ST. LOUIS — This is not your grandpa’s St. Louis.
Following a national trend, the St. Louis metro area continues to diversify, according to the most recent census data, released this month. Nonwhite populations skyrocketed over the last decade, from St. Charles to Madison counties. Asian and Hispanic communities grew regionwide. And, in a place that has long defined itself as either white or black, the number of white residents and Black residents tumbled by thousands each.
Meanwhile, a new generation of residents no longer sees itself as Black or white alone.
In Jefferson County, the new St. Louis looks like a Mexican grocery store in a strip mall, and the workers who frequent it. In St. Louis County, it’s an apartment complex and a subdivision burgeoning with Indian Americans. In St. Charles County, it’s thousands more Black, Asian and Hispanic residents — plus almost 20,000 more this year who identify as multiple races.
This is how the region will likely grow, said St. Louis University sociologist Ness Sandoval. It’s not growing organically — the metro population rose by just 32,552, or 1%, to 2.8 million, by this year’s count, even as the U.S. as a whole grew by 7%.
“Most of the growth we’re going to see in the future is going to come from racial minorities,” Sandoval said.
The 2020 census was atypical. The Trump administration tried to add a citizenship question to the form, ultimately struck down in court. A global pandemic upended the bureau’s schedule and counting efforts. The New York City Planning Division called it a “perfect storm of problems, even in the context of past censuses.”
To reduce in-person door knocking, the bureau relied heavily on social media, phone calls and texting. A lack of face-to-face interaction made typical census hurdles — language barriers, privacy concerns and government mistrust — even more difficult, and, experts said, likely led to an undercount, especially in minority communities.
There will always be an unspoken asterisk on the 2020 census, Sandoval said.
Still, he said, the trend is clear: The country, St. Louis included, is becoming even more of a melting pot.
‘Glad you are here’
Martha Pedroza, 29, fled a tumultuous political climate in Venezuela and moved to St. Charles eight years ago, with a scholarship to a local community college. Four years ago, she and her husband found a quiet neighborhood in the House Springs area, in Jefferson County, and bought a home there.
Now she owns and runs a Mexican grocery in a faded brick strip mall at 1051 Gravois Road, and is finishing a business administration degree at Lindenwood University. A commuter parking lot separates her store from Highway 30, a Jefferson County artery.
One recent afternoon, she took a call from her husband on the wrought-iron bench outside the bodega, then stepped back inside, an escape from the heat. The shop is stocked with Mexican favorites: Cholula hot sauce, pickled jalapenos, Jarritos soda, Mexican candy and frosted sweet breads, as well as fresh produce and other essentials.
Pedroza opened the shop because she tired of driving to Manchester or Ballwin, some 30 minutes away, to find the right ingredients to make food at home. Friends had opened similar shops in the area and asked her to help out, as a volunteer.
“It didn’t make sense,” she said. “If I could do it for them, why not just do it myself?”
Her 3-year-old daughter isn’t in school yet, but when she starts, she’s likely to see other kids that look like her: Hispanic enrollment at Northwest School District, in the House Springs area, has almost doubled, rising to 247 this school year from 130 a decade ago, according to the district.
In total, the county has 2,000 more Hispanic residents this census than in 2010, a rise of nearly two-thirds. The numbers are still small — they make up just 2.5% of the county population — but they represent more than one-quarter of its growth over the decade.
Pedroza said she didn’t notice the increase until she opened her store, about a year ago. Last year, she saw a lot of people from Mexico. This year, it’s Guatemala. Her customers are temporary workers and Americans, both.
“It makes me so happy when people say, ‘We are glad you are here,’” she said.
Dev Krishnamurthy moved to Creve Coeur from Chennai, India, in 2013 for work.
At first, he struggled to adjust to the cold weather and not knowing anyone. But soon, his family joined him, he got used to the weather, and his circle of friends grew. He found solace and community at Asian Spices, on McKelvey Road in Maryland Heights.
