for rust-belt urban decline (Gordon, 2008). Racial inequities (Rothstein, 2014)
began to assert themselves into the public discourse and became salient for daily governance.
Over time it began to become clear that these inequities were systemically built into the spatial
arrangement of St. Louis (Rothstein, 2014; Purnell, Camberos, & Fields, 2014). Harland
Bartholomew became problematized. Statements were discovered revealing one of his planning
intents as racial segregation (Gordon, 2008), African Americans were said to “bear the brunt” of
his slum clearance (Silver and Moeser, 1995, p. 126-127).
The 1947 city plan, with its promises of a glorious future incongruent with present reality, is
worthy of study. Is it the monumental plan that it seems to be or, as some have argued, are socio-
spatial inequalities subtly written into the text of the plan? This research will use semi-structural
content analysis techniques informed by public policy studies’ Narrative Policy Framework
(Jones & McBeth, 2010) theory to read the plan while teasing out its subtle connotations. The
1947 plan used for this research is freely available for public reading online at the time of
writing, at https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/archive/1947-comprehensive-plan. Readers are
encouraged to check the findings of this research with the text of the plan.
2. Literature Review
Narratives in Planning Scholarship
This study uses a theoretical framework from public policy studies, narrative approaches to
public policy, which assumes that narratives (also sometimes called stories or myths) are critical
for human beings to understand and explain the complicated and unordered reality around them.
A framework that focuses on the use of narrative elements in public policy and discourse is
appropriate for planning research. The use of narrative elements is common in planning practice
Consider that Walter Benjamin conceived of the city as something that was experienced
as “read” like a book, in need of interpretation and references as one travels through it (Tonkiss,
2005). Throgmorton (1993) examines the wording of survey questions to examine how it biases
respondents through implied narrative. Jane Jacobs’ (1961) told the story of the city street with
metaphor, “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive
parts” (p. 50). Lewis Mumford (1937) told the story of the good city with a dramaturgical
comparison, describing it as a stage of sufficient size for people to experience optimal social
drama. Ecological urbanism tells a story of the city as a living, interdependent, and
interconnected organism (Monti, Borer, and MacGregor, 2015, p. 87-89). In Hall’s (2014) Cities
of Tomorrow, he tells many stories of cities—the city as garden, monument, imagination,
dreadful night, and highway. City planning often describes space as “blighted,” an inconsistent
(Vacant Properties Research Network, 2015) organic metaphor implying that the phenomenon
will spread (Stone, 2012) save for expert removal (Adams & Balfour, 2014). Some research
interprets urban space itself as capable of telling whole stories through the symbolic use of
buildings and materials relating to context (Yanow, 1995; 1998).
Narrative in Public Policy Studies.
There is ample research about narratives in public policy studies. Urban problems are
summarized in metaphor, a narrative device, by comparing them to “broken windows.” There,
the trajectory of a neighborhood can be discerned by its past and present physical condition
(Kelling and Wilson, 1982). Ghere (2017) argues that narratives allow for the viewpoints to be
articulated confidently. Political scholar and appointee Robert Reich (1987) argues that politics
in the United States can be best understood through four morality stories about corrupt power,
benevolent communities, outside evils, and triumphant individuals. Cognitive linguist George
Lakoff (2002) argues that American approaches to politics can be understood through two
metaphors that compares government to either a stricter or more nurturant God. Political scientist
Deborah Stone (2012) points out that storytelling, metaphor, and synecdoche in and about public
policy is a primary way through which government and political communities identify problems,
assign blame, and select solutions. Showing the variety of approaches for studying narratives in
public policy studies, Schlaufer (2016) studies the how accuracy and evidence in narratives
changes how they are perceived, Jones and McBeth (2010) test public policy narratives
systematically and quantitatively, and Jones and Gray (2016) extend that research using
qualitative data and methods.
