By Michael R. Allen
Stand at the intersection of Market Street and Jefferson Avenue on the edge of downtown St. Louis, and look around. The black mirror-glass cavalcade of a corporate citadel anchors the northwest corner. Across the street on the other points are two largely unmemorable office buildings and a parking lot.
This landscape could be anywhere in America – nothing about it tells of a particularly evident history. Yet here is where the invisible traces of St. Louis’ largest and most storied African-American neighborhood once came to life. Here is Mill Creek Valley.
When the city started demolishing Mill Creek Valley in 1959, there were 19,700 residents here. On the 79 blocks of the neighborhood were over 5,700 housing units and 839 businesses. Ninety-five percent of the population was African-American. Residents lived in some of the city’s densest-packed blocks of brick and stone town houses, dotted by church spires and corner stores. Scott Joplin and Josephine Baker performed at venues in the neighborhood.
At the heart of Mill Creek Valley, Jefferson and Market, stood the People’s Finance Building, housing a black-owned bank that stood just blocks from the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company from which civil rights demonstrations would echo across the nation in 1963. By the time the white-owned bank integrated its workforce under pressure, the African-American bank was gone. Pruitt-Igoe’s towers further north also were baptized in conflict, in contrast to the stable and traditional neighborhood from which it drew many displaced residents.
Yet Mill Creek Valley had its real problems. The housing was substandard, and reports showed that 80% of dwellings lacked private baths and toilets. Only one-third had running water indoors. The crime rate soared some four times the city’s average. When downtown business interests pushed to blight and clear the area in 1954, Alderman Archie Blaine, representing the residents, at first supported all of the official efforts. The people deserved a better life. Blaine ended up being the only dissenting vote for authorizing condemnation and clearance. By then, the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority clearly showed that the new project was not for or by the people of Mill Creek Valley.
The political hegemony pushing clearance included an archetypal array of powerful forces: city government’s agencies and mayor, the real estate and finance sectors and the press. In 1958, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat called Mill Creek Valley “a growing menace, injurious and inimical to public health and safety and to the morals and welfare of residents of Missouri.” Yet clearance and reconstruction was not utopian. Blaine supported the project thinking that his constituents would get a shining new neighborhood. Most never returned. The new Mill Creek Valley was largely devoted to a new interstate and low-density office and warehouse uses. Great vernacular architecture fell into what today is the city’s most placeless, strange landscape.
No sign or plaque tells anyone that she is occupying Mill Creek Valley. No monument reminds visitors of the thousands of lives that converged here, or reflects upon how the architectural solution here wreaked social havoc through dispersal of the city’s African-American population. Sadly, St. Louis has buried a traumatic episode under a banal cityscape. In Mill Creek Valley, we perpetuate a collective forgetting of sorts that robs future generations of the chance to achieve the splendid enlightenment that comes from confronting discomforting historic truths.
Am earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Sculpture City St. Louis website in October 2013.