This episode kicks off with a barber who’s been cutting hair in The Ville for 60 years, and it ends with the story of a woman who just recently became a proud homeowner in the neighborhood. In between are beautiful, personal stories from mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, war veterans, preachers, urban gardeners, and more. Produced in collaboration with the podcast We Live Here and the neighborhood organization 4 The Ville, and made possible by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Funding for podcast production provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Out of the Blocks is produced with grant funding from the Cohen Opportunity Fund, the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund (creator of the Baker Artist Portfolios), Sig and Barbara Shapiro, Patricia and Mark Joseph, Jonathan Melnick, The Andy and Sana Brooks Family Foundation, The Hoffberger Foundation, Associated Jewish Charities, The John J. Leidy Foundation, The Kenneth S. Battye Charitable Trust, and The Muse Web Foundation.
Full transcript of this episode:
Multiple Voices: From WYPR and PRX, it's a special edition of Out of the Blocks from the Ville in north St. Louis. It's one neighborhood, everybody's story.
It was the type of situation where you could walk from grade school to middle school to high school and graduate in less than a block area.
We walked everywhere, and you wanted to walk because the more you walked, the longer you could be with your friends.
But what's happened is the neighborhood's now—there's a lot of abandoned buildings like across the street. That whole block is empty.
All of those things are gone now, and without those things, the neighborhood dies.
I know that in time—maybe not in my time—the neighborhood is gonna come back, and people are gonna recognize the neighborhood for what the historic value is because I would hate to see this neighborhood—all the great institutions and historic institutions—gone.
From the minds of Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, in collaboration with "We Live Here," a podcast from St. Louis Public Radio, and the community organization For the Ville, Out of the Blocks: "Out of the Ville," St. Louis, Missouri.
Aaron Henkin: Sixty years cutting hair. How many haircuts do you think you've given in your life?
Harry Thurston Jones: Oh, I dare not even say. Let's put it like this: I've gone from the price of a haircut being $1.75 to now, it's fifteen dollars. Harry Thurston Jones. Harry's Barber Service, 4619 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, St. Louis, Missouri, 63113. At one time, streetcars did ride up and down the street here, and all of these spots here were businesses and gradually, people started moving westward. As people start moving westward, the businesses were not replaced. The people that owned the property, it went derelict. And they took the pipe, they tore the buildings down and eventually, they were all torn down. We're the last ones standing—the barber shop here and the liquor store. Probably the last two buildings in here. That's it. This young man here... I knew his mother when they maintained a restaurant across the street called A House of Fine Foods. His mother was one of the waitresses at that before he was born. And I remember talking to his mother, and she told me, said, "I had a boy!" And that's him. How old are you, man?
Unknown Person: Fifty-eight.
HTJ: End of conversation.
AH: Harry, say your age now?
AH: How many more haircuts do you think you’ve got in you before you hang up the shears?
HTJ: Well, whatever little money I stacked away, apprehensive I'll stop getting money, and if I start spending it like I'd like to spend it, I think the money would run out before I run out. And, as long as my health lasts... Life is like on a racetrack. You start in here, that's when you're young. You run around this curve, you run around this curve, you run around this curve. You got the backside, and then you've got a straightaway. There's no doubt about it. I'm on the straightaway. I'm on the straightaway! Now, I don't know how long it is in end, but I'm definitely on the straightaway! You know, you wake up one morning, you leg is hurting a little bit, or your arm. That goes along with getting old, as you will find out.
O’Dell Wood: O’Dell Wood. I am ninety-seven years old. Growing up in the Ville was a very, very close-knitted community, figuratively speaking. Everyone knew everyone. When World War II broke out, that's when it began to change, because at that time they let blacks move where they wanted to move. Before, they were just combined in one section, and it was very, very nice. When I was done with school, I got married and had two lovely daughters. I'll introduce you to Yvonne B. Tate, which is my baby daughter, and Marilyn Barnes, which is my oldest daughter.