Within public policy studies, narratives are made up of categories and within these categories
different elements follow. For any narrative, time ordering is essential. There must be
demarcations between the present, past conditions, and future predictions. Logical consistency
requires narrative events to occur at a relative point in time (Kaplan, 1986; Büthe, 2002). Time
ordering creates potential for temporal trajectory. The past can make the present better or worse,
and the present and past can create expectations for the quality of the future. Stone (2012) points
out that many stories are comparative in this way. References to temporal ordering do not
necessarily require trajectory and can merely be reporting the present, past conditions, or future
Any narrative must have a story. One story in planning is the organic metaphor, which
compares the city to a living organism. It conceptualizes a whole, like a city, as living and made
up of interdependent parts, for example neighborhoods. This story is common, and is in fact
rather explicit, in ecological approaches to urbanism (Monti, Borer, and MacGregor, 2015). One
prominent example of the organic story is the blight metaphor, which compares space to a sick
organism and implies that the sickness is contagious (Stone, 2012). Blight is a metaphor with a
great deal of ambiguity attached to it—it has legal, economic, ascetic, and environmental
meanings; though, it tends to consistently refer to a spatial state that is perceived as undesirable
and in need of policy intervention (Vacant Properties Research Center, 2015).
Another important urban story is the benevolent community. Like the city on the hill, this
community learns to work together and members cooperate with one another—and with
sufficiently moral outsiders—to create change and progress (Reich, 1987). This story emphasizes
the communal nature of change, growth, and progress, suggesting that disparate populations will
need to come together to solve a problem and create trajectory. It can refer to different groups in
a community but could also refer to voluntary cooperation between different levels of
government in a federal system—a benevolent community of federalism.
One final story in planning is the story of disorganization, or the story of the gap between the
real and planned. Stone (2012) points out that in the disorganization story, space can become
disorganized such that it needs containment. She also points to several metaphorical solutions—
pressure release valves, better defined containers, or draining off excesses, for example. Tranel
(2007) points out that this story defines St. Louis urban planning—a continuing effort for the real
and planned to meet. Disorganization is particularly worrisome story to people with personalities
strongly averse to uncertainty, for whom organization, order, and certainty are the highest ideals
(Morgan, 2006). Planning scholars have usually referred to disorganization as a mismatch
between the planned built environment and the real built environment; however, Frisch (2002)
shows that planning has viewed heterosexual populations as worthy, homosexual populations as
disorganization, and structured planning ideas to meet the needs of the worthy.
Any good story must have a lesson. Consider the moral of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Chicago
plan, that without spatial organization and beauty in the built environment social solidarity would
be impossible: the plan was “to restore to the city a lost visual and aesthetic harmony, thereby
creating the physical prerequisite for the emergence of a harmonious social order” (Boyer, 1978,
272). Or consider Jane Jacobs (1961) morals of the story, that the only way to properly plan
cities is to 1) actually enjoy them, and 2) plan based on observation rather than rational
theorizing. In city plans, the moral of the story is usually that the planning prescriptions
contained within ought to be followed. Other policy narrative studies have come to similar
conclusions, that the moral of the story is usually a solution to an identified problem (Jones &
McBeth, 2010; Stone 2012; Jones & Gray, 2016).