Krishnamurthy, now in his early 40s, bought a new house in Ballwin this year. Homeownership, he said, has changed everything for him.
“I’m observing, in the recent month or so after getting our home, I wish to settle down here in St. Louis forever,” he said.
Velmurugan Alagarsamy, 47, owns Asian Spices, and said he sees 90% Indian customers. The other 10%, he estimated, is a mix of Filipino, African, Thai and Chinese. The apartments near the store seem to attract Indian residents, he noticed.
“They’re always full,” he said.
The nearby subdivision of Maryland Oaks has also filled with Asian immigrants. Kevin Le, 48, came from Vietnam in 1994 and bought a home there about three years ago. He, too, said the grocer attracts Asian residents to the neighborhood.
St. Louis County’s Asian community has grown steadily, from 2% of the population 20 years ago to 4% a decade ago to 5% this census. That’s a growth of 14,000 people, or 41%, during the last decade alone.
Schools are seeing similar figures. Asian enrollment at Parkway School District, which serves Creve Coeur and Maryland Heights among other municipalities, ticked up to 14% of the district this year from 11% a decade ago. In some pockets, the growth has come even faster: Asian enrollment at McKelvey Elementary and Primary schools, down the street from Asian Spices, rose to 44% from 22% over the same period.
“We’ve been noticing a shift, districtwide, away from mostly white to now we have lots of nonwhites,” said Nathan Tyson, the district’s director of data management and research.
‘We’ve come a long way’
Still, the single largest demographic trend in the region is one away from labels.
A decade ago, just under 2% of the metro-area population identified itself as two or more races. But in this count, about 170,000 or 6% did — more than triple the number 10 years ago. And that increase hit every county across the region: Multirace residents tripled in St. Louis County, to 58,000, quadrupled in St. Charles County, to 26,000, and quintupled in Jefferson County, to 15,000.
Travis Sheridan, 47, a biracial resident of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, said America is blending. It’s evident all over, he noted: Even 10 years ago, sitcoms still commonly focused on either Black families or white families.
“We’ve come a long way from ‘The Jeffersons,’” said Sheridan, who works as a vice president for Wexford Science and Technology, a Baltimore-based developer involved in the Cortex project.
Sheridan grew up in Madera, California, was raised in a white community, and didn’t embrace his Blackness until he came to St. Louis. He and his wife, Gina, chose Old North St. Louis because it’s a Black neighborhood, and he wanted to be immersed in a part of himself he never got to experience. What he found was a new family.
“The Black culture I’ve come to know and love in St. Louis is — a person can become close, and a person can become aunties and uncles, who are close friends of family, and not just by marriage or blood,” Sheridan said.
At the same time, African Americans are leaving St. Louis city.
In last year’s count, Hispanic, Asian and multirace populations surged. But city totals fell 17,000 or 6% to just over 301,000. White residents dropped by almost 8,000 or 6% to 132,000. And Black numbers tumbled by more than 27,000 or 17% to about 130,000.
It’s a longstanding trend: Between the 1970 census, when the Black population first began to decline, and 2010, the city’s Black population dropped by more than 87,000.
Neal Richardson, executive director of the city’s economic development arm, St. Louis Development Corp., is frustrated.
Black families are fleeing the city, he said, because they can’t find good schools and can’t get good jobs.
“We are leaving families with no choice if they want opportunities,” said Richardson, who grew up in the Lewis Place neighborhood north of the Central West End and whose parents still live there. “Families are going to go where they feel included, welcomed, and where opportunities exist.”
He said the city is preparing to launch a plan next year calling for investment in underserved communities, and opening economic empowerment centers to connect residents with loans, investors, banks and credit unions.
“If we are going against the trend, in a negative way, we have to be intentional about investing in underserved communities,” Richardson said. “And that, for us in the city, starts with Black communities and Black residents.”
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