Yvonne Tate: Well, she's a power-packed woman and she always taught us to just hold up your head and do the best that you can and be very good to others.
Marilyn Barnes: She used to say, "Pretty is what pretty does." So, that meant that if it's not inside of you, you're not pretty at all. So, I've carried that with me all my life and I just thank her for it and I love her for that.
AH: It must be amazing to live to see your kids retire.
OW: It is. It is a rarity for parents to live to see their children retire, and I give all of that credit to Jehovah God.
AH: And now you guys have all kinds of free time to spend together because you're all retired.
OW: All retired. All three of us are retired now, so we spend a lot of time together. I love them both, and I've been compensated thousands and thousands of times with the help that they give me and the love that they give me, and I couldn’t ask for anything any better, being ninety-seven. They could've thrown me to the dog, if they wanted to, but they didn’t. But they wanted me with them, and that's what I love about them. They're honest, they're loving, and they're kind, and they're true to their word.
John Herman Saunders, Sr.: John Herman Saunders, Senior now, yeah, John Herman Saunders, Senior, AKA Jack. I was born in the basement of Barnes Jewish Hospital. Washington University Medical School couldn’t have negroes at that time. December 26, 1937.
AH: What kind of a kid were you? What were you into?
JHS: Bad, everything. I climbed in a coal bin, and my mom's oil off her coal got in my clothes. She used Spic and Span, I think it was, to get my clothes clean in the bathtub. So, that's the kind of kid I was. But anyway, the time that I grew up to, I heard the declaration of war over the radio with my parents. My dad served at Midway, in the Navy, LSD Duty. The hurting thing I saw after the war I saw was troops coming back in separate lines: blacks over here, whites over here. Bulls**t. Excuse the expression. You know, we would ride down town and there would be separate counters downtown. But in the Ville, everybody was everybody, and there was no real bias for people beyond being black.
Paula Sams: The melody is "Somewhere My Love," and it reminds me of my mom. That piano sits over there, that was my mom's piano. I think she started playing around five years old, and she played all ht the way through high school, college, and then she was the church pianist for Antioch for a while. I played the piano until she realized I wasn't reading the music, and I was wasting her time. You played it, and I could play it back, but not now.
AH: You don't play anything now?
PS: No, I don't. Paula Sams.
AH: So, you know, when we create our radio program, we put in an original, musical soundtrack together with the conversations that we have. My coproducer, Wendel, does that. He happens to be here hanging out with us today. Wendel, what kind of piano are we looking at here?
Wendel Patrick: This is a beautiful Wurlitzer upright.
AH: I wonder what you think about the idea of Wendel sitting down and giving this thing a try.
PS: Have at it!
AH: You’ve been warned, that it may be out of tune.
WP: (laughs) Yes, I have. So, you haven't played this in a good while.
PS: I clean it.
PS: There were two high schools that African-Americans went to, in St. Louis. Vashon High School, which my father went to, or Sumner High School, which my mom went to. So, when you meet people in St. Louis, the one thing they always ask is, "What high school did you go to?" I graduated from Sumner forty-four years ago, from Sumner? You know, and I can still remember the school song and the pledge.
AH: What is the school pledge of Sumner?
PS: I believe in the ideas of good citizenship, both from myself and my community. I resolve to obey the laws of this community, to respect this tradition.
Warice Blackmon-Davis: I attended Marshall Elementary. I still remember the song from Marshall school. I'm gonna sing it for you, okay. Here, it goes, "Marshall, Marshall, we raise our voices in praise to you. Marshall, Marshall, to you we'll ever be true." My name is Warice Blackmon-Davis.
AH: What kind of memories does it bring back to sing that song?