Table 1 shows narrative categories, components, component definition, and sources. There
are five categories. Each category has several components, each of which is defined as it will be
applied to the 1947 plan. Time ordering in narratives is essential for telling any story, as the past
and future are discussed in reference to the present to bring narrative coherence. Trajectory
describes the end state of the narrative, that the present is either better or worse than the past or
that the future will be better or worse than the present. Storyline is the actual story of the
narrative under study, the things that can make the future better or worse or are making the
present better or worse. The moral of the story is the actions that will need to be taken to ensure
the most desirable trajectory. Communicative devices are used by the text to communicate
directly with the reader—breaking the fourth wall, so to speak—or to otherwise allow the plan to
Table 1 Narrative Categories, Components, Definition, and Influence
Category Components Definition
Past The text references the state of
things at some time in the past
• Kaplan, 1986
• Büthe, 2002
Future The text references the state of
things at some time in the future
• Kaplan, 1986
• Büthe, 2002
Present The text references some current
• Kaplan, 1986
• Büthe, 2002
The text references a present
improvement compared to the
• Stone, 2012
The text references a present
deterioration compared to the
• Stone, 2012
Future Rise The text posits that the future can
• Stone, 2012
Future Decline The text posits that the future can
• Stone, 2012
Storyline Organic The text treats the city as a living • Stone, 2012
whole made up of interdependent
• Brown, 2005
• Monti, Borer,
• Abbott, 2007
• Morgan, 2006
The text references caring for a
population or cooperating with
• Reich, 1987
The text compares the ideal state
of affairs of the city to the
existing state of affairs
• Stone, 2012
• Tranel, 2007
• Frisch, 2002
The text urges that some policy
prescription be adopted for good
• Stone, 2012
• Gray & Jones,
• Jones &
Device Communicative The text communicates directly
with a reader or references itself
Approaching a city plan to understand its subtle aspects requires some sort of methodological
technique. Public policy narrative approaches to a plan can tell us what sorts of subtle
connotations could exist in text but require some specific methodology to tease them out (Jones
& Gray, 2010). This research relies on semi-structural techniques to gather, disaggregate,
categorize, and analyze connotation in the 1947 St. Louis city plan.
Semi-structural analysis is best exemplified by Roland Barthes in his book S/Z, which creates
a story-level model of the short story “Sarrasine” to illuminate the author’s conceptualization of
gender and beauty (Lindkvist, 1981). In S/Z, Barthes (1974) modeled “Sarrasine” by taking
snippets of the text and puts those snippets into categories that can then be analyzed. Barthes
finds that characterizations of beauty in the story show the author communicating a
conceptualization of beauty as existing along a spectrum of male to female bodies from less to
more beautiful. Barthes reports that this provides insight into the original author’s writing of the
story’s love interest as a castrato, playing off characters’ and readers’ expectations of body,
gender, and sex as they relate to artistic beauty. By disaggregating straightforward text into units
of text and putting them into categories, Barthes shows how the author uses language to
communicate subtle ideas of gender and beauty to the reader, and that the protagonist tends to
categorize artistic beauty based on gender rather than body, though neither are explicitly stated
by the author.
Semi-structural analysis techniques were used to take the text and define snippets of it into
the categories of narrative described in Table 1. Barthes’ technique is useful for three reasons.
First, it allows for inductive and deductive categories, necessary to exhaustively place all the text
in the plan into categories. Some categories were considered prior to reading the plan, and some
were introduced after examining the plan. Second, Barthes categorized S/Z unhindered by
conventional standards of punctuation. This means that a single sentence can communicate
multiple narrative categories, allowing for more nuanced categorization while still exhausting the
text into exclusive categories. Third, Barthes uses this method to distinguish between what he
calls the readerly and the writerly text, highlighting what this sort of analysis can accomplish.
The readerly text, the highly structured text available to passive readers, can also be a
communication that active readers use to create the writerly, a critical interpretation of the text.
Whereas the readerly text is the text as it is given to the reader using conventional definitions of
words and read in the order it is presented, the created writerly text is full of connotation,
interplay between conventional definitions of words and what those words could mean, history,
and unstated communication between reader and author. By separating the text into units without
reference to textual structure, analyzing units, and modeling the units, the readerly text becomes
revealed as a more contextually-motivated writerly text. Barthes’ method reveals the text as
readerly but allows for a writerly interpretation, which allows for an understanding and criticism
of the document (Barthes, 1974, 3-16). The plan will be disaggregated in to units to reveal it as
heavily influenced by narrative, context, and connotation. The plan is structured readerly text to
be sure, but can be interpreted as writerly text and criticized.
The 1947 St. Louis plan was approached with several categories in mind. Some narrative
components were considered prior to reading the plan: comparing the city to an organism,
descriptions of the past and present, the story of disorganized space, and looking for “morals” of
the story. Upon reading the plan, it became clear that the text of the plan could not be exclusively
and exhaustively categorized with those categories alone, and other categories were allowed to
be induced: the present as a point of comparison for the past and the futures, elements of
trajectory, and the story of a benevolent and cooperative community, as well as communicative
devices. This semi-structural technique was used to disaggregate text into categories that were
inspired by studies of public policy narratives.
