AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
Even woke capital may be waking up to the disaster that is befalling American cities. Starbucks announced in a memo last week that the coffee chain is closing sixteen stores in major American cities Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. due overwhelmingly to the crime that is befalling their otherwise profitable stores. This first wave of closures of the giant is yet another portent of what’s happening to American cities. I ought to know.
This is the last column I will write from St. Paul, Minnesota, my home of twenty-one years and a place once known as “America’s Most Livable City.” Though I am moving for a job, a lot of people have moved and are moving out of this former gem of a city due to the relentlessness of the crime. It is an occasion for sadness, but also a crisis—in the old sense of a moment of decision for those who live and work here. Shall they stay or shall they go? And for those who choose to stay, can they afford to continue voting for the DFL (the Minnesota branch of the national Democrats) any longer?
It won’t be a surprise if future Starbucks closures happen in St. Paul. Videos of internal meetings showed CEO Howard Schultz explaining that “many more” such store closures are now in the works around the country, adding that “Starbucks is a window into America.” Schultz blasted the political leadership—all Democratic, by the way—of the cities where closures are happening: “At the local, state, and federal level, these governments across the country, and leaders—mayors and governors, city councils — have abdicated their responsibility in fighting crime and addressing mental illness.” All of this fits St. Paul.
In 2021 the city set its own record for murders on December 2. As of the end of May 2022, the Center for the American Experiment reported that St. Paul’s numbers were 50% above where they were in the previous year at the same date. Stories such as that of a rolling gun battle featuring a man wielding a machete or a murder outside the funeral home where another murder victim was being mourned are common. Lest the reader think that this is a development post-George Floyd, it’s important to remember that in 2019 USA Today ranked St. Paul as the worst city in the state in large part due to its crime statistics, which were almost twice the national average per 100,000 residents, its poverty rate, and its median home prices. These rankings were themselves derived from 2017 statistics, showing that the rot set in well before 2019. That Minneapolis’s murder statistics are even worse is a chilly comfort.
Things were not always so dire. When I moved here in 2001, the place was truly a wonderland. While there is no doubt some gauzy quality to my newlywed memories, the sentiment wasn’t limited to the young and in love. The city was quite often voted “most livable city” in a variety of polls. Indeed, the city still advertises itself as “the most livable city in America.” Composed of seventeen planning neighborhoods created in 1979, when I moved here you were just as likely to hear people, Catholic or not, tell where they lived with reference to one of the many vibrant Catholic parishes in the city. The city streets were kept plowed in the winter—no easy task, given the copious amounts of snow that fall in Minnesota. There were plenty of hiking and biking trails in the city that were kept up as well as the delightful large and small city parks. Community theater and music were supported on a fairly large scale by a community that came together to make its own entertainment. And crime was not a problem in most of those neighborhoods.
Education was progressive in the best sense. In addition to a number of very good private and parochial schools, the first city-sponsored charter school in the nation was established in 1992. A policy of public-school choice whereby parents could choose among the school’s many district, magnet, and charters, had been established.
And politically, though the city had been largely run by the Democratic Party, its Minnesota name—Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party—actually made a kind of sense. Perhaps it didn’t do so as well as its members thought, but the Democratic Party used to represent farmers and laborers, not just the political, tech, and corporate class. In 2001 the city’s mayor was Norm Coleman, a DFL mayor who was first elected in in 1993 and switched to the Republican Party for his second term. There was a reason for that. Though he was generally liberal, Coleman was a fiscal conservative and an advocate for government creating a stable and predictable business climate. Coleman froze property tax rates and made St. Paul a good place for businesses of all sizes. Before he finished his last term, he had added 18,000 jobs to the city.
Coleman was replaced by Randy Kelly, a Democrat, but another one with somewhat conservative instincts. His support for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 likely doomed his own 2005 reelection campaign. He was defeated by Chris Coleman, the son of Minnesota’s legendary 1970s State Senate majority leader Nicholas Coleman, Sr., and the brother of Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Nicholas “Nick” Coleman.
