The African-American material world depicted in Arthur Witman’s 1954 photograph of 19th Street and Division in North St. Louis no longer exists. It survives, to the extent it does, in ever more fleeting family reminiscences of what was once known as the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood, and in the rare memoir.¹ Indeed, 19th and Division no longer exists as a designated physical place. Division Street can no longer be found on a map, and 19th street, which once ran through to O’Fallon, now ends at Carr Street, a couple blocks south, before resuming several blocks north at Cass Avenue. Instead of 19th, there is a new two-block street, Bryant Street, which is part of a neighborhood anchored by the new Flance Early Learning Center and the old St. Stanislaus Polish-Catholic church (1880). Of the Black material world of 19th and Division, and the way of life it nurtured and embodied, we can say what Peter Pan said to Wendy about Never-Never-Land: “It’s not on any chart / You must find it with your heart.”
Witman’s photograph appears to focus upon the activity of a trio of fedora-sporting African-American men seated around a table outside a boarded-up and abandoned grocery store. The men are sitting on wooden milk crates; they are intent, shoulders hunched with concentration but not, it seems, on the catchpenny realities of the workday. Two of them seem to be playing checkers, the third playing or looking on. It is all that the tallest of the three men can do to scrunch in under the little table, but there is nonetheless an ease in his posture, legs splayed beneath. A fourth wooden crate sits unoccupied, beckoning sociably to passersby. The men seem to pay no mind to Witman, a White photographer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Or maybe, looking away from the camera and towards the action on the table all the more intently, they do mind him. It is safe to say that he is not the fourth they are waiting for.
Of the Black material world of 19th and Division, and the way of life it nurtured and embodied, we can say what Peter Pan said to Wendy about Never-Never-Land: “It’s not on any chart / You must find it with your heart.”
Down the block, at the front stoop of a neighboring rowhouse, is another threesome: a young woman in a checked sleeveless blouse tending to a young child, the two seated together on the steps with a second, older child standing close by. Are we witnessing a family scene, a mother’s kiss? Some unconscious or all-too-self-conscious gesture of protection and reassurance?
But it is not at all clear that the men playing checkers or the woman and children on the stoop are the primary subjects of the photograph. A shirtless boy who cannot be more than seven or eight occupies the immediate foreground, in front of the men, and he, in contrast to them, is looking directly at the camera, returning Witman’s gaze full-on, and holding his thumb and index finger to his mouth. Is he whistling at the White man with the camera? To his comrades outside the frame of the photo? Did Witman mean to put this young man, with his cool assessment of the situation, center stage, or did the little fellow time it just right to steal the scene?
In any case, the matter of scene-stealing—that is, the matter of theft, and more broadly, of possession, ownership, use, and enjoyment of this street corner, of DeSoto-Carr, and of the city—was precisely the matter at hand. And the theft that looms over the scene, not intentionally depicted but profoundly in evidence, was not the petty intrusion of a small boy, but the outsized grab—by city officials, urban reformers, and private developers, through slum clearance legislation, zoning restrictions, and the powers of eminent domain—of an entire urban district, and the subsequent annihilation of the vital community that inhabited it.
To justify a taking so vast and so brazen—this seizure of the homes of American citizens and destruction of an American community in the plain light of day—Witman’s photo had to present a narrative of a world apparently broken beyond remediation, teetering on the edge of catastrophe, and requiring immediate and massive intervention, some unlikely combination of convulsive shock therapy and organ transplant.² Such an intervention—what urbanists at the time blithely called “slum surgery”—was already well underway in the vicinity of this corner when the photo was taken. Witman had been asked to document the progress on a multi-phase urban “renewal” project that would soon obliterate the street, and the community, shown in the photo.³
And accordingly, the subject of the photo had to be the material landscape itself, which included the men off work and the “unsupervised” women and children, but each and all of those together in a deteriorating urban environment. It is the nineteenth-century rowhouses that frame the people and the action in the image; the scattered newspapers and other trash that is collecting on the sidewalk and in the gutter, the broken-down wooden cart in the background, and the boarded-up windows of the grocery, where the boards have warped and split beyond patching; the dirt-smeared upper window, with the name of the defunct grocery, “IKEN’S MARKET” stenciled at a jaunty angle, evoking a more hopeful moment of years past, but now underscored by a Tyrannosaurus-shaped hole where somebody heaved a rock through the glass, Iken and his ilk long gone; these material elements, saturated with the presumptions and judgments of race and class, can be seen as the photograph’s true subjects.⁴ They serve as symbolic cues and, in the photograph’s elegiac conceit, attempt to govern its meaning––to tell all the stories that can be told about this scene, try as the human subjects might to tell their own stories. The people are framed as an extension of the landscape, at once representative of it and subordinated into its looming, overdetermined realities. Broken buildings, dying culture; so the story went, or was supposed to go.
