In 1912, White residents faced “a negro invasion”: three Black families had purchased homes on the 4000 block of Cook Avenue, including the Hudlin family that May. The action of this Black family moving into “White space” would prompt armed self-defense, police intervention, and changes to the law. The system of de facto segregation that protected property values and racial hierarchies was being legally transgressed.
St. Louis’s urban crisis happened along deeply divided lines of race and class, and so is its economic and spatial reinvigoration happening along those same lines. In many ways, the Cherokee Street district, the neighborhoods surrounding it, and Love Bank Park are unique urban arenas that reveal the pains of growth and decline in St. Louis, but they are also situated at the typical boundaries one might find in American cities of the twenty-first century.
Like St. Louis Place as a whole—a neighborhood so beleaguered and yet so beloved—the grassy lot at the 2300 block of Mullanphy on the near side of North St. Louis manifests many characteristics that can also be found in other predominantly Black neighborhoods across the St. Louis region, from the Ville to Howard-Evans Place to Kinloch, each of which has been subjected to threats from those who would seek to extract their value and expunge their negative associations. At this particular site, the negative and positive have become fatefully entangled, and yet residents have found ways to express its emancipation-heritage significance.
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. Purchased with Brentwood City funds as a gesture of goodwill, the boulder instead generates hard feelings among some former residents and stands as a cold reminder that a large part of Brentwood’s history was razed for retail.
So what are the tools and ideas that made it ok—at least from somebody’s perspective—to remove hundreds of people from their homes under claims of progress and revitalization? What made it ok to level affordable, multi-family units that were so well-made and so important to the city’s history of industry and labor that they were listed on the National Register of Historic Places? And then to replace them with cheap construction of larger, more expensive, single-family homes? Why does wholesale clearing persist if we know, based on the lessons long learned and documented, from redlining and urban renewals to predatory loans, that clearing and exploitation are forms of racial injustice?
Standing Rock disappeared from mainstream media in the daily deluge of political scandals and outre behavior. But Native Americans had predicted that sparks from Oceti Sakowin’s sacred fire would be carried around the earth, and they could be seen in other Indigenous camps and movements that resisted the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, and the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mt. Mauna Kea.
Belarus finally declared independence in 1990 but it was a republic ruled by Vladimir Putin’s puppet president, Alexander Lukashenko—the last of the old-school ironfisted dictators, whose reign continues to this day. For me that day in 2002 was the beginning of a mashup of Fear and Loathing in Minsk meets Planes, Trains and Oxcarts as I got a guided tour of the no man’s land just across the Pripyat River from the decaying, hulking skeleton of the Chernobyl Reactor Dome.
So many people got involved, for so many different reasons, that protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline was (nearly) a blank template. This gave many opportunities for conflict and few firm measures of success, except oil never flowing in the pipeline.
One of the few points of agreement left to us is that our whole culture is “oversensitive” now—that favorite castigation—though in different directions, canceling and banning and vilifying. We are miserable about it, here in this land that lauds bold and fearless action.
The American-Mexican novelist and author of Prayers for the Stolen, adapted for Netflix, reflects on women’s rights, the beauty and danger of life in Mexico, and being “the granddaughter of surrealism.”