“We see sticks, neglect, abandonment, irresponsibility, and trash, but God sees a new tarp, a new roof, food, and a thriving market.”
—Prayer of residents of Wellston at the Wellston Loop Pavilion, March 12, 2020¹
The Wellston Loop Pavilion (1909) is a historic, beautiful, and much-deteriorated streetcar and bus station that has long helped suture the hybrid area of greater “Wellston,” a borderland on the boundary of north St. Louis City and County (including the City neighborhood of Wells-Goodfellow and the County municipality of Wellston), just two miles north of the Delmar Loop and Washington University. Together with the adjoining commercial strip and surrounding residential and industrial neighborhood, the Wellston Loop Pavilion has served as a site of conflict and a milieu de mémoire, a place whose racialized memories have survived mostly through physical traces and oral histories.²
Those memories, traces, and histories say much about how contemporary patterns of racialized containment in this northside community evolved out of earlier practices, and how Black residents creatively responded, going back to the pivotal era of the late 1960s and early 70s, with structural legacies that date back further still. A 1967 controversy over a lawn statue stands out in this longer story, in the way that, in the eruptive history of racialized life in a segregated American city, something seemingly small can suddenly become something large and revealing.
The Loop Pavilion embodies a world of contradictions. Wellston’s Black residents have faced the cascading daily challenges of living in and with poverty in what a recent report called “one of the poorest cities in the nation.”³ They also, against all odds, have found ways to inhabit a different reality, to imagine what “God sees,” in the words of the March 2020 residents’ prayer at the Loop Pavilion, and work collectively to envision and nurture into existence a material world that is more equitable and sustaining. In spring 2021 a group of partners and nonprofit investors, led by the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, a local congregation acting as a neighborhood anchor agency, obtained the approval of the city’s land bank, the Land Reutilization Authority (which has owned the building and property since 2006), for an option to purchase and redevelop the Loop Pavilion. Plans promise a ground-floor restaurant and upper-floor meeting rooms in the rehabilitated historic structure, with a playground and greenspace on the adjacent lot.⁴
A 1967 controversy over a lawn statue stands out in this longer story, in the way that, in the eruptive history of racialized life in a segregated American city, something seemingly small can suddenly become something large and revealing.
It is important to put this event in context: the city’s land bank continues to own and control, by most recent count, 880 vacant lots and 191 residential properties in Wells-Goodfellow, and the neighborhood has been cited as having the highest percentage of vacant land in the city. There is a broad and multi-level problem of what might be called material alienation in greater Wellston: a life-threatening and life-shortening rupture in a community’s relation to its environment, sometimes arising from the direct toxic environmental and bodily impacts of overlapping modes of exploitation, sometimes from indirect forces, such as the Land Reutilization Authority’s monopoly hold on the area’s land, leading to a proliferation of decaying buildings and vacant lots⁵—but so often with the result of preventing the community from accessing, owning, and controlling the resources it needs to survive and grow. In the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood and the municipality of Wellston, such effects range from illegal dumping in vacant lots and alleys producing overflowing and contaminating trash heaps, storm drain and sewer backups, and a “sickening effect” on the neighborhood, to the incidence of asthma among local children from the compounding effects of mold in rotting houses, industrial pollution, stress, and other factors. In the case of Wagner Electric, the company whose departure from the municipality of Wellston devastated that city’s tax base in the early 1980s, such exploitative harm manifested in the form of cancer-causing PCB-laden oil Wagner spilled into the soil and recklessly disposed into the River des Peres, beginning in the 1940s. Wagner Electric donated its land to St. Louis County in 1983 for an enormous tax write-off (which the County justified by the hope of attracting new industry), only for the County—and the Black residents of Wellston—to discover that it/they had inherited a massively contaminated toxic waste dump.⁶
If an intertwining of harms—to land, buildings, and environment and to human beings, to Black bodies—is what distinguishes this material alienation, then it is also important to mention other forms of vulnerability and violent harm in the vicinity of the Loop Pavilion. These are harms that result not just from systemic carelessness or recklessness but from active and violent contempt. “Is a Shooter Targeting Black Women in St. Louis?” KMOV4’s news site asked on September 17, 2021, in the wake of a series of shootings of African-American women at different locations in Northside St. Louis the previous night. The St. Louis chapter of the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) posted on its Twitter feed on September 22nd, “Attn Sex Workers: We are monitoring an escalating pattern of robberies, assaults, shootings, and murders targeting sex workers at the following sites…” One of those sites was Theodosia and Hamilton, in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood, around the corner from the Loop Pavilion, where on the night of the 16th a woman was killed by a hit-and-run driver. The woman’s name was not released, nor were any other humanizing details about her life, her family or community. One media account referred to her as a “pedestrian” who was “in her 50’s,” while it referred to another of that night’s victims, a woman who had been shot in the face, as a “28-year-old prostitute.” The body of the woman who was murdered at Theodosia and Hamilton lay in the street for more than an hour before the medical examiner arrived.⁷
Wagner Electric donated its land to St. Louis County in 1983 for an enormous tax write-off (which the County justified by the hope of attracting new industry), only for the County—and the Black residents of Wellston—to discover that it/they had inherited a massively contaminated toxic waste dump.
