In the early 1990s, the southeast quadrant of the Highway 40/Eager Road and Brentwood Boulevard intersection looked considerably different than it does today. The twenty-two-acre piece of land was home to dozens of middle-class African-American families, including some who had lived in the neighborhood for generations. The homes were not large, but they were neat, generally well-kept, and reflected pride in ownership. By 1997, those homes and the lives spent in them were a only a memory, replaced by a high-traffic retail center anchored by a Target store that draws from all over mid-St. Louis County and St. Louis city.
That this neighborhood, known initially as Howard Place, then Howard-Evans Place, and finally Evans Place, was replaced by a Target store is the epitome of irony, because Howard-Evans Place was targeted for redevelopment of some kind for two decades before it finally succumbed to the wrecking ball. Its prime location at the heart of St. Louis County and at the intersection of two heavily traveled highways made redevelopment nearly inevitable. This follows the pattern of similar St. Louis-area African-American neighborhoods that were displaced, including Clayton, Mill Creek Valley, the former Pruitt-Igoe site, and nearby St. Louis Place, Meacham Park, and parts of Wellston.
The Howard-Evans Place residents knew the value of their location and community and successfully fought a handful of redevelopment attempts starting in 1977. Clark Thompson, a longtime Evans Place resident and an alderman for the ward in which Howard-Evans Place sat, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in June 1982 that the neighborhood was a target for highway improvements and commercial and industrial development.
“Everyone knows it’s a time bomb—that our little Garden of Eden is going to be broken up,” Thompson said.1
That residents valued their neighborhood as a Garden of Eden, the biblical earthly paradise, speaks volumes about their sense of place in the community and their personal “paradise.” Their fate, however, would follow that of Adam and Eve, who were banished from the Garden of Eden. Outside entities also saw the area as paradise, but for a different purpose—retail.
Though ultimately they did sell to developers, the residents orchestrated the deal through painstaking negotiations to ensure each home-owner received a fair price for his or her property and enough to purchase another home. This process was unique in such circumstances and gave residents agency in the outcome, unlike other St. Louis-area African-American communities that were displaced.
Today, the only physical reminder that Howard-Evans Place once existed is a boulder with a commemorative plaque at the back entrance to The Promenade at Brentwood shopping center, which now stands in the neighborhood’s place. The boulder, purchased with Brentwood City funds as a gesture of goodwill, instead generates hard feelings among some of the former residents and stands as a cold reminder in the City of Warmth, as the suburb is known, that a large part of Brentwood’s history was razed for retail.
Within the footprint of the Target store lie the ghostly footprints of homes
in which middle-class Black families established roots and created a supportive community for nearly ninety years. Carinne Allen was a junior at Brentwood High School when the buyout was underway and had lived at 8615 Rose Avenue since she was in third grade. She has good memories of growing up there—so much that she keeps a brick from her home and that of her best friend as a reminder—but still harbors bitterness about the redevelopment two decades later.
“Everyone knows it’s a time bomb— that our little Garden of Eden is going to be broken up,” Thompson said.
“The one time I went to Target, I stood on the plot where my house was,” she said in an interview. “This was my bedroom. It’s customer service now.”
Allen is not alone in her feelings about the buyout, but other former residents say they were treated fairly through the process. More than twenty years after the buyout was complete, there remain two approaches to the implications of this development. One approach considers the intangible value of the strong community of Howard-Evans Place, which had grown from a new start for African-American workers who arrived here as part of the Great Migration in 1907 into a full-fledged, multi-generational “village” in which African Americans could buy a new home, send children to school, leave doors unlocked, and support each other. Another approach considers the tangible value of the land by the City of Brentwood, which at that time had limited retail, and therefore, low income from sales tax; as well as by commercial real estate developers, retailers, and St. Louis County. In the end, the tangible value of the property won.
The City of Brentwood valued the property of Howard-Evans Place at $3.6 million before the buyout. After the 300,000-square-foot Promenade was developed, it was valued at $30 million. The nearly tenfold increase in value from a historic African-American community to Brentwood’s primary retail center was a boon to the city’s coffers—sales at the retail center are $90 million annually, according to Bola Akande, the city administrator—but came at a steep price to the racial makeup of the city and its small school district. After the buyout, most members of the tight-knit community left Brentwood and scattered across the St. Louis area.
