By Dale Singer Post-shipment Special
A day before the VP Fair on the edge of the St. Louis River in 1987, police closed the Eads Bridge to foot traffic, closing a route many people used between eastern St. Louis and downtown. town.
The move followed allegations that a year earlier gangs of black youths had marched through fairgrounds, ripping gold chains from women’s necks. The stories were later revealed to be exaggerations, and lawsuits as well as public opposition quickly reversed the closure of the bridge. But the pervasive racial tension and mistrust the situation has exposed is just one of the scenarios presented and carefully analyzed in “The Material World of Modern Segregation,” published this year by the Common reader project at the University of Washington.
From the clearing of Mill Creek Valley to the murder of Michael Brown, from the demolition of established enclaves to the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe, from the existence of the Delmar Divide to the race separation controversy at the Fairground Park swimming pool , the A Collection of Essays sheds a bright, incisive, and generally harsh light on the history of racial conflict in the St. Louis area, revealing truths that are often hard to confront.
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Many essays deal with gentrification, how so-called progress has masked the displacement of residents from established black neighborhoods.
Next time you’re at the Brentwood mall that includes Target and Trader Joe’s, for example, stop and realize the site was once the home of Howard-Evans Place, which essayist Beth Miller describes as “an Afro -American, middle-class ‘Garden of Eden’” which has become a target for developers.
And the transformation of McRee Town in South St. Louis, an area that began as a magnet for white immigrants in the early 20th century, into the more upscale Botanical Heights, has brought about the same kind of displacement, with more resources available once the area is predominantly Black population moved elsewhere.
In an article titled “The Facade of Redevelopment,” Patty Heyda writes, “Today, Botanical Heights and Botanical Grove have what McRee Town never had: new businesses and homes with access to loans, and a good K-8 school. Better sidewalks with ecological gardens that filter rainwater. And the city is changing the light bulbs in streetlights. Market-priced housing and very few low-income rental options mean older low-income residents do not return.
Perhaps rightly in a book of essays from an academic institution, some of the writing is stilted, obscuring what the author means and likely to put off some readers, like this description of works by Ferguson-related art:
“In this essay, the materiality of each work disrupted the naturalization of segregated anti-black space in St. Louis and produced embodied strategies of reclamation.”
But for the most part, “The Material World of Modern Segregation” effectively shines a light on the high costs of racial animosity in the St. Louis area in recent decades, as well as lessons to help repair these wrongs. An essay by John Early on the effects of the multi-million dollar federal project for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on the north side of the city explains the remedy this way:
“For St. Louis to become a more just, equitable, and whole city, what is perhaps as much needed as looking back is recognizing with greater openness and understanding how aggrieved urban communities are being treated. in the present. Being increasingly mindful and responsive to how the place, in many ways, speaks for itself could begin to help us do just that.
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in western St. Louis County.