Monday, January 07, 2008

Heard you can't find Mill Creek anywhere

I've been reading a remarkable document called Mill Creek Valley: A Soul of Saint Louis. It gives a thorough history of the last days of the Mill Creek Valley area, a large, entirely black neighborhood near Midtown that was completely destroyed beginning around 1959 in the name of urban renewal. Today it is home to SLU's sport fields and the corporate campus of AG Edwards.

It's not really a book; there's no publisher, and apparently it grew out of the author's Masters thesis. It has a homespun aura to it. Some typos remain, as does a certain redundancy in format and occasional lapse of academic rigor. But it makes its case with devastating systematicness, in plain language that's easily grasped. The author interviewed over a dozen former residents of the neighborhood, and plumbed dozens of books, articles, and documents in the course of his research.

The fundamental question the document asks is: what is poverty? Did the government really have the right to look at this neighborhood, declare it impoverished, and decide that destroying it was the best thing to do?

Mill Creek Valley was run down. The houses were old, and they were often overcrowded with residents. Many didn't have indoor plumbing, and they needed maintenance and upkeep.

What the neighborhood did have, however, was a powerful social network and an incredibly rich array of stores, restaurants, and other enterprises: social capital. The author lists the businesses that were located on one city block, and it's astonishing: literally over a hundred businesses on one city block. Grocers, hairdressers, dry goods, restaurants, the list goes on and on. All of life's needs could be met by a short walk. The only possible modern-day comparison *might* be some areas of New York City.

Today, the same block contains one huge AG Edwards building, and some parking lots. Nobody lives there. Nobody shops there. Nobody but AG Edwards employees eat there, and certainly nobody goes there for recreation. It's a monoculture -- the exact opposite of what a functioning city must be.

Rather than funneling money into repairing and upgrading the physical apparatus of the neighborhood, the powers-that-were decided it must be obliterated (there's a tragically hilarious declaration in the original 1940s study that one of the reasons the neighborhood is so awful and blighted and obsolete is that the buildings are more than 50 years old.) And in doing so, they forced thousands of black residents into true poverty. They pushed the deterioration elsewhere, rather than relieving it; and they destroyed a functioning neighborhood.

Mill Creek Valley was the primary neighborhood that blacks were shunted into as they entered the city in the migration of the 1940s and 1950s. When it was destroyed, they were relocated to housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe, or else fanned out across the city, taking up residence in neighborhoods across the city as wealthy whites moved out. Their social networks disintegrated. Businesses lost their customer base. The residents moved into places that were designed for wealthier residents. You drive down the 5000 block of Page Boulevard, and you can see it: it's solid free-standing houses. No stores, no businesses. These were suburbs; they were places were made for people who owned cars, had servants, or at least had access to a good streetcar system. There's no way to get the resources one needed to live. When they were driven to these places, the real impoverishment began.

The author further makes the case that "slums" are in reality nothing more than the free market's provision of a necessary good: affordable housing for low-income citizens. In this, they are neither good nor bad; it is the individual circumstances of each particular neighborhood that determine whether they serve their residents well. Mill Creek Valley, with its rich array of businesses, schools, churches, and social webs, served its residents exceedingly well -- perhaps to a degree unknown to us today.

The document is a powerful case against the governmental power of eminent domain, which is used to force massive ("traumatic" might be a better word) change on an area, as opposed to the more gentle impetus of incremental change. As the author puts it, massive change carves out the accumulated, organic, nearly limitless wisdom of the thousands of people who make up the city, and replaces it with the very finite knowledge of a handful of planners and officials. The author further paints with painful detail the crushing blow of being forcibly torn from one's neighborhood and having an entire way of life destroyed.

Compounding the tragedy is the utter powerlessness of the black residents to resist these changes that were forced on them by a white power elite. Having grown up in the South, I have often heard white people comment on how blacks surely have nothing to be outraged about by this point, as slavery ended well over a century ago, and hey, hasn't everything been hunky-dory since then? Yet this kind of civic violence has occurred in living memory, and who's to say it couldn't happen again?

The book doesn't touch on it, but another level of tragedy is this: if Mill Creek Valley were standing today, it would be gentrified as anything you've ever seen. Property there would be the most valuable in the city -- more than Soulard, more than downtown. It would be the city's own French Quarter (much as the Arch grounds might be if they hadn't also been bulldozed flat.) And it would solve one of downtown's most looming problems, which is its total disconnect from the city's residential neighborhoods. Instead, we have the monolithic, lifeless economic engines of SLU and AG Edwards -- gaping voids in the city's fabric.

Mill Creek Valley: A Soul of Saint Louis can be ordered directly from the author at this web site. It's also for sale at area book stores; I got my copy at Left Bank Books in the Central West End.


Anonymous brody said...

It's sad to think about how insensitive AG Edwards must have been to the liveliness of the neighborhood it was demolishing.

I may have to pick myself up a copy of this text.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I talked to a man this last New Year's that used to eat dinner in that area back when he was a student at SLU. He said there were Italian restaurants in that area as well. Seems a little strange, doesn't it? He was definitely talking about the Mill Creek area, but maybe a little further west than Mill Creek proper.

12:59 PM  

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