…the theft that looms over the scene, not intentionally depicted but profoundly in evidence, was not the petty intrusion of a small boy, but the outsized grab—by city officials, urban reformers, and private developers, through slum clearance legislation, zoning restrictions, and the powers of eminent domain—of an entire urban district, and the subsequent annihilation of the vital community that inhabited it.
Another photograph taken by Witman that same day served to support the dinosaur narrative more explicitly, and was chosen to appear in a Post-Dispatch article documenting the city’s $1 billion post-war housing redevelopment crusade. Part of a two-page spread devoted to “Progress in Public Housing,” much of it targeting St. Louis’s north side “slum districts,” this second image featured a similar street scene, shot just a block from 19th and Division, again with DeSoto-Carr residents present living conditions on the site of the M-6 project. With no place else in the neighborhood to spend leisure time, occupants of dilapidated buildings on Division Street, west of 18th, use broken sidewalks, sit on stoops overlooking trash-littered streets. Acquired by Housing Authority, buildings soon will be razed.”⁵
Of course, the Post-Dispatch’s account of St. Louis’s “Progress in Public Housing,” a twentieth-century version of manifest destiny, made no mention of the decades of relentless subdivision and profiteering, stigmatization and neglect, that set the stage for the post-war renewal legislation and subsequent bulldozing of the fifties, a campaign that dates back at least to the 1920s and would take decades to fulfill.⁶ In fact, the latest phase of that campaign—demolition already underway—had itself produced much of the debris that appears in both of Witman’s photographs, and others never published. In a stark and disturbing irony, the debris produced by the agencies of “blight reform” was taken as more evidence of a hopelessly “blighted” condition in many of the city’s Black neighborhoods. Here was an impending death manufactured by White needs and interests.⁷ If DeSoto-Carr was a tomb of any kind, it was a “whited sepulcher,” as Frederick Douglass had called the Chicago World’s Fair half a century before. That rich biblical metaphor pointed up the matter of hypocrisy—a white-washed veneer of “progress” concealing a reality of corruption, lies, and death.⁸
The dead or dying thing on the corner of 19th and Division in Summer 1954 was not Black communal life, so profoundly alive that it leaps forth from the image, and despite all of the framing devices that would seek to deny it, indeed, to mob it out of existence. Rather, the moribund thing that shadowed Witman’s photograph was mid-twentieth-century White urban planning, development, and rentier economics, St. Louis-style, which had manufactured the conditions in DeSoto-Carr and else-where in the city—a process that had been underway since the 1920s, if not before. St. Louis’s first public housing projects, Carr Square Village (for Black residents only, built on 21 acres of what had once been DeSoto- Carr) and Clinton-Peabody (for Whites only), were completed in 1943⁹ and widely celebrated, especially by the Post-Dispatch, whose influential “PROGRESS OR DECAY?” series (1950-56) agitated for total urban “reconstruction” after the war.10 By 1954, city planners, officials, and developers were putting the finishing touches on Pruitt-Igoe, that massive modernist experiment in urban redevelopment that literally towered over 19th and Division (comprised of another chunk of DeSoto-Carr): a project one might call the zombie effort to reanimate that corpse of urban redevelopment, and its failure to realize its progressive ambitions is well known. Less well-known is what might be called the interior history of Pruitt-Igoe—the way that a project that recreated conditions of official neglect, manufactured decline, and violence, also became the setting, against all odds, for a vibrant African-American community, as depicted in Bob Hansman’s photo history, the “Pruitt-Igoe Forever” Facebook page created by former resident and historian Robert Green, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011), and other sources.¹¹
The bulldozing of 19th and Division, then, was a culminating act of destructive violence against a robust historical neighborhood and a vibrant people shrouded and disguised in the rhetoric of urban renewal. In this way it was a modernized act of genocide against an indigenous people, if we take “indigenous” to mean a people well-rooted in a particular place, which is an apt way to describe the African-American cultural and political world of DeSoto-Carr in 1954. In St. Louis there is, as Walter Johnson has observed, the foundational historical context of Indian removal—the city served as military and administrative center for those Jacksonian-era campaigns of elimination—setting the stage for future campaigns of Black removal.¹² The usefulness of the term “genocide” is to be found in its association with this grotesquely violent colonial history and the force with which it conveys a grave crime against humanity, perhaps the gravest crime of all. But the shortcoming of the term is its totalizing connotation of the actual break-up and destruction of an entire people, which manifestly did not occur in the case of Black St. Louisans in the near-north neighborhoods, despite the intent of some of the architects and implementers of urban renewal to do just that, and despite the persistent onslaught, which would in 1959 displace 20,000 African-American residents of Mill Creek Valley, and which continues in predominantly Black North St. Louis today.¹³