The disaggregation process was interpretive, placing text first into categories then
components, as described in Table 1, as the plan was read. The interpretive reading included the
sections title Introduction (minus the introductory letter), The Metropolitan Community,
Population, Land Use Zoning, Housing, Street and Traffic Ways, Public Recreation Facilities,
Mass Transportation, Air Transportation, The Central Business District, Carrying Out the
Comprehensive Plan, and all their subsections. It did not include footnotes, figures, or
appendices. Those sections were examined but not included during interpretive disaggregation as
part of the main text.
Disaggregation took place along “idea” units. Regarding units, Barthes (1971, p. 13) points
out that “this cutting up, admittedly, will be arbitrary in the extreme…it will bear on the
signifier.” This is to say that the text is divided into units to analyze using connotative meaning,
rather than using syntax or sentence structure as an analytical tool. By taking what is otherwise
highly structured text and putting the text into interpreted units of meaning, the subtilties of the
formerly straightforward and structured text become more apparent and the narrative elements of
the plan become clearer. The connotations of the straightforward readerly text can be better
interpreted as writerly text. Thus, semi-structural is an appropriate term for this kind of
technique: There is only structure in the actual text of the plan and the arrangement of it, but by
imposing structure on the meaning of the plan, the connotations within the plan become clearer.
Units were often sentences but were occasionally multiple sentences or sentence fragments,
consistent with Barthes. Mentions of blight in particular were treated as separate units and put
into the component of organic metaphor given the close congruence between the blight idea in
planning and the organic metaphor. The readerly text itself is extracted to create more abstract
writerly text. After an initial categorization, units were checked to ensure they were interpreted
into the correct component. Examples of idea units disaggregated into components can be seen in
Table 2 Examples of Disaggregated Idea Units in Categories
Component Example of Idea Units in Component
Past “Most unfortunately, the early (1918) Zoning Ordinance of St.
Louis was held unconstitutional in 1923 and the city was without
zoning protection and direction for two and one-half years.”
Present “There are few large vacant land areas left in St. Louis.”
Future “There can be expected certain changes in the pattern and density
of the city's population.”
Rising Present “Much has been accomplished in converting a horse and buggy
street system to automobile needs.”
Declining Present “Furthermore, there must be a catching-up with all the
improvements perforce neglected during the long war period.”
Future Rise “St. Louis, with a colorful, historic past and a busy, variegated
present, is still a city with a future.”
Future Decline “…we will repel rather than attract people who may wish to live
Organic “…basically as the functioning heart of a metropolitan center
containing more than one one-hundredth of the nation's
Benevolent Community “A comprehensive system of homogeneous neighborhoods, to
foster the welfare of every residential and industrial area.”
Disorganization “A critically needed complete revision of the badly outmoded
Moral “The most important single requisite for the improvement of
housing in St. Louis is the enactment of a Minimum Standards
Communicative “Table Number VI shows total land use in St. Louis at four
successive ten year intervals.”
a. The Readerly
Figure 1 Percentages of Ideas in Text by Narrative Element Component
Table 3 Counts of Narrative Category Components
Rising Present 25
Declining Present 16
Future Rise 55
Future Decline 14
Figure 1 shows the percentage of units per narrative component. Table 3 shows the counts of
units by component, and the total number of units in the text. These visualizations show the
variety of narrative elements within the text, and also reveal the relative distribution of narrative
The plan describes the past, present, and future of St. Louis, charting its population and
cultural growth. It predicts the future for the city, projecting future population based on growth
formulas and a need for airports considering past needs for streets. Most of all, the plan refers to
present conditions, for example current population, densities, streets, and zoning. It discusses
past and present land use by zoning category, tracing land use development and changes from
1915-1945. The plan charts population over time, describing St. Louis’ beginnings as a
population center and its gradual transition into a national center of population and commerce.