It is necessary to pause here, to register the destruction and desecration of human life, of Black women’s lives, that took place the night of September 16th: to express a sense of emergency and moral outrage, and to bear witness to this loss, recognizing these women as members of the community, citizens of St. Louis, and people who command our loving attention, as all persons do, in the sisterhood and brotherhood of reciprocal recognition and respect that is, or ought to be, the foundation of our democratic life together.⁸ That this destruction and desecration took place in the vicinity of the Loop Pavilion is not incidental, in an area of entrenched poverty (there is a high correlation between sex work and poverty), high rates of violent crime, and criminal neglect, where the treatment of vital material resources as disposable and the treatment of human beings as disposable, if hardly commensurable, are interrelated material harms.⁹
All this is to say, to return to the theme of contradiction, that the hopeful steps toward revitalizing the Loop Pavilion in spring 2021 are still operating within the structures of segregation in the area, which are deep rooted and of long standing.
It is useful, accordingly, to reflect on the history of the Pavilion and of Wellston and the deeper contradictions it poses. Wellston has a much longer and not well-known history of predatory racialized market practices and anti-democratic politics and governmental action, on the one hand, and innovative forms of grassroots struggle and democratic social imagination, on the other.
It is worth revisiting the summer of 1967, elsewhere hailed as the “summer of love,” but in Wellston a pivotal moment when the broader stakes of this community’s struggles were boldly articulated, fought out against the backdrop of the Loop Pavilion and commercial strip, and the long-term outcomes of those struggles were far from visible. That summer, the forces of alienation and violent contempt inscribed in the material environment of today’s greater Wellston that work so powerfully to harm and constrain its residents, were beginning to become evident, though not yet with today’s relentlessly violent and incarcerating impacts.10 Issues of unemployment and underemployment, crumbling housing, illegal dumping, and other forms of environmental failure and exploitation were already present. But, at that moment, it was the “old” Jim Crow urban segregation, in the form of a small but toxically potent minoritarian regime, that did much to derail the dreams of social mobility and democratic rights of a nascent Black middle class, and set the stage for late twentieth and early twenty-first century forms of containment.
The epicenter of conflict was a lawn statue, a monument controversy writ small that revealed much about the larger political stakes of the moment.
The Stable Boy Statue controversy, 1967
A visitor to Wellston, Missouri, in summer 1967 would have surely encountered and no doubt admired the elegant Arts & Crafts-style Wellston Loop Pavilion.
The building was no longer functioning as a streetcar station, as St. Louis had terminated its streetcar system the previous year, but it was still operating as a bus transfer point and waiting station, gateway to the area’s shopping mecca. In the heyday of the Loop Pavilion, in the years after World War II, an observer calculated that one streetcar or bus left the station once every twenty-two seconds; those streetcars and busses loaded an estimated 50,000 passengers at the site every twenty-four hours on a typical weekday. Eleven thousand and five hundred vehicles passed through the intersection of Hodiamont and Easton Avenue in a twelve-hour period.¹¹ In summer 1967, the bustle of commuters, workers, shoppers, and residents, in and around the station, and up and down the commercial strip on Easton (which, in 1972, would be renamed Martin Luther King Drive), while not as dense as in years previous, would have still been evident.