The Promenade indirectly brought even more value to Brentwood as it spurred an additional $300 million in development projects over the next five years, including the redeveloped Brentwood Square Town Center, which also included buying out more than sixty homes; Brentwood Pointe, anchored by a Dierberg’s Market; the Meridian, an office and retail development with a MetroLink station; and the Villas at Brentwood apartment complex,2 for which twenty-one single-family homes and thirteen duplexes were razed for 323 luxury apartments.
By the mid-1990s, when developers proposed to build the Promenade, some of the houses in Howard-Evans Place were beginning to deteriorate, some had become rental properties, and many longtime residents were elderly. Flooding from nearby Black Creek had caused damage to some homes and vehicles more than once, and traffic from the adjacent Hanley Industrial Court was encroaching on the quiet neighborhood.
Those factors, along with the desirable location in an inner-ring suburb of the City of St. Louis, made the neighborhood extremely vulnerable, a far cry from the hope it presented to European immigrants and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves when they arrived there beginning in 1907 to work at the Evens & Howard Fire Brick Co., located in today’s Hanley Industrial Court.3 At the brickyard, the hardest and dirtiest jobs were given to the Black workers, who also had separate break areas from the White employees, who were mainly European immigrants, recalled Herbert Simpson, a Howard-Evans Place resident and Evens & Howard employee.
In the end, the tangible value of the property won.
Evens & Howard built small bungalows and duplexes near the brick yard for its workers, first in Howard Place, and later in Evans Place (the spelling was changed from Evens), which absorbed Howard Place in 1923.4 The earliest duplexes were called “two by two,” meaning they had two rooms on each side without a basement, indoor plumbing, or electricity. The offer of a primitive home and a hard, dirty job at the brickyard was enough to attract African Americans to move north indicates that conditions in the South were dire with little hope for opportunities for a better life for themselves and for their families under the suffocating pressure of Jim Crow laws. The brickyard remained an integral part of the neighborhood until it burned in a spectacular fire in April 1968. At the time, the plant was closing to be razed for Hanley Industrial Court.
The fire would prove to be the prelude to the end of Howard-Evans Place, though it would take nearly three decades for the finale.
As the neighborhood grew, so did its needs for services. In 1925, the two-room L’Ouverture Elementary School opened on Rose Avenue for the neighborhood’s children in kindergarten through eighth grade. It closed in 1963.
As World War II approached, Howard-Evans Place residents were able to find jobs away from the brickyard, in the service and construction industries, and with the U.S. Postal Service, considered a very prestigious job. However, many of the women still served as laundresses or maids in nearby White suburbs, according to U.S. Census data.
The neighborhood was a mix of the middle and lower working classes over its ninety years. Through the end of World War II, it was predominantly working-class, while after World War II it gradually became more middle-class. This coincides with national figures that show that incomes of African Americans nearly tripled in the 1940s and increased by another 50 percent in the 1950s.
Who lived there
For most who lived in the Howard-Evans Place neighborhood for any length of time, they often referred to it as a family, a village, or a community. While referring to one’s neighborhood as a community is not unusual today, referring to it as a family is. Residents used this term in the literal sense, as many had grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or adult siblings in the neighborhood, as well as in the figurative sense: word spread quickly when someone was ill and needed care or food, when someone lost a job and needed a few dollars to get by, or when kids were getting into trouble.
The fire would prove to be the prelude to the end of Howard-Evans Place, though it would take nearly three decades for the finale.
Many families were intact, with the father working and mothers staying home in the 1940s and 1950s, but mothers began working outside of the home more frequently starting in the 1960s.
Howard-Evans Place had a few confectionaries, including Travis on Agnes Avenue, Luke’s on Rose Avenue, and Mama Duke’s restaurant and confectionary, as well as a small market owned by a Jewish family. Brickyard workers would get their groceries there on credit then pay bills on payday.
Though there are no written records or photographs, oral histories recount that there was a baseball field near the brickyard used only by African Americans who had a semi-professional-level team called the Red Sox.