Concerning trajectory, the plan describes the present as both better and worse than the past in
different regards but tends to prioritize characterizations as St. Louis having improved over time.
Although it acknowledges the possibility for future decline, it seems optimistic that the future
can be better than the present. Regarding population, the plan assumes continued growth based
on maintaining the direction, though not the intensity, of the existing past trajectory into the
future: “The City of St. Louis can anticipate a population of 900,000 persons by 1970, based on
these assumptions: That the population of the St. Louis Metropolitan District continues to
maintain its present proportion to total urban population of the United States…the city is,
nevertheless, a maturing urban center that can never expect to attain the tremendous past growth
of certain earlier periods.”
On the other hand, the plan also describes areas where the city has declined from the past
and, absent intervention, will continue to do so. For example, regarding zoning, the plan points
out that the city has declined. In 1916 a zoning plan was established but later proven
unconstitutional—it should be said that is because the plan zoned for segregation explicitly
(Rothstein, 2014), although the plan itself does not—and since then St. Louis has been a laggard
in zoning. One story of decline from the past and potential decline into the future can be found in
the text: “The early Zoning Ordinance of St. Louis was held unconstitutional…in 1926 a revised
and badly compromised zoning plan was adopted…present zoning invites further blight and
There are three storylines in the 1947 plan. It does describe the city organically, often
referring to the “heart” of the city or to certain neighborhoods as “blighted”. St. Louis City
becomes the “heart” of the metropolitan region, and blighted neighborhoods become a “cancer”
liable to spread to other neighborhoods. Streets are connected to the “heart,” the central business
district. Blighted neighborhoods might be “rehabilitated,” but truly sick neighborhoods are
“obsolete” and in need of full slum clearance lest the entire city “disintegrate.” The text of the
plan points out “Our obsolete and blighted districts now embrace half the city's residential area.”
Many black neighborhoods are described as blighted—Abbott (2007) points out that although the
plan makes no explicit reference to race, its authors certainly knew they were describing a large
number of black neighborhoods as blighted, obsolete, and in need of slum clearance.
There is some focus on taking care of people within the city, treating it as one benevolent
community that cares for its own. For example, the plan calls for a “comprehensive system of
homogeneous neighborhoods, to foster the welfare of every residential and industrial area.” The
plan goes further, calling for regional cooperation in planning. By 1947, St. Louis city had been
long “divorced” from its metropolitan region for nearly a century (Phares, 2007). The plan seems
to characterize that the “divorce” of St. Louis City, it’s separated neighbor St. Louis County, and
the entire metropolitan region, would not provide as effective planning as a unified region. At
points the plan refrains from making recommendations until the plans of the region have been
finalized. It also proposes local, state, and federal cooperation for large projects like highways
and slum clearance, especially cooperative funding.
The plan’s most prominent storyline discusses the problem of disorganization. There are
numerous examples of the perceived disorganization of St. Louis in the plan: roads are too
narrow, parks are insufficient, zoning does not meet the city’s needs, land use is incongruent with
existing zoning, and downtown needs more parking, to name only a few. Consider that section on
current zoning points out six deficiencies in present zoning, and the section on proposed
solutions contains twelve recommendations. Consider that plan recommends thirty-five airports
—a large gap between the real and ideal—and maps precisely their ideal future locations. The
plan refers to the problems disorganization in the built environment constantly; although, it is
unclear from the text itself if this physical disorganization is symbolic of moral and social
disorganization or if the plan is merely narrowly focused on the built environment. To understand
the connotations of the text the writerly, not the readerly, must be examined.
