Learning St. Louis

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The bus bumped slowly through the sprawling shopping complex, squeezing past rows of cars and pausing as shoppers sped in front of its path to get on with their shopping. We kept going, past the Trader Joe’s and World Market, even beyond Total Wine and More. We reached the back of the parking lot, just before an intersection with a small industrial road. We were looking for a plaque, our guide told us, but all we could see was the trash dumpster.

It took a moment, but we finally saw it: there, away from the bustling shops, right next to the dumpster, in a place no one ever goes. “Commemorating Evans Howard Place, 1907 to 1997, By the City of Brentwood”.


If it hadn’t been for this trip, the first of several mini tours of St. Louis I’m taking this year through the Cultural Competency program at my workplace this year, I would have never noticed this. I don’t shop at the Brentwood Promenade often, but it’s a well-known spot for St. Louisans. I didn’t know, but I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it stands on what was once an African-American community of more than 800.

I’m not from around here, but there’s no place I’ve lived longer in my life. My family moved to the state when I was a sophomore in high school, and for years, my exposure to St. Louis, more than two hours from our home, was little more than occasional visits to the St. Louis Zoo or the Children’s Hospital, or maybe to retrieve someone from the airport. In college, it felt like half the people I met came from St. Louis, but I never imagined back then that I’d someday live, study, and work here.

I’ve lived in the St. Louis metro area more than a decade now. It’s maybe more than a little ironic that my first job, graduate school, and current job have all kept me in a fairly straight line from West to East and back again, meaning that I still know the western side of the area better than anything else. I don’t get lost going to South County anymore, but it’s still the place I know least, unless I’m heading to Grant’s Farm or the Magic House.

That’s the easy part, though: navigating a city based on the places you are most likely to visit. In the past few years, especially since Ferguson, I started to realize how little I knew about St. Louis, which is especially pathetic since I’m a historian. This may be the equivalent of the old adage about the cobbler’s children never having any shoes: when you’re a historian and live somewhere, it may be easy to overlook that place’s story because you’re always too busy studying other things.

I’ve started to change. It began small, years before Ferguson, when I discovered the BBC’s short video on the Delmar Divide, which tells the story of a street in St. Louis where you can see the racial divisions easily: on the north side of the street, lower-income, predominantly black neighborhoods; on the south, large homes, higher incomes, and mostly white neighborhoods. I was particularly struck by how easy it was to see the disparities in the neighborhoods, but I didn’t think much about it until Ferguson.

delmardividegraphicforsakeofallThese days, so much in this town goes back to Ferguson. And the Stockley protests. (At least for me.)

This year, the school where I work decided to give us all choices for Cultural Competency programming. I find the title a bit odd and awkward, but it’s the content that matters here, and the conversations and learning that – it is hoped – will help us to better understand others. Many of the programs focus on race and racism, sometimes through watching/reading and discussing documentaries or books. One group talks about teaching current events in the classroom.  Another discusses the history of St. Louis through its various neighborhoods and the ways in which people’s movement – often due to white flight – has shaped the region.

I was one of a lucky few to snag a place in the Mini Cultural Tours group. While most groups meet once a month on a day before school, ours meets only four times this year, for three hours after school so we can visit parts of St. Louis we’ve never been.

First up: The Ville, a historically African-American neighborhood where some big names have come from (Tina Turner, Arthur Ashe, for starters). Accompanied by our regular Guide and a local history professor, we snuck into a part of St. Louis that’s been hiding in plain sight.

We talked about redlining, which the Federal Government practiced for decades across the nation and certainly in St. Louis, refusing loans to people who lived in neighborhoods largely consisting of non-white Americans. (To learn more, check out this six-minute clip from Race: The Power of An Illusion’s segment on housing.) Redlining helps explain the Delmar Divide, and so much more about St. Louis; to see how St. Louis’s racial demographics shifted as a result of housing and transportation trends in the 20th century, check out this interactive map at Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City.

Our second outing took us to activist artist Sami Bentil’s gallery just north of Delmar, in a nondescript building that hides some of the most amazing artworks you’ll ever see. Sami is a Ghanaian-born artist, world-renowned for his pointillism, some of which you can see here. He showed us around his gallery and talked about his artwork, including a controversial and moving piece he made for a show after Ferguson. His wife hosted us with amazing food, courtesy of their event space business that they’re currently building. I know about the St. Louis Art Museum and a few other art spaces in town, but meeting Sami Bentil and learning about his work is something I never could have uncovered on my own.

Last week, we drove north of Delmar again and headed over to Wellston, a small city that I’ve heard of but had never been to. To give you a sense of what we saw there, I’ll just point out two things:

  1. It’s north of Delmar (see above) and
  2. Wikipedia notes that it’s one of the 10 poorest cities in the entire state

Drive through there, and you’ll see worn down building after worn down building. At first glance, it seems like a typical case of North St. Louis urban decay, black-majority neighborhoods that are struggling and have been for years.

image7It wasn’t always this way, though; we heard about the Wellston Loop, which was a huge transportation hub in the mid-20th century. The building below still exists, marking where trolley cars and busses once ran, but today it’s falling apart.

But we kept going, and our tour guide drove us a few blocks over to an area that looks a little different, not run down. It’s an area Friendly Temple ministries has spent a quarter of a century trying to rebuild and revitalize. They’ve built a senior living center and started childcare centers. They’ve rebuilt houses and constructed playgrounds. They work actively in the community – and they aren’t the only ones: we met someone from the St. Louis Promise Zone, a federal program that supports areas with a lot of poverty by bringing together community agencies to create solutions and address underlying problems, such as educational access. For example, we learned that one prominent tech school has millions of dollars in financial aid for African American students, but many African Americans in our area can’t pass the entrance exam because they didn’t get the education they needed first.

I walked away from that excursion totally floored. It’s easy to drive around the city, see rundown neighborhoods, and presume that people don’t care or that something’s been abandoned. We don’t hear the stories of the people who are working actively every day to make their communities better places.

Or maybe we’re just not that good at paying attention. It’s easy to keep with the narratives we’ve always known, especially when they involve people we don’t spend much time with, or places we never go. In St. Louis, we’re continually erasing history as we build new things. It’s too easy to ignore the stories that are hard to hear, to pretend that missing history doesn’t apply to you, or to assume that you know the truth when you don’t.

It’s easy to learn a city’s roads and major sites. Even if you’re not a tourist, there are those places that will always stand out, from the ones you visit most like your home or work or friends, to the ones you pass by or hear about all the time. But learning a city on a deeper level – that’s something that can take a lifetime, and I’ve only just begun. I don’t even know yet what all I’m missing.

Want to learn more about St. Louis, redlining, or places mentioned above? Check out the links below.

Riverfront Times, “Black St. Louis Neighborhoods Cut Off from Mortgage Lending, Banks, Report Finds”

St. Louis Magazine, “The Story of Segregation in St. Louis”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Modern Day Redlining in Communities of Color”

The Atlantic, “The Racist Housing Policies that Built Ferguson”

The Atlantic, “St. Louis is Growing More Diverse – Just Not in the Black Half of Town”

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