St. Louis Public RadioThe Civil Courts building, left, and the Gateway Arch are set ablaze in color during a fireworks spectacular in July 2022 as seen from outside Union Station in downtown St. Louis.
Ask St. Louisans to define the geographic boundaries of the metro area and you’ll hear all kinds of answers, influenced by where in the region they live and work.
The counties in Missouri include Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, St. Charles, St. Louis and Warren, plus the city of St. Louis — which has about 300,000 residents. The eight counties that make up the Metro East in Illinois are Bond, Calhoun, Clinton, Jersey, Macoupin, Madison, Monroe and St. Clair.
All told, about 2.8 million people live in the region, and most of them grew up in it. A 2022 census study found that a majority of people living in the St. Louis region haven’t moved away since they were children, or had moved away but returned by their mid-20s.
That’s one reason why if you live here long enough, you’ll hear the infamous St. Louis question — “Where’d you go to high school?” — asked to people years, or even decades, after they’ve graduated.
The makeup of the regionis changing, however. The St. Louis metro grew more diverse over the past decade — with Asian, Hispanic and multiracial populations increasing in nearly every part of the region, according to 2020 census data. But the region is also losing Black residents, and overall growth is relatively stagnant compared to other cities its size.
Where there’s growth: Hispanic and Asian populations
Most of the growth has been in Madison, St. Clair, St. Charles and St. Louis counties and the city of St. Louis, where Hispanic residents now account for more than 5% of the city’s population.
Reasons for the influx include the lower cost of living compared to bigger cities, educational and professional opportunities.
“The Hispanic population in the metro area is majority professional,” said Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano, director of entrepreneurship for the Cortex Innovation Community. “People are coming here because of their jobs or because they come to a university and they decide to stay and make a living and raise their family here.”
Educational opportunities are a big driver of Asian population growth in the region, with universities playing an important role as an entry point.
The community grew 37% in the past decade, with nearly 22,000 Asian and Asian American people moving to the region. The increase is mostly concentrated in the city of St. Louis, St. Charles County and St. Louis County — where the Asian community now accounts for nearly 5% of the county’s 1 million residents.
Taken alone, those figures can obscure a vast and diverse community from the world’s largest and most populous continent.
“There’s different cultures and different languages,” said Shayn Prapaisilp, a second-generation Thai American born in St. Louis. “Just because the census says that we are one group doesn’t mean that we should be treated as one monolithic group.”
About 70% of Asians in the St. Louis region are foreign born, according to 2019 American Community Survey data. There are specific challenges for regional leaders if they want newcomers to stay, said Rick Shang, CEO and founder of Vulpes Corp. They include fueling the work of organizations like the International Institute and the Mosaic Project, which familiarize and welcome newcomers to the region, and helping those contending with the U.S. immigration and visa system.
Many of these newcomers have settled near the I-270 corridor in west St. Louis County. Ness Sandoval, a demographer and a St. Louis University sociology professor, calls the area “the U.N. of the region.”
“As a percentage, there are more immigrants there than we have [on average] at the national level — this is Maryland Heights, Creve Coeur, Town and Country, Chesterfield, Clarkson, Ellisville,” he said. “You see it in the school districts, you see it in the stores. This is a special place.”
Where there’s decline: Black residents leaving the city
Today, the number of Black residents in St. Louis is smaller than it was in the 1950s.
More than 27,000 Black people left the city limits between 2010 and 2020 and moved to other counties in the region or to other states. Just over 5,000 white residents the city left in that same time period.
The pattern of Black families leaving St. Louis is not new, because parts of St. Louis are historically economically marginalized, said Sandoval. He said this mass exodus should be concerning to city officials.
“I don’t understand if this trend is allowed to continue, how can you say you are a major city if one of the largest populations is leaving,” Sandoval said. “We are a growing city, yet one of the most important elements of the city is leaving.”
The latest census reports include an estimated 0.4% drop in population from 2021 to 2022 — a decrease of about 11,000 people.
One key detail: The region saw an estimated 2,714 fewer births than deaths.
“The St. Louis region no longer has the ability to grow naturally,” said Sandoval. “Once you’re in that trend, it’s difficult to turn around because it’s not something where you can just wave a magic wand and say, ‘We want more babies.’ It’s a very difficult thing. Usually it takes a generation to turn those trends around.”
What St. Louis’ population number means for education
The decline in birthrate and overall population loss lead to a decline in student enrollment in the St. Louis region. In 2022, the population in public schools dropped by more than 2,500 students. It’s part of a long-term trend reflecting larger population changes in St. Louis and across the country.
This overall trend is expected to continue. Missouri could lose 10% of its public school students between 2020 and 2030, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Illinois is projected to lose 5% of its students in that same time.
A school district’s funding is largely based on enrollment, so a decline in students can eventually hurt a district’s finances.
Former St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams told St. Louis Public Radio that when middle-class Black families leave St. Louis, it affects the entire school system because they are no longer advocating for students and making greater demands of the institution.
“I think it just really impacts the entire region in a negative way because you don’t have those advocacies, you don’t have those persons making statements for what needs to happen across the board,” Adams said.
He said the departure of Black families also hurts enrollment. Shrinking population in north city, a predominantly Black area, prompted the district to close six schools there in 2022. It also closed one in south St. Louis, which is majority white.
Within the region, a few places saw population increases. Lincoln County’s estimated increase of 1,501 residents makes for about a 2.4% increase. St. Charles County gained an estimated 3,292 people, a less-than-1% increase. In Illinois, Monroe County saw a slight population uptick.
“We’re pleased with our local growth, but we want to see that same kind of growth across the region and across the state,” said Scott Drachnik, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of St. Charles County. “We’ve got a lot to offer as a region and a state, and we need to find more folks that see that and value that and want to move here.”
St. Louis has seen several major commercial developments come online in recent years, including City Foundry in Midtown and the CityPark soccer stadium in Downtown West. But these attractions and similar entertainment projects may not drive population growth.
“St. Louis can’t be fooled by all of the cranes in the sky and the tremendous growth we’re seeing along the central corridor. The north half of the city is still draining population. You can’t have a whole part of the city in decline and expect population gain,” said Michael Allen, an architectural historian who teaches at Washington University.
“Is the population number the overarching measure of our success, or is it more about quality of life? Maybe the city gives up on population growth as the main indicator and we acknowledge that we are in a sprawled metropolitan form where most of the population lives outside the city,” Allen added.
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