The authors of the essays in this collection attend closely to discrete material sites, advocating for a close reading which engages them as palimpsest-like documents. What such close engagement reveals, in the manner that we are advocating and demonstrating in the context of 19th and Division, is that terms like “segregation,” while useful in characterizing a political, social, and spatial reality, are too totalizing in just this way. A palimpsest doubtless presents strong evidences of a dominant storyline, but it is also a house with many mansions: it contains histories of struggle; it betrays the traces and fragments of multiple stories; it holds unfilled gaps and rich silences. The silences are especially important. Sometimes they are the result of overt campaigns of erasure, inevitably the politics of the archive (which foregrounds some matters and suppresses others), or subtler forms of guilt or denial; other times, they are the result of unspeakable dimensions of traumatic experience.14 As the historian of performance Joseph Roach has said of the violent acts of “surrogation” (a less graphic word than “genocide” but one that captures a process of replacement and not just a discrete act of annihilation): “While a great deal of the unspeakable violence instrumental to this creation [of the culture of modernity] may have been officially forgotten, circum-Atlantic memory retains its consequences, one of which is that the unspeakable cannot be rendered forever inexpressible: the most persistent mode of forgetting is memory imperfectly deferred.”15
Language can sometimes be the palimpsest-like bearer of surviving, recursive, and repurposed stories and meanings, of trace memories. Take the word “bulldoze”—there is no bulldozer in sight in Witman’s photograph of 19th and Division, though we know the bulldozers are coming, and have already been at work nearby.16 “Fit for bulldozing”—that would be a still more concise caption than the one the Post-Dispatch provided for Witman’s image of August 29, 1954. One student of the word has traced the first use of the plural noun “bulldozers” and the verb “bulldoze” (and the distinctive verb “bulldozled”) to late June 1876, when African-American voters in Reconstruction Louisiana were brutally whipped and, in some instances, lynched as a form of intimidation and punishment inflicted by Whites who wished to shut down Black voting, and especially “independent” Black voting, for the Republican Party. The word may well have derived from a slavery-era use of the word “bull’s dose” used to refer to the violent whipping to control the behavior of the enslaved and command the pace of the labor of cotton picking by the enslaved in the labor camps of King Cotton in the Deep South. Indeed, the invention of the word “bulldoze” may have reflected precisely this moment of historic transition—White application of the violent technologies of the slavery era to the matter of free Black people exercising their political rights newly enshrined in law. As The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) put it in November 1876, a “bull-doze” was a “new word coinage … in every obstinate case [of Black voters who refused to vote the Democratic ticket] the [White] brethren were in the habit of administering a bull’s dose of several hundred lashes on the bare back.”17 Similarly, it is worth asking, in response to this recursive history, whether the bulldozing of 19th and Division and the Black material world of DeSoto-Carr was not a similarly violent response to the post-war surge of grassroots, civil rights, political activism in the City of St. Louis.18
The authors of the essays in this collection attend closely to discrete material sites, advocating for a close reading which engages them as palimpsest-like documents. What such close engagement reveals, in the manner that we are advocating and demonstrating in the context of 19th and Division, is that terms like “segregation,” while useful in characterizing a political, social, and spatial reality, are too totalizing in just this way.
All of these meanings—the political-historical dimension of the violent attempt to intimidate and shut down Black voters, the labor-historical dimension of the violent command of the pace of enslaved people’s work—remained inscribed in the language and as traumatically inexpressible but nonetheless present and potent dimensions of the bulldozing of the Black community at 19th and Division that Witman documented in the mid-1950s.