The first thing to notice may have been the physical site: the Loop Pavilion and the commercial district that flanked it sat up on the heights, overlooking the City of St. Louis. When, in 1875, Erastus Wells, the transportation magnate after whom Wellston was named, situated the Loop train station that was the transfer point of his new steam-powered Suburban West Narrow Gauge Railway at the edge of his recently-purchased 66-acre private estate, on the St. Charles Rock Road, he had found what a Civil War general might have called “good ground.” Certainly, it was a spot away from the floodplain, where a city dweller might go to catch a summer breeze. If one stood where the hill crested up a few blocks from the Loop Pavilion at the corner of Rowan and Easton, and gazed southeast, down the long slope through North St. Louis, with the not-two-year old Gateway Arch framing the buildings of downtown in the distance, it was an arresting view, perhaps not as dramatic as the view of the Eiffel Tower from Montmartre at the edge of late nineteenth-century Paris, but nonetheless a place near the city limits where one could go to get a good vantage point. It was a place where one might readily ask the questions, “What is a city? What is this city?”
The building itself also prompted reflection. There was a confidence about this structure, the largest of three streetcar waiting stations built in the St. Louis area in the early twentieth century.¹² The Pavilion comfortably joined a residential Craftsman style with the open sides of a streetcar and bus terminal, combining a domesticated, sheltered space with an open, transactional space. It sought to integrate home and market.
It is more than a little improbable to claim the Loop Pavilion represented some kind of utopia, with such aspirations of integration: an idealized place and, as the Greek root of “utopia” tells us, no place that exists? And not to get too mired in etymology (or entomology) but the word “pavilion” comes from the word for “butterfly.” Like the butterfly’s wings, it opens—and shelters—beautiful, indeed. At a more mundane level, a streetcar and bus terminal/transfer point is one of those hot spots of democratic interdependence and uncertainty, for better or for worse—will the trains run on time? Who knows whom you will rub elbows with there? What encounters, conversations, relationships will ensue?—the Wellston Loop Pavilion seemed well-designed to both encourage and manage such uncertainty.
There was a confidence about this structure, the largest of three streetcar waiting stations built in the St. Louis area in the early twentieth century.
The building and surrounding site still suggest to residents such utopian possibilities, as the prayer of March 14, 2020, that begins this essay makes clear. It is as if the fragmented structure, in its obstinate core, is itself a prayer for coherence in a severely fragmented community in a severely fragmented city.
Above all, the Loop Pavilion was a place built to foster mobility of all kinds. It was designed to do so in a way that would allow people and peoples to mix productively, for the city to come together rather than fall apart, even in the complicated dance of a crowded rush hour on a hot summer day. It is meaningful that Black St. Louisans who recall the site at this 1960s moment speak of it with some fondness. “This is where we shopped,” resident Andrew Greer recalled in The Old Wellston Loop documentary retrospective (2010). Wellston was “the Black Downtown,” Charles Whitcomb of the City Museum remembered, as he pointed to the actual terra cotta façade of the Loop Building (that stood feet from the Pavilion)—a building fragment that was rescued from the bulldozer and finds a home at the Museum.¹³ It is crucial not to escape into nostalgia when considering Wellston’s past—there were no reclaimable “good old days” in this area whose long history of political conflict and grass-root struggles remains so important to the past, present, and future of St. Louis.14 Indeed, nostalgia and meaningful democratic culture may well be fundamentally at odds. But mere nostalgia was not what Greer and Whitcomb were up to: They were acknowledging the site of the Wellston Loop as a vital part of St. Louis’s historic Black experience.
At a more mundane level, a streetcar and bus terminal/transfer point is one of those hot spots of democratic interdependence and uncertainty, for better or for worse—will the trains run on time?
