What If St. Louis Were Part of Illinois?

by Reihan Salam

Alec MacGillis, a staff writer for Slate, argues that because the city of St. Louis suffers so much from being part of a center-right, Republican-dominated state, it ought to become part of neighboring Illinois, where it would enjoy more enlightened governance:

There are of course other Democratic-leaning cities with large minority populations in Republican-dominated states—think of New Orleans; Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; or Houston, all places where the divides between red and blue America are very much an intrastate matter. But St. Louis stands out among them in one key way: It sits on the very edge of its state and directly adjacent to a solidly blue state, Illinois—after all, its smaller, like-named cousin across the Mississippi River, East St. Louis, is in the Land of Lincoln. Heck, look at a map and you’ll see that St. Louis juts right into Illinois. Which is why one cannot help but ask: Would St. Louis, Missouri, be better off becoming West East St. Louis, Illinois?

Which is why one cannot help but ask: Would St. Louis, Missouri, be better off becoming West East St. Louis, Illinois?

One problem with MacGillis’s thesis is that in lamenting Missouri’s lax gun laws, he neglects to mention that the homicide rate in East St. Louis, a city that already has the good fortune to be a part of Illinois, is substantially higher than in St. Louis, Missouri. If MacGillis is going to argue that St. Louis is a more violent and dangerous place simply by virtue of being part of a Republican-dominated state, he ought to at least address the fact that East St. Louis is far more violent and dangerous than St. Louis, even if only to explain why such a straightforward comparison is invalid.

This is not to say that Democratic-leaning cities in Republican-dominated states are always safe, flourishing places. Atlanta and Memphis, two of the cities on MacGillis’s list, are two of the country’s most segregated big cities, where the problem of concentrated poverty is particularly acute. To some extent, this reflects the unique challenges facing the African-American poor. Native-born black communities in Democratic-leaning cities in Democratic-dominated states often face broadly similar hurdles, more stringent gun laws notwithstanding. 

Moreover, many Democratic-leaning cities in Republican-dominated states do rather well, in part because GOP states tend to have less stringent land-use regulations, which in turn makes housing more affordable. Several years ago, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser contrasted low-cost, lightly-regulated Houston with high-cost, heavily-regulated New York city. And he found that while Houston did indeed offer less generous social services than New York, it offered a more congenial environment for families looking to earn and to build assets. Does anyone believe that Houston would be better off if it were governed from Albany rather than from Austin? 

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