Chris Coleman was not so far left as to refuse to host the 2008 Republican National Convention, but his national connections were to a Democratic Party fast tilting to the left—John Kerry visited St. Paul to campaign for him, while Hillary Clinton and John Edwards offered support from afar. And as the national party tilted toward the left, so did Coleman and the city council. Some of the policies under Coleman were annoying—a smoking ban in all restaurants—while others were absolutely destructive.
Environmental and leftist advocates were annoyed by St. Paul’s system of residential garbage collection. Under the old policy, people were obligated to contract with their own garbage collectors. This was not difficult, given that there were many local garbage collectors had been operating for decades. But this free-market scenario was somehow unsustainable because it meant different trucks travelling through the city, supposedly causing too many carbon emissions and too much wear and tear on the streets and alleys. The solution was for the city to contract out to a number of large trash haulers and force its residents to get their trash delivery from them. Far from being on the side of the little guy, the city planners went with large national corporations and forced most of the small, family-owned companies out of business.
While the city still bragged about being the most livable, residents started wearing t-shirts bearing the legend, “Keep St. Paul Boring,” a riff off the Austin, Texas, version of “Keep Austin Weird.” St. Paulites wanted government to tackle the boring tasks of crime prevention, plowing and paving streets, and other city services without major tax hikes. What they got under Coleman and current mayor, Melvin Carter, was a fixation on environmentalism and other woke causes with a decline in all the boring qualities that made St. Paul so livable.
Carter campaigned for a city referendum giving St. Paul the most restrictive rent control in the country last year. When it won in 2020, the mayor kept trying to give exceptions to the measure. No matter. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board noted last week, depending on how you calculate it, St. Paul’s multi-family unit building permits are down between 55-82%. About two-thirds of St. Paul public school children don’t read at grade level and 80% are not proficient in math, but the St. Paul Public Schools are busy working with groups to promote “gender diversity.” Mayor Carter’s now pushing a universal basic income for low-income families.
And about all that crime? Well, the St. Paul Police are currently down about 100 officers from their full strength. Despite former Police Chief Todd Axtell’s warning about the understaffed agency, the response has been about what you’d expect. Mayor Carter and Democratic U. S. Senator Amy Klobuchar rolled out a $10 million dollar initiative called Project Peace that will only pay for about thirty more officers. Interim Police Chief Jeremy Ellison noted that in the acronym Peace, the “e” is for enforcement. “It’s at the end of the acronym for a specific and intentional purpose.”
Right. Enforcement of the law is the last thing on the mind of the city as it currently stands. Instead, hordes of social workers and other people are going to address things holistically and in concert with other community groups. It would be pretty amusing if it were not so grim: the same leftists who like to chant, “No Justice, No Peace!” put actually getting basic justice at the very end of their to-do list. Good luck to those social workers as they dodge bullets and machetes.
We’ve seen friends, some of them life-long residents, moving out of St. Paul recently because of the crime, poor services, and high taxes. One friend who walked into a realtor across the St. Croix River in Hudson, Wisconsin, was greeted with: “I’ll bet you’re from St. Paul! We see a lot of people from there lately.” He likely did. St. Paul ended up losing about 3700 residents in 2021—1.2% of the population. I don’t know Howard Schultz’s plans for the Starbucks here in town. But if he has any plans of closing them, it won’t be surprising if he doesn’t change his mind. Love only goes so far when a city is not most livable but only mostly livable.
David P. Deavel is an Associate Professor at the University of St. Thomas (Texas). A senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative, he is a winner of the Acton Institute’s Novak Award and a former Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. With Jessica Hooten Wilson, he edited Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West (Notre Dame, 2020). Besides his academic publications, his writing has appeared in many journals, including Catholic World Report, City Journal, First Things, Law & Liberty, and The Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Gettr @davidpdeavel.