Had this same visitor of Summer 1967 strolled a block further down Easton Avenue, past the Loop Pavilion, they would have come upon a less elevating prospect: a black-painted “stable boy” hitching post on the lawn in front of the Wellston City Hall.15
The City Hall building was the home of the Wellston municipal government, but it was also the sometime personal living quarters of the White mayor, Leo J. Hayes. Accordingly, some of the reports about Mayor Hayes’s lawn statuary noted that it was “in front of City Hall,” and others, “in the front yard of the Mayor’s home.”16 Mayor Hayes was a former dentist whose reputation for eccentricity included his pastime of taking visitors to City Hall on a tour of the vault where he kept his prized curio collection that included not only toy banks converted into coin holders but also cavalry sabers and flintlock pistols. But it would be a mistake to dismiss all this as an exercise in juvenilia: Leo Hayes was not someone to be taken lightly. He had served as mayor of Wellston since its incorporation in 1949 (he would continue in the office until defeated in 1970), cultivating a personalistic style of leadership which one opponent characterized as “tightfisted with power and outdated in his approach to basic social problems.” It was well known that he had once intervened in an election dispute with a sawed-off shotgun. Hayes retained strong support among Wellston’s White merchants and working-class voters, some of whom no doubt appreciated his penchant for strongarm tactics. He had also encouraged and benefited from a sense of fatalism from some of the Black residents of Wellston, who now represented a substantial numerical majority in the community but often did not vote. But, in Wellston in the summer of 1967, these dynamics of power were beginning to shift.17
Mayor Hayes’s placement of the stable boy statue in that prominent official spot was an act of studied contempt directed at the many Black families who had recently moved to Wellston in St. Louis County and neighboring Wells-Goodfellow in St. Louis City. That offensive display was particularly directed at the rising civil rights movement in St. Louis that had turned its attention to greater Wellston in summer 1967 and was mounting a potent campaign for material resources, cultural recognition, and political authority, which is only to say, for the basic attributes of democratic rights and equality.
Had this same visitor of Summer 1967 strolled a block further down Easton Avenue, past the Loop Pavilion, they would have come upon a less elevating prospect: a black-painted “stable boy” hitching post on the lawn in front of the Wellston City Hall.
Many of the newly arrived Black residents who had moved to Wellston, which only a decade earlier had been majority White, had done so under the greatest duress. St. Louis City officials and urban planners had leveled their homes in Mill Creek Valley, St. Louis’s largest Black neighborhood, as well as other vital midtown and northside neighborhoods, as part of a massive initiative for what was called “redevelopment” and “slum surgery” during the mid-late 1950s. This program for “Negro removal,” in James Baldwin’s telling phrase, had proceeded without any comprehensive governmental plan (and only meager assistance for moving costs) for the relocation of the thousands of Black families whose homes were bulldozed, and lives and livelihoods thrown into disarray.18
In Summer 1967, Norman R. Seay, a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leader and veteran of the successful protest to desegregate the workforce at Jefferson Bank and Trust four years earlier, served as the coordinator of Wellston’s federal antipoverty agency, the Wellston Gateway Center. Seay was keenly aware of the dire conditions faced by unemployed or underemployed Black St. Louisans who, scrambling to find affordable housing ahead of the bulldozers in Mill Creek Valley, and denied the benefit of federal home loan programs reserved for Whites, were steered by predatory real estate interests into the often cheap and sub-standard housing of Wells-Goodfellow and Wellston at the same time those interests frightened White residents, all too susceptible to scare tactics, into fleeing to suburbs further west. Wellston represented an urgent test case as to whether the material promises of the civil rights movement for jobs, fair access to housing, and freedom could be extended to the aspiring Black working classes, encompassing the many St. Louisans whom the “progress” of urban redevelopment was threatening to push into long-term poverty.19
In August 1967, the conflict between Seay, his activist colleagues, and the grassroots movement they represented, on the one hand, and Mayor Hayes’s municipal government and touchy White constituency, on the other, had crystallized. Hayes had categorically rejected Seay and the antipoverty agency’s proposal to hire four African-American men to clean streets and remove trash from vacant lots, including a request to use the city’s equipment for that purpose (at a time when Hayes and the City Council were refusing to enforce the standards of the housing code or address sewer and sanitation problems in Black residential areas of Wellston). The mayor contended that “the men might wreck city equipment, and that the city was notified too late in the summer for it to designate any cleanup projects”; such projects would only be considered, said Hayes, if they were approved not only by federal authorities and the St. Louis Human Development Corporation but also by the Wellston City Council. More broadly, Hayes insisted that Wellstonians were happy with his