b. The Writerly
The origins of the plan’s strong focus on disorganization can be triangulated to St. Louis planner
Harland Bartholomew. The gap between the real physical environment and the planned physical
environment remained an issue for him throughout his career. Lovelace (1992) points out a
connection between Clarence Perry and Bartholomew: Bartholomew was inspired by Perry’s
neighborhood unit concept. This concept applied standards to the organization of neighborhood
space, envisioning them as ideally self-contained and self-sufficient. Bartholomew appreciated
the concept so much he quantified it and created an index to measure congruence between the
ideal neighborhood and the neighborhood under study. Based on the organization of the built
environment, Bartholomew believed there could be one best neighborhood. This portion of the
narrative can be understood as motivated by context surrounding Bartholomew’s professional
Organic metaphors can be traced to Bartholomew as well, who was also inspired by urban
ecologists. Regarding organic metaphors, Abbott (2007) points out that Bartholomew believed
the city “existed as an integrated whole of independent parts with each playing a specific role”
(p. 110). He points out Bartholomew saw the metropolitan region as “local and major organic
parts…essential to a large urban community as to a body” (p. 116). He characterizes
Bartholomew’s perceptions of the different functions of the city as “organs” (p.121), points out
that Bartholomew tended to treat blighted areas as “a metastasized cancer” (p. 126), and that
neighborhoods defined as obsolete were considered “dead” (p. 127). Abbott highlights that
Bartholomew took a structural-functionalist approach to the city and saw it as a whole made up
of interacting parts. Like the disorganization story, the organic story can be understood at
motivated by the context of planning Bartholomew was in and helped create.
The organic story seems to interact with the disorganization story: Not only was
disorganization bad for a neighborhood, but what was bad for a neighborhood was bad for all of
the city. Under this mixed story, some parts of the city can be characterized as so disorganized
that they put the interconnected organic city at risk. This mixed metaphor created a strong
impetus to fix the identified problem of disorganized or sick neighborhoods: the whole city or
even the region was at risk of being contaminated.
Regarding benevolent communities, Heathcott and Murphy (2005) point out that during and
following World War Two, planning and development in St. Louis shifted toward metropolitan
regional planning as opposed to merely city planning. St. Louis City, the space under
consideration in the 1947 plan, was an old city compared to the suburban development that had
grown around it. Working together with different units of government tended to fit in well with
metropolitan planning trends. By addressing the metropolitan community, the plan addresses that
St. Louis was more and more becoming a region rather than a city. Per Heathcott and Murphy
(2005), the trend of regional growth had been known for decades, but it was not until the 1940s
that the St. Louis political atmosphere was correct to begin to attempt to address deurbanization.
This portion of the story is the result of a changing national urban context of somewhat greater
cooperation between different units of government, though today St. Louis City and the
surrounding region still often do not cooperate (Rothstein, 2014).
Similarly, Heathcott (2012) points out that trends were shifting in the direction of federally
funded urban reconstruction. The plan mentions the need for benevolent cooperation with state,
federal, and local officials to allow for the funding of substantial urban redevelopment. Heathcott
(2012) shows that there were expectations for federal funds to flow into cities and hopes in St.
Louis to capitalize on them to fund slum clearance and reconstruction. In fact, given the lack of
progress on slum clearance and urban redevelopment in the absence of federal funds, it seems
that the plan did not expect either to occur without substantial community-building between
federal, state, and local government (Heathcott, 2008).
The sources of the narrative components above have been discussed by the scholars. Time
ordering and trajectory components remain unaccounted for. Looking at the distribution of time
ordering components in Figure 1, the 1947 plan acknowledged the past and described predictions
for the future but was mostly focused on present conditions. Time ordering is simply a necessity
for any narrative to make sense—even stories starting in medias res acknowledge that they are
not starting at the beginning. And, focusing on present conditions over past and future was
necessary to tell problem storylines of the present.
The most used component of trajectory was optimism about the future. The influence that
informed predictions of the trajectory of St. Louis can be found in the 1947 plan itself. In the
introduction, it alludes to Daniel Burnham of City Beautiful notoriety: “The plans herein are
somewhat surprisingly simple in nature, but they are true to the familiar precept against making
‘little plans’; they are meant to be broad and inspiring.” In line with prior St. Louis boosterism
(Primm, 1998), the 1947 plan is no “little plan”. It aims to inspire using dramatic terms and large
changes. It calls for unprecedented slum clearance, the construction of 35 airports, and interstate
highways the scope of which had not been seen before. It predicts that changes will take decades.
