Population 2,313, Wellston sits immediately north of University City, though most living and learning south of Delmar likely know it primarily for its Metro stop en route to the airport. On November 21, that changed, or started to change, at least, with the “Wellston Loop Family Reunion & Exhibit” organized by Steven Friedman and Washington University professor Andrew Raimist, in cooperation with a vast, eclectic array of civic leaders, stakeholders, and community residents. Enabled in part by the University’s Ferguson Academic Seed Fund, the event included a sidewalk exhibition of historical documents and contemporary photography, culminating in a meet-up in the former J.C. Penney Department Store on the corner of Kienlen and Martin Luther King, Jr, Drive.
“A great deal of work was performed by my students working with the building owner, Fred Lewis, in preparing the space,” says Raimist. “It took six weeks of working at the building every Friday and Saturday morning to get the space cleared, cleaned and the wall for projections painted.”
Upon entering the store that Saturday, the space is packed with 200 chairs and people of every age, race, and outerwear persuasion. It is cold outside—a whipping gray—but inside is warm and lively, a respite both from the climate and the sense of abject desolation that precedes the journey there. Driving north on Skinker, past Delmar and up Kienlen, the schmaltzy glitz of the Delmar Loop dissolves along with the manicured lawns of Washington University’s North Campus. Within about 30 seconds, the vestiges of tepid light industrial transform into archetypal urban blight.
In an article published almost 10 years ago, architectural preservationist Michael Allen (also in attendance at the Reunion) described being “overcome with melancholy” when faced with the Wellston Loop’s “formidable” neglect. Nothing could describe my own feeling more accurately as I headed north that wintry afternoon, passing block after block of orphaned buildings, the rare beauty supply store or convenient mart a reminder of the community’s tenacious will to survive. One Youtube video, entitled “Wellston, Streets of Damnation,” provides a motorist’s vantage of city’s rampant infrastructural decay. In 1950 its population was 9,396; by 2010, this number had dwindled by two thirds. The summer of 2015, Wellston was so poor that it was unable to provide its police officers guns and its department was disbanded.
On the flipside to current realities, one finds a webpage memorializing the Wellston Loop’s heyday authored by scholar Linda Tate, offering an array of perspectives on what the neighborhood used to be before white flight and economic decay. To consider these quotes in 2015 is to wrestle not so much with the past as with the present’s cultural illiteracy:
From 1946: “A community for which there are no official census figures has, perhaps, the largest population in the St. Louis suburban empire.”
Or, from the 1941 Works Project Association:
“Along the ever crowded street are open stalls for vegetables and flowers, crates of chickens and geese, and the tantalizing odors of herring and dill. Here are cut-rate stores, variety shops, credit clothing houses, furniture and second-hand dealers, shooting galleries, and delicatessens and everywhere up and down the street, the signs of fortune tellers, faith healers, and astrologers.”
Or, from the 1969 Globe-Democrat:
“To be a citizen of Wellston is one thing, but to be a real ‘Wellstonian’ is quite another … You can live outside its official boundaries … and still share in the esprit de corps that has bound tried and true Wellstonians together since Easton avenue was little more than a stagecoach line.”
The city’s past vitality was in large part due to its central location in St. Louis’s cable car line, with the last trolley finishing its trip in 1966. Aside a vacant lot where The Wellston Loop Building stood for ninety years, the station still stands.
According to Raimist, one reason for the Reunion was to “[g]alvanize existing building owners and local residents in realizing that their community has value and means something. … Many of the people who live in the area (elderly folks and many single mothers with children) are largely afraid of leaving their homes. They go to work and to church and otherwise avoid walking around their community. This fact makes the area more dangerous because the lack of pedestrians means that when a crime is committed, few people are present to witness it. This makes the community inherently more dangerous. The perception feeds into the reality.”
Ensconced in the J.C. Penney, I listen as a chorus of voices speaks to the city’s urgent needs. Wellston Mayor Nathaniel Griffin makes a speech and is followed by St. Louis hip-hop artist Jarmel Reece, whose powerful performance of “Judgment Day,” a tribute to the city’s African American legends (Dred Scott, Tina Turner, Maya Angelou), acknowledges the trenchant poverty that consumes much of the urban population. “If you’re ready to unite, raise your hands now!” Reece commands, and the packed department store begins to sway. As the event concludes, folks hug and shake hands. I donate a children’s book to a toy drive—A Is for Activist—as my nephew, I realize, is just too young to appreciate it.
Upon exit, the cold of the block shocks. Visitors travel in huddled clumps to check out the trolley station down the road or head across MLK to Dorothy’s Furniture, making their way through its labyrinth of rehabbed refrigerators to the second floor of newly created artist studios. Wash U undergrads mingle with curious members of the neighborhood; I see a former writing student for the first time in years. In moments like these, sun breaking through the windows like a lost friend, it is easy to feel hopeful. Too easy, in fact. For unless each of us returns to Wellston, supports its small businesses, learns its history, and humbly asks, “What is it that I can do?” very soon there will be nothing left to unite.