With regard to how DeSoto-Carr became “fit for bulldozing” by 1954, it is worth considering not only the nineteenth-century history of the word “bulldoze” but also the nineteenth-century history of DeSoto-Carr. At that time, the neighborhood overlapped with what was then known as the “Kerry Patch,” a poor north side district made up substantially of recently-arrived Irish-American immigrants. For all of those early immigrants’ successes in building local social and political institutions and leveraging a measure of social mobility (and, as in other American cities, shoving African-American workers out of unskilled jobs), the Kerry Patch soon developed a reputation for “contamination,” “unproductiveness,” and street and gang violence, this last association, it must be said, not undeserved.19 Irish Americans and African Americans were both depicted as non-White in the mid-nineteenth-century, and subject to similar criminalizing and animalizing stereotypes. The process by which the Irish “became American” by “becoming White,” seeking to divorce themselves, sometimes by murderous attacks on their African-American neighbors, from association with this degraded subaltern status, is by now a familiar story.20
The point is that long before the Great Migrations of African Americans to St. Louis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, parts of DeSoto-Carr had developed a reputation as a place of material and moral violation loosely tethered to, if not flagrantly opposed to, the rising bourgeois ethos. These associations intensified dramatically in the early twentieth century as the Civil War era’s still diverse and diffuse ethnic and racial enclaves now consolidated in law—and, increasingly, in social and political reality—into racialized zones subject to new municipal zoning laws, and indeed, by the 1920s, medicalized zones, subject to quarantine, intervention, and punishment. The labeling of DeSoto-Carr as a “lung block” in the 1920s, historian Taylor Desloge has shown, was a pivotal part of this process, the “blight”-designating of a neighborhood that at the same time did much to hasten the active physical blighting of a neighbor-hood. The resort to the drastic remedies of “slum clearance,” removal, and replacement, was on the horizon.²¹
In this way, the bulldozing of 19th and Division in the mid-1950s was the culmination of a century-long story about a material world formed by layers of subterranean history—each layer part of this process of essentializing and othering human beings as defective peoples worthy of punishment and destruction, and subsuming those peoples into invidiously-treated and labeled landscapes. As the bulldozers revved their engines and began lumbering towards the corner of 19th and Division in the mid-1950s, they were traversing ground that had been prepared for their arrival over many generations.
Let us return to that insouciant young man, the scene-stealer who occupies the photograph’s foreground. He is appraising Arthur Witman, but he is also looking at us, in the way that the subjects of photographs reciprocate our gaze, if not necessarily in intent, then in effect, and only if we allow them to. What does he say to us?
Surely he tells us that Witman and the other journalists, public officials, urban reformers, and developers who helped create and endorse narratives of decline and death got it all deeply wrong. For his part, Witman, like many in this drama, appears to have had his own complex motives. In the late thirties, he had documented the plight and protests of White and Black sharecroppers in the Missouri Bootheel who were evicted during the Great Depression, and the building of “Cropperville,” a community they built near Poplar Bluff, on land purchased with the assistance of Black students at Lincoln University. He may have thought he was doing such ethnographic work in DeSoto-Carr that summer day in 1954—documenting a place that needed preservation in memory, if not in social fact. We know he resisted the disparagement of such places in the press; around this same time, he sent a memo to one of his editors to object formally to the Post-Dispatch’s routine use of bigoted language (“blight” and “slums”) to depict what he saw as “middle-aged, deteriorating neighborhoods that [were] fundamentally sound,” and to suggest alternative language (“stable” places, “conservation areas”).²²
Less charitably, his journalistic efforts might be taken as part of a St. Louis-style version of what historian Fara Dabhoiwala has called “imperial delusion,” the way that successive generations of British justified their empire by “continually updating” their “ideology of moral purpose and historical necessity.”²³ But motives aside, one can imagine that the young man in the photo (or the older version of that young man, today, now seventy-something) saying to Witman, and to us, something akin to W.E.B. DuBois’s plea to readers of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903: just look at the evidence.24
What the evidence of the material and social world of 19th and Division tells us, if we take the time and effort to engage with it, is that in 1954 and now, what we call “segregation” was hardly inevitable or certain. As ideological project, public policy, private interest, and social and spatial reality, segregation was a tenuous business, one that constantly required the beating back and beating down of the alternatives, which were so robust as to frequently threaten to overwhelm it. From this perspective, Witman’s photo can be seen to show, not “segregation accomplished,” or “segregation foreordained,” but rather, segregation struggling to recreate itself—and verging on collapse. It is an object lesson in the sheer anarchy of the White regulatory gaze, serving up such a howling contradiction between the hackneyed stories of “decline,” on the one hand, and the evidence of vibrant Black community, on the other, that it is a marvel that any reason-ing person read it in terms of the former and not the latter.