The plan’s focus on the future trajectory of the city as ambitious, bold, and positive seems
intended to carry an inspirational message to citizens: The future could be glorious, and though
the recommendations in the plan are large and many they can be achieved.
By characterizing the present as more glorious than the past, and the future as carrying the
potential for even greater glory, the plan seems to have been using a discursive strategy to inspire
action in government and the population. This becomes especially important in understanding the
inclusion of one appendix, listing the accomplishments of city planning in St. Louis since 1916.
The plan communicates the idea that St. Louis had risen before and could do so again; that the
city had gotten better and could continue to do so.
Absent the following of recommendations, the plan saw a potential for a shrinking,
unhealthy, and disintegrated St. Louis, though it did not seem to expect that scenario. The future
could be glorious, but if actions were not carefully chosen and recommendations were not
followed, there was a potential for a decline—but recommendations will likely be followed. The
story that was told was effective. Abbott (2007) points out the plan was adopted as formal policy
not long after submitted. Heathcott (2008) points out that 1950s St. Louis media told a similar
story, though more focused on the story of decline, of St. Louis at a strong risk of decline without
substantial urban renewal.
The 1947 plan can be summarized using component excerpts, as follows:
“St. Louis is a generally satisfactory city (present)…most St. Louis streets were laid out with a
width of 60 feet (past)…much has been accomplished in converting a horse and buggy street
system to automobile needs (rising present)…St. Louis was a pioneer in zoning but we have
failed to keep at the head of the parade (declining present)…there can be expected certain
changes in the pattern and density of the city's population (future)…St. Louis, with a colorful,
historic past and a busy, variegated present, is still a city with a future (future rise)… if the City
of St. Louis does not provide through planning an atmosphere for living that will compete
favorably with its suburbs it may continue to suffer from decentralization (future decline)… our
obsolete and blighted districts now embrace half the city's residential area (organic)…building
lines should now be established on all major streets of inadequate future width (disorganization)
…this is a social necessity as well as an economic essential (benevolent community)…the City
Plan Commission proposes herein to point the way. It offers a comprehensive, modern chart for
continued progress (moral)…see Plate Number 13 (communicative, figure 2).”
Figure 2 Plate Number 13, 1947 St. Louis City Plan
Note: Referring to “blighted” and “obsolete” neighborhoods, the caption reads: "This
cancerous growth may engulf the entire city if steps are not taken to prevent it.” Abbott
(2007) points out these were overwhelmingly majority black neighborhoods.
The 1947 plan was ambitious. It is the monumental plan that it seems to be. It called for
massive slum clearance, highway building, airport construction, and all the amenities of a
modern city. To justify such drastic action required a great amount of trust in the urgency of the
plan. Such trust was created by framing the problems of the city in the dramatic terms that
narrative allows for. It was not that some areas of the city merely lacked plumbing facilities—
they were a blight, a cancer that had the ability to infect the city at large. Roads were not for
efficiency in transportation—they connected the city and region to the metropolitan heart, from
which regional urbanism flowed. Neighborhoods did not lack vital services—they were
disorganized, necessarily worse because they did not conform to the ideal. The spatial
distribution of the metropolitan region’s population was not to be affected by the physical
environment—the future trajectory of the entire city depended on the moral of the story being
followed, that the built environment must improve. In the 1947 plan, analysis reveals that
narrative identified problems, pointed out solutions, and implied that the trajectory of the entire
city depended on the moral of the story. It dramatically predicted a glorious future, believing that
such a prediction was one way to spur the city into action to follow the morals of the plan.