In 1941, when J. Edward Holt was a toddler, his parents purchased their two-bedroom frame home with a garage and fenced yard on Darling Avenue for $2,900. Holt lived in the neighborhood for fifty-five years, was president of the Evans Place Improvement Association for seventeen years and coordinated the ultimate buyout.
“For my parents, the neighborhood was the American Dream,” he said in an interview. “How many subdivisions in 1941 were being built for Black folks? None.”
Holt’s lifelong friend, Armon “Triggy” Crawford, a star athlete at Brentwood High School and a retired pharmacist also said Howard-Evans Place was the fulfillment of the American Dream. When he was in second grade, his family moved from Mill Creek Valley to a four-room home on Eager Road in Howard-Evans Place. He also stayed in the neighborhood through adulthood, and after his home was purchased, he stayed in Brentwood.
By the 1950s, the Italian and other European residents were moving out of the neighborhood, and Howard-Evans Place had developed into a tight-knit, middle-class African-American community, with two-parent families, extended family around the corner, low unemployment, little to no crime, and residents who looked out for one another. Although it was only one small section of Brentwood, to residents the neighborhood was Brentwood. At one time, most everything they needed existed within its boundaries: groceries and confectionaries, cafes, churches, beauty and barbershops, a school, and other services. Crawford said the neighborhood brought a broad section of people together. “That’s what the Black community has lost,” he said.
“Everybody was there together and looked out for each other. That’s our history, and we are all still close,” Crawford said.
After the brickyard burned and Hanley Industrial Court was under-way, state and local governments saw Howard-Evans Place as ripe for development. In October 1977, the St. Louis County Highway Department proposed taking fifty-two homes in Evans Place for new ramps linking Highway 40 to Interstate 170, or the Inner Belt. Residents worked with Ed Wright Jr. and Forest Minor, both Ward 4 aldermen; Ed Holt, as Evans Place Improvement Association president; as well as the St. Louis County Council to fight the proposal, according to news reports.
“For my parents, the neighborhood was the American Dream. How many subdivisions in 1941 were being built for Black folks? None.”
Five years later, developers homed in on the value of the neighborhood’s western edge when they proposed a $6 million office building at 1600 S. Brentwood Boulevard south of Eager Road to complement a $200 million office, retail and entertainment complex north of Highway 40 in Richmond Heights that became the Saint Louis Galleria, a redevelopment of Westroads Center.
“We feel this location is going to become more of a geographic center of St. Louis city and St. Louis County,” John Schenk, branch manager for the office building’s developer, White Management, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “and what we are proposing would be an extension of the development of this entire Brentwood corridor. With the completion of the Inner Belt, and the accessibility to Highway 40, we feel this will be St. Louis County’s most convenient location.”5
In 1988, the Missouri Department of Highways and Transportation planned to improve the interchange at U.S. Highway 40/Interstate 64 which would take 105 houses and two of the four churches in Evans Place. Ron Gladney, a member of the Brentwood School Board, said the plans would have “a devastating effect on the school district’s population and racial integration efforts. The project would nearly wipe out the minority population living in the district,” he said in a news report. “We want to remain an integrated community.”6
At that time, 45 of the district’s 70 resident African-American students lived in Howard-Evans Place. The district also had 135 voluntary transfer students from the City of St. Louis, bringing the total African-American student body to 25 percent of the district’s 800 students. Glad-ney said the loss of the students from Evans Place would require busing in more from St. Louis to keep the student population diverse, which would increase the cost of the desegregation program.
“That’s what the Black community has lost.”
Holt worked with various organizations in the city, including the school district, to help keep the proposed extension from displacing the neighborhood and damaging the district’s diversity.
Not willing to give up on what it saw as a prime location, the Missouri Highway Department returned in 1993 with a bold proposal to extend I-170 south to Interstates 44 and 55, which would displace up to 400 total residences and businesses in mid- and south St. Louis County, widening Highway 40/64, and adding a second MetroLink line. The plan threatened the home of Olivette and Walter Thompson, who had purchased the home at 8610 Agnes Avenue in 1950 for $6,200 and now saw how this proposal lowered their property’s value.
