Monday, January 31, 2011

History Museum Event Opens Discussion on Class

On Saturday, an overflow crowd gathered in the Lee Auditorium at the St. Louis History Museum for the start of the new series, Class: the Great Divide. The first installment in the series was a presentation by University of Iowa's Colin Gordon on his work Mapping Decline. If you're into maps and St. Louis history, this was the event for you.

Gordon takes his readers through a detailed history of restrictive covenants in St. Louis and the practices of the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange. It shows the history of white flight and ultimately black flight from St. Louis city. It chronicles the depopulation of St. Louis. And it shows the trend continuing in parts of St. Louis County.

The presentation challenges St. Louis about what we do now? The history is well documented. St. Louis was ground zero in terms of white flight and urban dislocation. While there is no question that the downgrading of neighborhood risk by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange in the 1950s led to much disinvestment in North St. Louis, it is not as clear that restrictive covenants were the cause of white flight.

1950s St. Louis was a place steeped in racism, practicing legalized segregation. Block busting and panic selling caused more white flight than racial covenants or grading of areas by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange. The challenge for St. Louis is where do we go from here?

STL Rising is hopeful that the sad history of racism and white flight in St. Louis is being rewritten by young people today who do not carry the racial baggage of their parents', grandparents', and great grandparents' generations. Previous generations did not leave a good legacy for our young people. Thankfully they do not seem to be repeating our mistakes.


GMichaud said...

This racial aspect is real, but an offshoot to the need to for policies to develop cheap land, enriching developers, road builders etc. I really believe it is an error to blame the decline of St. Louis solely on racial prejudice.
Race was one of many tactics used to destroy a viable city. Without that destruction the power structure could not have cashed in the way they did.
As the saying goes, follow the money. The destruction of the City of St. Louis was necessary to enable outward movement.

It is like calling Obama a Socialist, Marxist or Nazi, after awhile it sticks for some people.

Yet the real crime is the complicity of the major media.
Analysis such as Ron Fagerstroms book Mill Creek Valley, A soul of St. Louis, covers the destruction of mid town and documents the complicity of the media.
That destruction had racial overtones also. The still intact Mill Creek Valley area was primarily African American.

But make no mistake, it is not simply racism at work here.

Rick Bonasch said...

The race riots that took place in North City at Fairground Park happened near the beginning of white flight from the area.

Mr. Williams, a long time board member of the Fairgrounds Community Corporation, described to me how it was back in the early 60s when his was the only black family on his 3rd ward block. By that time, racial covenants had been overturned, but white flight was just hitting its stride.

1960s St. Louis was a time when racial prejudice was the norm. In my humble opinion, I don't think media or restrictive deed covenants had much to do with it.

Instead, I think people inherited it from their parents or grafted it off their neighbors.

In the early 90s when we lived on our first South City block, we had an 80-something year old neighbor. Her biggest fear was that a black family would move into one of the houses being sold.

It's in the water here, but hopefully, it's finally washing downstream.

When it comes to improving race relations in St. Louis, especially in the year 2011, I think we really need to look at ourselves and not point to the failings of others.

GMichaud said...

Rick, I am in no way dismissing racism. I just think it is simplistic to explain the deterioration of St. Louis solely on racism. The media and business interests had a major hand in the destruction of St. Louis.

Not surprisingly this destruction supported suburban expansion. Surely you don't think this is a coincidence? In fact suburban expansion could not have succeeded without the destruction of St. Louis.
The reason I point out Fagerstroms book is that it documents the process of devaluing a community by the press and the business community. Although Mill Creek was primarily African American at the time and the circumstances were different the process remains the same.

There is no question that racial prejudice became the preferred tool of destruction. But the motives behind this racism had an agenda, which included suburban expansion.
Read Fagerstroms book, it is well researched and in some ways reminds me of the run up to the Iraq war. Professionals, including media types supported destruction of a neighborhood.
The book used to be available at Subterranean Books in U City, I'm not sure if it still is.

GMichaud said...

It turns out that Subterranean Books is sold out, copies of Ron Fagerstroms' book are available at Left Bank Books and at the History Museum.