administration, and only “outlanders” were introducing conflict, accusing Seay and the Gateway Center of trying to “take over the city.” “Our citizens and merchants know that there has never been the least unpleasantness between the citizens of this city due to the differences of race, religion, or national origin”: indeed, he explained, three of the nineteen-man police force were Black, one of the five-man street maintenance crew, and all of the men in the sanitation department. Meanwhile, Urban League representative and resident James H. Samuel noted that he had submitted multiple petitions to Hayes at City Hall that had never received a response. Public meetings Hayes had pledged to hold had never materialized.20 It hardly need be said that the mayor of this small St. Louis municipality could give lessons on foot-dragging and obstructionism to the most resolutely unreconstructed Deep South pol.
Norman Seay and the Gateway Center announced the start of their antipoverty project anyway, persuading the St. Louis Beautification Com-mission to lend brooms and shovels. War on Poverty programs had always been designed to cooperate with city officials in “making communities healthier,” said Seay, something that the citizens of Wellston would no doubt appreciate. Then, turning his attention to Hayes: “if we are willing to spend time hiring chronically unemployed men in projects that aid the community, surely the highest representative of that community can respond by aiding us, or at least by some public expression of thanks.”21
Many of the newly arrived Black residents who had moved to Wellston, which only a decade earlier had been majority White, had done so under the greatest duress. St. Louis City officials and urban planners had leveled their homes in Mill Creek Valley, St. Louis’s largest Black neighborhood, as well as other vital midtown and northside neighborhoods, as part of a massive initiative for what was called “redevelopment” and “slum surgery” during the mid-late 1950s.
This was the context for Seay and the Wellston’s antipoverty workers’ protest directed at the black “stable boy” statue on the lawn in front of Wellston City Hall, which they called “insensitive to the city’s growing Negro population.” “At least by some public expression of thanks”: Seay was being facetious—he expected no thanks from Hayes—but he was also making a deeper point, that the statue controversy was about recognition as the symbolic currency of economic and political power and democratic rights. Three years earlier, Booker T. Dobbs, a Black watchmaker, had repeatedly been refused a license to open a shop in Wellston, at a time when there were no licensed Black merchants in the municipality. His first application was rejected by city officials because he had been arrested seven years before, even though he was never charged. His second application was denied because the police said his shop would be too easy to burglarize even though he offered to install an alarm system. Finally, when Dobbs met with the local police captain, he was told that the rejection was because he was an “undesirable character”—race, Mayor Hayes said, had nothing to do with it. Only many months later did a St. Louis County judge rule that a licensing ordinance that officials had invoked to deny Dobbs a permit was unconstitutional.22
“Contempt for the negro community held by city officials and leaders,” was how Morris Johnson, retiring president of the St. Louis County NAACP, put it, when he brought together several themes to characterize the broader stakes of political conflict in Wellston. The repeated denial of the license to Dobbs and the presence of a “black yard figure” in front of City Hall were, for Johnson, minted from the same coin of antidemocratic contempt. The result, Johnson astutely observed, was that Wellston was “among the most undemocratic cities in the County, if not the most undemocratic.”23
The Dobbs incident occurred in 1964. By 1967, the federal War on Poverty had been launched, and Seay and his antipoverty colleagues could speak and act in Wellston as part of a broad political coalition and as representative of a growing Black voting bloc: They began to wield the leverage afforded by federal authority and access to antipoverty resources. The proof test of meaningful “democracy” in Wellston, as Johnson and Seay understood the word, would be not only the registration and mobilization of Black voters but also collective social mobility and the lasting establishment of a Black middle class with the power to control the decisions and resources that affected Black lives and prospects. This sort of self-determination had special meaning in 1960s Wellston where a clique of White politicians and officials ran the local government, White merchants controlled the shops where Black residents shopped, and White landlords controlled the housing where Black residents lived, with those merchants and landlords increasingly residing elsewhere, often further west in the segregated communities of St. Louis County.24 The absence of such mobility, power, and democratic control in Wellston—what Henri Lefebvre has called a “right to the city”—is what the black stable boy statue on the lawn of City Hall stood for, in their view. Indeed, not just the absence—the statue represented an official attack on Black access to and accumulation of material resources and political power, and the autonomy those would afford. Antidemocratic contempt in Wellston was designed to destroy an emerging Black property interest and voting bloc, in order to consign Black migrants to Wellston to permanent containment, that is, to poverty and dependence in perpetuity.