Moreover, the racial connotations in the plan are biased against black neighborhoods and
communities. As seen in Figure 2, nearly all the areas defined as blighted and obsolete are black
neighborhoods. When powerful metaphors mix as they do regarding blighted communities and
the organically interconnected city, and nearly every neighborhood defined as blighted is a
majority black neighborhood, the plan justifies clearing black neighborhoods for the good of the
city. This cause, noble on paper—slum clearance will save the city—justified what Mark Abbott
referred to as “cultural genocide”: The clearing of black neighborhoods and culture for some
contrived and vague greater good. The discursive strategy that referred to the glorious future in
store for St. Louis stated in its text that it was promised for everyone. However, by examining
treating the text as writerly, it became clear that the actual meaning of the text refers to a
potentially glorious future that is only open to some: Specifically white heteronormative (Frisch,
2002) families, at the expense of blacks, renters, and others labeled socially diseased.
Maps can tell about populations sizes, neighborhood characteristics, and recommended
locations for parking lots. They can be wholly empirical, accurate and reliable. Moreover, a plan
can spurn people to action. It can play on their feelings by using connotation to imply that for
example, despite the claim that “St. Louis is a generally satisfactory city” in the 1947 plan,
perhaps there is something more to be done. A plan can promise a glorious future based on
empirical observations and sophisticated forecasting, but if obtaining the glorious future requires
inequitable treatment like clearing neighborhoods with littler concern for displaced residents’
lives, cultures, and future, it is not worthwhile. The glorious future was contingent on black
neighborhoods being demolished without so much as their input. For some, the glorious future
was never promised in the first place.
Narratives must be used cautiously, and their connotations must be policed actively. The city
is not a living organism. It is like a living organism, but it is not truly living and does not have
the capacity to become sick. Treating cities otherwise overextends the metaphor. When the
metaphor is overextended, and the city becomes “sick,” the problem is not to be fixed—the
sickness is to be removed. Black neighborhoods were never truly “sick” in the way that the
narratives in the 1947 plan would suggest but were cleared by socio-medical specialists with the
vigor of a disease. Yes, many lacked access to indoor plumbing. Yes, many of the tenement
houses and apartments in these “sick” neighborhoods were in poor conditions, even falling apart.
But that does not mean the residents of those were truly sick and at risk of infecting the entire
city. It means that new buildings with indoor plumbing ought to be built without completely
disrupting and displacing an entire local culture.
This research has used narrative approaches to public policy to describe five narrative categories,
each made up of different components, and applied them to a reading of the 1947 St. Louis plan.
Time ordering is necessary in any narrative and creates potential for trajectory. Storylines
identify specific problems that create better or worse trajectory. Morals of the story allow for
recommendations to improve trajectory. Finally, the narrative might communicate directly with
the reader and reference itself. The components of these narrative categories were teased out
using semi-structural methods applied to the plan. These methods separate highly structured text
and its connotations, creating room for criticism.
The reading also revealed one reason why the plan predicted such a glorious future:
predicting a glorious future was a discursive strategy intended to spurn the population into
following the moral of the story. However this discursive strategy carried connotations that
dehumanized black residents, justifying the destruction of their neighborhoods and culture
without much consideration for the effect it would have. Ultimately, the plan is both as
monumental as it seems while carrying with it deep and biased racial connotations of
neighborhoods afflicted with social disease that risks infecting the city at large.
One of the advantages of narrative is that it is dramatic. Utilized most effectively, narratives
can use identifiable heroes to drive home morals of the story, resulting in passed public policy
(Crow and Jones, 2018; Jones, 2014) or inspiring plans. Narratives take what might be otherwise
interpreted as mundane and dramatizes it such that it becomes salient. But narratives are also
ambiguous and leave room for connotation such that by describing a neighborhood as blighted
and the city as organic, it implies that residents are socially diseased and that the safest strategy
for the city at large is to demolish whole neighborhoods. Narrative approaches to public policy
treat the use of narrative as inevitable, part of the human condition. We must then be careful in
the use of narrative. Unless it is made clear that narratives are only that—contrived stories—they
may be powerful enough to justify monumental injustice. Ambiguity can be powerful because it
creates consensus around some action, but dangerous for the same reasons. Given the history of
segregation, racism, and selective slum clearance in St. Louis, planners and political leaders in
that city today should take care to avoid narratives with potentially disastrous racial
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