“We can’t do anything with our property now,” Walter Thompson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Once the word got out that 64 was being widened, nobody wants to buy in there; and the state isn’t buying from us.”7
That plan was soundly defeated, but the death knell was only two years away.
How much it cost
In 1995, the Sansone Group proposed a $166 million commercial development, including $27 million in tax increment financing (TIF), to include shops, restaurants, office space, a theater and apartments, to replace Howard-Evans Place.8
John Cleary, then Brentwood School District Superintendent, was concerned about the district’s estimated $1.4 million annual loss of revenue as a result of the TIF, as well as the loss of resident Black students in the district. He said the $1.4 million would cover the more than $1 million a year the district stood to lose when the voluntary student transfer program was dissolved, taking 170 students, along with the 40 from Evans Place, resulting in a 20 percent drop in the district’s total students.9
But then-Mayor Mark Kurtz only saw the tangible value of the project, not the intangible value of the loss of the community or diversity to the schools. “This is an investment that is difficult to stomach, but it is a good investment,” he said in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It’s unfair that it’s set up so that the school district will suffer, but that is the reality of it.”10
“We want to remain an integrated community.”
In the end, the Evans Place Neighborhood Association, headed by Holt, coordinated homeowners and initiated the sale. It was the only time in the United States in which a minority neighborhood was proactive in its desire to move, Holt said in an interview.
They tried in 1979 and we resisted—‘How dare you take this neighborhood?’ They tried again in 1989. We had people coming from as far south as Sunset Hills coming in our support. We stopped them again. We saw that they were going to expand Westroads Mall and offered those people $35 a square foot. Our neighborhood, we saw that. I’m there every day, and I saw older people dying out, people renting homes out. I began to see drug deals, and we had no problems before. We saw Withrow traffic coming in and out going to the industrial court, and we were being crushed in. We knew we had a great location, and that our dirt was worth a whole lot. We got 35-40 people interesting in selling and went to find someone to represent us.
Well aware of the value of their “dirt,” the residents chose the Westin Group, a commercial real estate firm with its headquarters in Brentwood, to represent them to the Sansone Group to ensure a fair deal. The Westin Group published a full-color glossy brochure, titled “A Rarity in Urban Planning,” about the deal. Its overwhelmingly positive message touted value for all involved: the City of Brentwood was gaining a 300,000-square-foot “retail power center”; the Sansone Group was adding to its portfolio of retail centers; and the property owners “realized more than a 300% increase in the value of their properties, giving them a wide choice of relocation options and increased financial security.” The brochure mentions the challenges the project faced, including legal threats from the Brentwood School District and a few vocal residents who opposed the project, but concludes that its perseverance had paid off.11
That plan was soundly defeated, but the death knell was only two years away.
Residents wanted at least the same $35 a square foot that the Richmond Heights homeowners bought out by the Saint Louis Galleria project received. With most remaining homes appraising at about $30,000 to $40,000, Evans Place homeowners would receive about $131,000 each, although the City of Brentwood said the average sale per property for redevelopment was $165,000. Most homeowners got three to four times the value of their homes, and some who owned multiple properties were made millionaires, Holt said.
But some outsiders thought the residents were getting a bad deal, he said.
“People said, ‘Oh, those poor Black people, they took their neighbor-hood,’” he said. “But what they forget is that we went to them, they didn’t come to us. Don’t feel sorry for us.”
As the president of the Evans Place Improvement Association, Holt’s role was to negotiate the best deal for the homeowners, but some saw more value in their property than what they were offered. While negotiations were ongoing, a small group of homeowners calling themselves Justice for Evans Place sued the Sansone Group for $20 million, claiming that Sansone and Westin “fraudulently induced residents to sign agreements to sell their property” and that Sansone’s offers were “inadequate or nonexistent.”12
“This is some of the most valuable property in St. Louis County. It’s not fair, especially to these old people,” Renee Holmes-Jackson, a member of Justice for Evans Place, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Gene Robbins, another longtime resident and member of Justice for Evans Place, said he believed the stress of the buyout had contributed to the deaths of fifteen elderly Evans Place residents over sixteen months.