We are all in some sense the “children”—the progeny and the inheritors—of that scene and that moment in Summer 1954, and also of the stories of decline. The photograph is a warning, a reminder, and an invitation. It is an invitation to look closely at the multiple evidences and stories, the traces, fragments, and silences in the material world of our city, which reveal not just the enormity of past acts of disregard and destruction, but new and democratic ways forward, grounded in past struggles. That close engagement, and the excavation of new possibilities, is what the essays in this collection so provocatively offer.
We are all in some sense the “children”—the progeny and the inheritors—of that scene and that moment in Summer 1954, and also of the stories of decline.
This volume is an extended meditation on the death and life of an American city, St. Louis, Missouri, in the long era of Ferguson, which reaches back to the earliest colonial settlement and borderland encounter and extends to the present day. It focuses intensively on places of segregation in the St. Louis region that have rich and layered histories. That is everywhere, you might say, and of course you would be correct. Nonetheless, the authors of the essays that follow have chosen for intensive examination a mix of racialized locales, from the well known to the mostly forgotten to the wholly lost. Some are “places of memory” (lieux de memoire, as French historian Pierre Nora would call them): sites or objects intentionally constructed, and often formally consecrated, for the work of collective memory—for instance, the Confederate Memorial formerly located in St. Louis’s Forest Park, and Mirror Casket, a work of public art carried during the protests in Ferguson, now in the permanent collection in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Alongside these are local landmarks with submerged racial histories: the Eads Bridge; Delmar Boulevard; the city’s premier classical music venue, Powell Symphony Hall. But many are what Nora terms milieux de memoire—places whose racialized histories survive through oral transmission or physical traces: a Black church that once had been a White church in Florissant; a streetcar pavilion in Wellston; a historically black neighborhood near Saint Louis University that was riven in two by the highway and then snuffed out and replaced in the name of redevelopment; a pair of basketball courts, one in St. Louis Place, the other in the Cherokee Street neighborhood; a shopping mall built atop a historic Black neighborhood in Brentwood; and a street named Mullanphy, a vestige of the world of the Kerry Patch that has recently been subsumed by the construction of the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters.25
All of these sites stand out, in our authors’ treatments of them, as domains of overdetermined racialized history, meaning, and association. By “overdetermined,” we mean sites hypersaturated with the meanings and effects of race and racialized experience over many years, from many encounters, causes, and forces, and multiple episodes of contestation and conflict, some of which have become violent, as we see in the essays on Fairground Park, East St. Louis’s 4000-block of Cook Avenue, and East St. Louis.
In all of these sites, and in the St. Louis region more generally, modern segregation has been created and recreated under the guise of social life and progress, justified by narratives of rebirth and renewal. But in so many of the cases under review here, segregation has been experienced, we contend, by Blacks and Whites alike, as a kind of urban death, not at all the promised revitalization, but a kind of fatal block on the possibilities of urban change, and a reconstitution, in different forms, of the traumas of St. Louis’s history of enslavement and colonialism. Many of the sites in this volume appear moribund, the products of a White spatial imaginary rooted in what George Lipsitz characterizes as an “ideal of pure, homogenous space [pursued] through exclusiveness, exclusivity, and homogeneity” and the expulsion of “impure populations” and social forms.26 Yet these sites also point us to other ways of being, alternative spatial imaginaries and practices of congregation, such as those glimpsed in Witman’s photographs.
The illusion conjured by modern segregation is that segregation is a totalized reality, a natural and normal state of affairs. It is only by the close visual and historical engagement with material sites of segregation as palimpsests, in the manner this volume models, that the precariousness of the segregationist project in St. Louis can be discovered.
The illusion conjured by modern segregation is that segregation is a totalized reality, a natural and normal state of affairs. It is only by the close visual and historical engagement with material sites of segregation as palimpsests, in the manner this volume models, that the precariousness of the segregationist project in St. Louis can be discovered. Such an approach attends to the layers of misrepresentation, contradiction, hypocrisy, lies, and ultimately, violence, on which that project rests, but also to the living dynamism of democratic urban life, rife with alternatives to segregation, and to the many forms of “emancipation heritage” embedded in “the places and landscapes that African Americans made and occupy.”27 It is only by engaging closely with these multilayered and complex histories of trauma and loss, survival, and solidarity, that possibilities for a post-segregation future can be glimpsed.28 Above all, we seek to cultivate in the reader, as we attempt to cultivate in ourselves, not just a fuller awareness of these complex historical layers—a new way of looking at our urban world—but a new way of being in it.