The balance of population continues to shift in Florissant and North County, as the number of minorities is gradually increasing, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
While Florissant’s overall population increased by about three percent, the white population decreased by more than 7,000. Meanwhile, the African-American population gained 7,821 residents.
According to the 2000 Census, whites made up 86.9 percent of Florissant’s population. The 2010 Census data puts the figure at 69.3 percent. The African-American population went from 12.2 percent to 26.8 percent of the city’s residents.
Past is not past
A glance at St. Louis history tells the story, said Terry Jones, professor of political science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
“To quote (William) Faulkner, ‘The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past,’” Jones said.
Jones has studied population shifts trends for the past 41 years. He said the root of North County’s population ebbs and flows dates back to a zoning ordinance passed in 1917 by the city of St. Louis.
The law segregated the city of St. Louis, restricting African-Americans to two neighborhoods on the city’s North Side. Although the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, segregation was largely achieved through restrictive housing covenants and steering minorities away from white neighborhoods.
“They basically said to black families, ‘OK, you are going to live north,’” Jones said.
When the North Side’s white population began moving to the county, many families shifted west to North County. When the African-Americans began moving out of the city, they likewise shifted west.
“White flight” was an issue 50 to 60 years ago, but that’s not happening now, Jones said.
“In the last 30 years, it’s been a much more subtle phenomenon,” he said.
Housing turns over naturally as people’s jobs are transferred, children move out, or they move into nursing homes, he explained.
“It’s not about whites fleeing, but about an absence of demand from whites moving into the area,” Jones said. “So where’s the demand for that home going to come from? It’s coming from middle and upper class African-Americans.”
He acknowledged there are new, white North County residents, but said it’s not the destination of choice for most white people relocating in St. Louis. Meanwhile, it largely is a destination of choice for African-Americans.
People tend move in where they see others like them, Jones said. Families also want safe neighborhoods and good schools.
“If you have an African-American middle class family coming to St. Louis, they would talk to friends and see where they’re living,” Jones said. “If those friends are all living in North County, that’s likely where they’ll move.”
Many new residents still are coming to Florissant or other North County areas from places where the school districts have lost accreditation or are provisionally accredited, such as Riverview, the city of St. Louis, Jennings and Normandy.
“We really have two North Counties: the inner North County and the outer North County, and they’re sharply divided along socioeconomic lines,” Jones said.
In general, those living further west are more affluent and better educated and have more resources, he said. Better homes, neighborhoods and school districts lie to the west. These elements attract middle and upper class African-American families just as they drew middle and upper class white families years before.
“It’s the best mix of all for a middle or upper class African-American family,” Jones said, pointing to affordable housing, being near friends and family and an upgrade in public school districts.
Considering a move
Alisa Pham has lived in Florissant her entire life. When she graduated from college, she moved five minutes away from her childhood home.
“I love Florissant. That’s why I moved here. I love the Old Town area. It feels like a small town,” she said. “We have lots of friends and family here. We like the area, the parks. The bicycle trails have just been redone."
But, in the near future, Pham and her husband, Victor, are considering a move outside Florissant. Alisa is white and Victor is Asian.
Alisa Pham is about a week away from delivering her first child. She and Victor want a bigger house than the 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home where they live now.
“It’s fine for my husband and I and our two dogs,” she said. “But it gets cramped pretty easily.”
Victor Pham's brother lives in St. Peters, and the couple has many friends in St. Charles, Alisa Pham said.
“But the real reason we would move is the school district,” said Pham. The couple lives in the .
Pham, a kindergarten teacher in the , said she believes the curriculum for the Ferguson-Florissant District is too heavily weighted on preparing children for testing.
So, she and her husband are looking at moving into the newer, larger homes along Shackelford in Hazelwood. They also are considering private schools.
“We’re not set on leaving, but we’re not set on staying either,” Alisa said. “We wouldn’t mind staying; our family is here. It’s really kind of up in the air.”
Pham said the neighborhood has changed from she was a child.
“When I was young, I lived in a mostly white neighborhood with very few minorities in my school, now it seems like there are a lot more minorities around,” she said.
She said she and her husband notice that older residents tend to be white and younger new residents tend to be minorities.
“I enjoy having a lot of diversity in Florissant, but I do feel like many of the neighborhoods are not as diverse as they could be,” she added. Some neighborhoods still are mostly white while others are predominantly African-American, she said.
"There still seems to be pockets where certain groups live together," she said.
Racial diversity achievable?
Communities have two options, Jones said.
“If you’re strategizing for North County, you either go with the flow and make this a community of choice for middle and upper class African-Americans, because that’s your strength right now,” Jones said. The second option is to try to attract white middle class and try to make the community a blended, 50-50 racial mix, he added.
“The best test case for this is Ferguson,” Jones said. “Ferguson is one community that has a conscious goal or a vision of itself as a racially diverse community.”
Rosalind Williams, Ferguson’s community development director, said officials are focusing on raising property values.
“We’re not talking about race as much as we are trying to attract more middle-income residents by trying to raise the value of the houses,” Williams said.
The city requires interior inspections of rental property. About 20 percent of Ferguson’s homes are rented, and an additional 20 percent are multi-family units.
The city offers low-interest loans for home improvements through UMB, and is considering other programs that encourage investment in the city’s homes.
Williams pointed out that Ferguson’s African-American community population went from 52.4 percent in 2000 to 67.4 percent in the 2010 Census, a percentage increase that is slightly higher than neighboring Florissant.
Florissant also offers programs designed to increase property values, including a Home Equity Assurance program, which guarantees that a resident’s property value will not fall below its value at the time the resident signed up for the program.
Jones said there’s no guarantee that consciously trying to attract white middle-class residents will work for North County communities.
“It’s not as though we’ll wake up in 2020 and not find a white person in North County,” Jones said.
“But if you ask me to project what will happen in the next 10 years, I see no sign that the trend won’t continue.”
Next in the "Census Stories" series: Wentzville. Watch for the article at Wentzville Patch on April 1.