“I call this gentrification turned genocide,” Robbins told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You can’t take a tree with deep roots, uproot it and plant it somewhere else. You just can’t. Just the thought will kill it.”
Justice for Evans Place’s suit was dismissed. Another small group of residents, Evans Place Preservation Association, hired local civil rights attorney Eric Vickers to represent them. They settled for the same $35 a square foot as the other homeowners received, and as part of the settlement, Sansone made a $50,000 donation to the Urban League Youth Development Fund in the neighborhood’s memory.13 Only one home, belonging to Carinne Allen’s family, was taken by eminent domain. Brentwood’s TIF for the Promenade was retired in 2010, nearly ten years earlier than expected, according to city records.
As the buyout was wrapping up in November of 1996, an accident on the Highway 40 effectively sealed the deal. A tanker truck overturned on the highway, spilling oil into Black Creek in Howard-Evans Place which quickly went up in flames despite heavy rain.
“I call this gentrification turned genocide. You can’t take a tree with deep roots, uproot it and plant it somewhere else. You just can’t. Just the thought will kill it.”
The total buyout of the neighborhood’s twenty-two acres took twenty-two months from start to finish, which has not been replicated since, Holt said.
“We said to people, ‘If you’re sure and satisfied with what they are offering you individually, take your money and run,’” Holt said.
Although most residents cooperated with the buyout, they still grieved for the loss of their community.
“I’ve cried many tears along with most of my other neighbors at some point of breaking up the neighborhood,” Olivette Thompson said in an interview on St. Louis Public Radio’s St. Louis on the Air program in January 2018. “When it first happened, every time I passed there, I would feel sad and shed some tears, and now I don’t really think about it. Where we moved, my husband and I were very happy.”
In the same radio interview, Ed Wright said the situation was frustrating for him and others who had worked in the civil rights movement, because the people of Brentwood valued Howard-Evans Place as part of the community.
People always have stereotypes about Black neighborhoods, and this was a neighborhood that was a wonderful model neighborhood—no crime, two-parent families, everybody helping each other out, wonderfully kept homes. People were saying this is what we want Black neighborhoods to be like, and it was taken away. I realize it was the writing on the wall because of the location, but you say they did everything you wanted them to do, and you took the homes away.
About the same time that Howard-Evans Place was being bought out, part of another historic African-American neighborhood in suburban St. Louis County was also being bought out: Meacham Park in the Kirk-wood area. The western half of the neighborhood, or about fifty-five acres, was bought out to make way for the $56 million Kirkwood Commons shopping center, displacing nearly 300 residential properties and eight commercial properties. About 5 percent of the homes were eventually taken through eminent domain.14
Also in 1996, about 150 families in Kinloch, the first Black city in Missouri, were displaced from three housing complexes as part of the St. Louis Airport Authority’s noise abatement plan. By that time, Kinloch’s population had fallen from a one-time high of 8,000 to about 2,700.
Why it matters
While Howard-Evans Place has been largely ignored by historians outside of the St. Louis area, its existence and its demise offer another example of a St. Louis-area African-American neighborhood or community displaced in the name of “progress.” The difference in this case is that the residents had some control over the outcome: After twenty years of fighting, they saw that the end was unavoidable, and instead of waiting to see what they would be offered, they were able to make demands of the developers. Though not everyone was happy, the residents did receive well more than face value for their homes, and all but one family was able to avoid eminent domain. However, this once tight-knit community scattered across the St. Louis area, no longer able to go next door to care for a neighbor—now it requires a drive to another part of St. Louis. Some, such as Carinne Allen, are still too hurt to return, while others, such as Olivette Thompson and Ed Holt, regularly shop at the Promenade.
“I’ve cried many tears along with most of my other neighbors at some point of breaking up the neighborhood.”
The story of Howard-Evans Place can be seen as a success story in which working-class African Americans who came north to endure poor housing and a hard job in search of a better life gradually became what cities said they wanted African-American neighborhoods to be: middle-class, crime-free neighborhoods with two-parent families who owned their homes. It also is a testament to these families for finding ways to endure through twenty years of development attempts on their property and a reminder that African-American neighborhoods in St. Louis continue to be targeted for development more than fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.