In the end, Mayor Hayes’s response to the controversy was to give the black stable boy statue a coat of white paint and dub it a “Leprechaun named Pat.” Hayes claimed that the City had been planning to do so for a while and, in fact, the act had nothing to do with the complaint. Indeed, Wellston’s police chief wondered sarcastically whether he would now hear a chorus of protest from the local Irish community about the white and blue-eyed figure. “The Irish May Complain,” was how the Greenville, Mississippi Delta-Democrat Times chose to report this version of the story. Behind such mockery, with its smug and sophomoric jab at an alleged Black hypersensitivity, was the all-too-serious threat of officially-sanctioned White violence, at the same time responsibility for such violence was projected onto the Black “other.” “Political opportunists and terrorists” would be wise to stay away from Wellston, Mayor Hayes warned, as “we are prepared to meet any test of which we may be put,” and we will protect the property … and the safety of our citizens.”25
Norman Seay remained diplomatic, choosing not to engage Mayor Hayes’s provocation—his threats and loaded invocation of the racialized “we”—or the deeper refusal to recognize Black personhood and dignity that the whitewashing of the statue connoted. The paint job, Seay remarked, with notable restraint, was “encouraging.”26
Wellston’s “monument” controversy of August 1967 was at once as small as a lawn statue and as large as the question of whether cities like Wellston and St. Louis, more broadly, would be theaters of containment and contempt, or of mobility and recognition—and that question was as open-ended in 1967 as it has ever been in modern U.S. history. Would the active official campaign to contain Black democratic empowerment in Wellston succeed, and especially to block the emergence of a Black middle-class that would break what amounted to an oligarchy of White commercial interests? What would become of the very considerable leverage that Seay and his allies exercised? Seay’s diplomatic response in August 1967 was born of an earned confidence, grounded in the power of a movement and access to federal antipoverty resources and recognition. Would that confidence be born out? Would the official practices of weaponized neglect in a northside St. Louis City housing complex such as Pruitt-Igoe, which historian Candace Borders notes had by the mid-1960s become a “carceral space,” be reproduced in St. Louis’s suburbs, as new waves of forced migrants arrived when Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition began in 1972? And what forms of organization and resistance would Wellston’s residents develop to engage with their community’s challenges in coming years? The answers to these questions over the next half-century would be legible on Wellston’s material landscape.27
Histories of containment and mobility, landscapes of contempt and democratic love, 1909-1970-2021
Even by summer 1970, the dynamics of struggle were beginning to shift in greater Wellston, towards more confrontational and sometimes violent direct action, as the more open-ended political possibilities of 1967 began to yield to new political realities. It was one thing to open a window to new forms of recognition and democratic representation, through grassroots organization and mobilization in the St. Louis region, as Norman Seay and his colleagues had done, taking advantage of the federal War on Poverty and the institutions, resources, and legitimation it brought. But now, in 1970, root questions about who owned Wellston, how Black Wellstonians could defend themselves against the racialized extraction of the resources they needed to survive and thrive, and how a Black middle class could be nurtured, came to the fore in a climactic boycott that threatened the existence, not only of the waning but still potent White oligarchy, but of the system of resource extraction in the community—one might say, of the emerging system of “material alienation” as it existed at the time.
