One day before the VP Fair on the St. Louis riverfront in 1987, police closed the Eads Bridge to pedestrian traffic, shutting off a route taken by many from East St. Louis to downtown.
The move was in response to allegations that one year before, gangs of Black youths had run through the fairgrounds, snatching gold chains from women’s necks. The stories were later shown to be exaggerations, and lawsuits plus public opposition soon reversed the closure of the bridge. But the pervasive racial tension and distrust that the situation revealed is just one of the scenarios thoughtfully presented and analyzed in “The Material World of Modern Segregation,” published this year by the Common Reader project at Washington University.
From the clearing of Mill Creek Valley to the killing of Michael Brown, the demolition of established enclaves to the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe, the existence of the Delmar Divide to the controversy over separation of the races at the swimming pool in Fairground Park, the collection of essays shines a sharp, incisive and usually harsh light on the history of racial strife in the St. Louis area, uncovering truths that are often difficult to face.
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Many of the essays deal with gentrification, how so-called progress masked the displacement of residents from established Black neighborhoods.
The next time you go to the Brentwood shopping center that includes Target and Trader Joe’s, for example, stop and realize that the site used to be the home of Howard-Evans Place, which essayist Beth Miller describes as “an African-American, middle-class ‘Garden of Eden’” that became a target for developers.
And the transformation of McRee Town in south St. Louis, an area that began as a magnet for white immigrants in the early 20th century, into the more upscale Botanical Heights resulted in the same kind of displacement, with more resources available once the area’s predominantly Black population went elsewhere.
In a piece titled “The Façade of Redevelopment,” Patty Heyda writes: “Today, Botanical Heights and Botanical Grove have what McRee Town never got: new businesses and homes with access to loans, and a decent K-8 school. Better sidewalks with environmentally friendly rainwater-filtering gardens. And the city changes the streetlight bulbs. Market-rate housing and very few low-income rental options mean that the former low-income residents do not move back.”
Perhaps fittingly in a book of essays from an academic institution, some of the writing is stilted, obscuring what the author means to say and likely to turn off some readers, such as this description of artworks connected to Ferguson:
“In this essay, each work’s materiality disrupted the naturalization of segregated anti-Black space in St. Louis and produced embodied strategies of reclamation.”
But for the most part, “The Material World of Modern Segregation” effectively spotlights the high costs of racial animosity in the St. Louis area over the past decades, as well as lessons that have to be learned to help right those wrongs. An essay by John Early about the effects of the multimillion-dollar federal project for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on the city’s north side spells out the remedy this way:
“For St. Louis to become a more just, equitable, and whole city, perhaps what is needed as much as looking back is to acknowledge with greater openness and understanding how aggrieved urban communities are being treated in the present. Being increasingly attentive and responsive to the ways in which place, in many ways, speaks for itself might begin to help us do just that.”
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in west St. Louis County.
Who • Iver Bernstein, Douglas Flowe and Heidi Aronson Kolk of Washington University; Eric Sandweiss of Indiana University
When • 7 p.m. Sept. 7
More info • Email email@example.com for Zoom access
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