Some of the structures and dynamics that resisted change were deeply ingrained in the longer story of this vexed area—historic practices of neglect, dumping, and taking that antedated Wellston’s mid-twentieth-century incorporation and had much to do with its borderland status. Pre-incorporation Wellston had been governed by the area’s Chamber of Commerce (it would receive any correspondence directed “to the Mayor”) as an unregulated “free zone” that was known, going back to the early years of the century, for its low taxes (and scant police, fire and sewer services), saloons and brothels, fortune tellers, clairvoyants and spiritualists, occasional street violence, openness to immigrant and Jewish settlement, and speculative business practices, often conducted without insurance, that favored cheap construction and short-term profit-taking.28 And some of those structures and dynamics were of more recent vintage and flowed from the 1966 shutdown of the streetcar system that had brought ready access to jobs, food and the material life of the city to Black northside residents, and had made it possible for the Loop Pavilion to function as the beating heart of Greater Wellston.
In her vivid memoir, The Last Children of Mill Creek, Vivian Gibson recalled her family’s relocation in Hamilton Heights/Wellston in the late 1950s and the curdling of the promise of freedom, material comfort, and mobility that the “quaint bakery,” the “well-stocked corner drug store,” and the “small branch library” on Easton Avenue initially offered: then, the bakery closed, the drug store gave way to a liquor store, and the library gave way to Joe’s Music Store. The store at Easton and Hamilton was one of several “Joe’s” outlets in St. Louis’s Black neighborhoods. The record shop “streamed soulful music from outdoor speakers,” at once serving as a community resource, one of the anchors of what Charles Whitcomb called the “Black Downtown,” and as another instance of White ownership in predominantly Black Wellston (in an industry where record distributors gave discounts and profit opportunities to White outlets that were not extended to the smaller Black shops).29 At this time, in the sixties, Vivian Gibson recalls increasing overcrowding in the apartment buildings and schools in Hamilton Heights and Wells Goodfellow, and above all, a growing sense of confinement: “The patterns were repeating: too many underemployed black people were being herded into a designated confined area. … white flight and disinvestment, followed by an influx of illegal drugs in the seventies, overwhelmed the community.” The departure of the black middle class was the final blow. St. Louis’s shortsighted leaders had traded “one slum for another slum.” Gibson herself completed two years of college in Missouri and left for New York City to become a fashion designer.30
By the 1970s, confinement and not mobility was becoming the daily reality and, increasingly, the destiny of Black residents of Wellston. There is no question that the shutdown of the streetcar system in 1966, including the Hodiamont Line that ran to the Wellston Loop Station, had the effect of isolating Black northside residents, cutting them off from opportunities and support systems in the city and the county. Elijah Lacey has documented what he describes as the failed “gamble” of St. Louis to increase the growth of the city by investing in the Interstate System by destroying Black city neighborhoods. In Wellston, Lacey observes, the impacts were more indirect: the Interstate could bring motorists to the new suburban North-west Plaza shopping mall opened in 1965; Easton Avenue’s importance as a link to the St. Charles Rock Road that joined St. Louis City and County rapidly declined. At the same time that the streetcar connections between Wellston and other northside neighborhoods were being dismantled, the remnants of the “service car” industry that continued to serve Black North St. Louis was defeated by a Bi-State Bus lobby that resented their cheaper fares (10 cents less than Bi- State’s 30 cent fare) and a St. Louis City government that now more stringently regulated the dying industry. By the late 1960s, the only way for Black Wellstonians to commute via mass transit was the Bi-State bus system, despite the higher fares.31
The changing mood of neighborhood resistance in Wellston was evident in the Help Me Help Myself protests in the Easton Avenue Loop in late August and September 1970.
The several-week boycott of the Easton Avenue merchants by young Black residents in late summer 1970 was, in its way, a very small-scale anticipation of Ferguson a full generation later, in this inner-ring suburb, one of the region’s first to experience White flight. Wellston now had a new White mayor, Floyd Heckel, a florist and Easton Avenue merchant, who had managed to oust Hayes. Young Black protesters picketed the Easton Avenue merchants to demand an end to police brutality (and the removal of a police captain, who doubled as Heckel’s political campaign manager, and whom they saw as responsible for the abuse), greater investment in jobs, quality housing, schools, drug programs, and sanitation. One night protesters smashed the windows of several stores on Easton, and when a “large group of persons” marched on Wellston City Hall to protest the arrest of Jewell Cook, a Black leader of “Help Me Help Myself ” (a local organization using federal funds to train former convicts and high school dropouts for jobs in the construction trades), officials declared an “area-wide police riot alert.” Cook captured the boycott’s demand for economic justice fused with democratic representation: “We want better housing, schools, and police, and we want to get rid of consumer fraud. We want representation on the police review board, better recreation, and a program on drug abuse.” The pickets would continue daily until such issues of representation were resolved, but also “until some of that money [from the Easton Avenue businesses] is channeled into the black community, we don’t think the merchants ought to have any of it.”32
It is hard not to conclude that a window was closing in Wellston at this moment in the early 1970s, and that these protesters of late summer 1970 knew it. A series of area councils to address the issues raised by the boycott were created—a human relations council, a housing commission, a police advisory board—but the broader possibilities opened by the War on Poverty, of federally funded antipoverty projects, that Norman Seay and his colleagues had worked so hard to sustain and implement, and Mayor Hayes and his clique had fought so hard to obstruct and undermine, were fading. It is also hard not to see this as a turning point in the history of the St. Louis region’s commitment to addressing the issues the boycotters were most concerned about, the issues of democratic participation by the community in decisions about its material life, so as to curb the material extraction and alienation that shaped Wellston’s history from the beginning, and now were being bequeathed to a new generation of young Black residents.33
It is necessary to conclude with the observation that the toxic effects of the more totalized material world of exploitation and alienation that characterizes daily life in contemporary Wellston have been profoundly critiqued and substantially limited by an ethic of democratic love articulated, especially, by the Black matriarchs of the community. These women, some in their 80s, often date their arrival in greater Wellston to the late 1950s and 60s. The fact that they chose to stay, when they had that choice, and took care of the physical landscape of their streets, accessing the vacant lots in the immediate vicinity of their homes through one-dollar leases from the city’s land bank, and creating a patchwork of community gardens, embodies a grassroots social practice of democratic love that holds the future, not only of Wellston, but of the city and region.
The historian of democracy James Kloppenberg has written of this deeper ethic of democratic love, “Historically, it is undeniable that the source of the animating ideals of modern democratic movements in the Atlantic world has been the Christian principle of agape, selfless love for all humans because all are created in God’s image, which lies beneath the democratic ethic of reciprocity.”34 If the Wellston civil rights movement of 1967 was in its stated aims animated by the democratic principle of reciprocity—that the material resources, equal opportunity, and representation available to other Americans should be available to the Black residents of Wellston—then the civil rights movement of the early twenty-first century has been animated by that and, so often, something deeper, something that pulsed beneath the surface of the earlier movement and could be glimpsed during the statue controversy—a transcendent ethic of true recognition based on selfless and unconditional love for all humans because all are created in the divine image. This is what inspired longtime Wells-Goodfellow resident Miss Lovie Haynes, in a 2016 video, to tell a group of Washington University students meeting with her on her front porch, that they were invited to her house for holiday dinner, in the context of a discussion of her transactions with the city’s land bank to build her community garden on a vacant lot. “If there’s any of you all that can’t go home for Christmas, here’s home. Here’s home.”35 The profounder point she was making had to do with democratic love, caretaking, and radical hospitality: I do not need the city’s land bank, and its system of extraction and valuation (or, by extension, markets, and redevelopment), to build a home, to have a home. Here is home, and here is what home is. This deeper ethic of democratic love represents a necessary foundation for long-term gain and growth, for Wellston, and for the St. Louis region.
This ethic of democratic love is also present in the Wellston Loop Pavilion, in the prayer for coherence that is the building’s obstinate core.