WBD: Oh, the memories of the hallways. We had a library in the hallway. We had a music teacher that expected you to enunciate every syllable of the songs that you sang. And we had teachers that cared. If you misbehaved, they'd try to redirect your behavior, but you knew that by the time you got home there were two or three people that already knew that you had misbehaved and you were pretty much chastised for that. You know, we had local stores and I remember the store across from Marshall. If the bell rang, they would stop serving children. You had to leave. You would not be served again until lunchtime. We could go home for lunch, actually, and going home for lunch sometimes, we would go across the street and one of my girlfriends, she said, "Warice, remember your mother would make us repeat the Lord's Prayer before we ate!" So you know, she would feed whoever showed up. If we had to cut sandwiches in half, that’s what we did. But she made sure that we prayed before we ate, and prayed before we left back out the door. That was just one of things and I think in hindsight they kind of appreciated that.
Ida Mohammad: I thought about coming over here this morning. I said, "Well, let me pull out my picture," because I remember looking at it a few weeks ago, but I didn’t really look. I've never delved into it until today. My full name is Ida Mohammad. This photo is a photo of myself and my three brothers and myself. My mother had four children. We were in my mother's barbershop, which was on St. Louis Avenue. She was one of the first black female barbers in St. Louis in the fifties and sixties. I said when I was a young girl that I'd be so glad when I grew up, because I'm sick of the barbershop and all these men and boys. And I'll be darned, as I grew up and matured in my development, 99% of my customers are barbers, so I'm in a barbershop every week of my life.
AH: How do you end up in barbershops?
IM: Well, basically, I sell various different products. I have pies, of course the bean pies, and I have the publication of the Final Call newspaper, I have CDs and DVDs, and that's basically it. I used to be in the barbershop and of course, there was a lot of activity and coming in and out. I remember there were some young men, at that time they were suited very nice and they had a look about themselves that they were very groomed. I never forgot the look of those guys. They were brothers in the Nation of Islam. And I said, "Hmm." You know, as a little girl, I didn’t really know, but I knew they were clean and all the guys had on suits. So, that was that, and they carried a paper called The Final Call Newspaper. So basically, I decided as I became older that I would go into the Nation of Islam after hearing Minister Farrakhan doing one of his lectures in '84 at UMSL. It's one of the universities out west. It just really opened up my eyes. I've been in the Nation now since '85 and it's the best thing to open up your eyes because we as the people have been so confused and lost with the knowledge of self.
Sydney Henry Frasier: I'll say it like this—It wasn’t so much the information that we were getting because they were aware of that. It was how good we were at what we did. That was the part that we didn’t want them to know. Sydney Henry Frasier. And this is St. Louis Avenue and Vandeventer. Went to college for one year, I ran out of money, I went in the service. I took all these tests and the service approached me about being in a really good career field, which they couldn’t explain to me what it was. But they said this was really good. So, I figured, "What do I have to lose?" It was an analyst in military intelligence. I spent a year in Vietnam. We flew in C-47s. They used to call them Goonie Birds, full of electronic equipment, and what our job was to locate the North Vietnamese army. Not the guys in the black pajamas but the guys in uniforms, the actual formal North Vietnamese army, and report this back. You had to fly to your target area—there were several areas all around where you would fly around for eight hours and pick up as much information as you could. But, I had forty-seven combat missions over South Vietnam. They didn’t count the missions that were aborted, meaning if the plane caught fire (which happened), if it lost an engine... That was not uncommon. These planes, these are World War II planes, and I'm in Vietnam in 1971. Well, I'll tell you one instance where we were flying along and the oil pressure in starboard engine got low, and you had to shut the engine down because it's gonna catch fire if you don't. So, it'll fly with one engine. So, okay, they shut the engine down, and when they shut the engine down, they have to do what they call "feathering." You have to lock the propeller on the dead engine. Well, the feathering switch was attached to both propellers, so when they hit the feathering switch, both engines went out. You know, 'cause they locked the propeller on the one that was running. And what impressed me was that the pilots—we're getting ready to bail out, we're getting on our parachutes and stuff, you know—the two, the pilot and the copilot sat down and went through the checklist and did everything, and started that engine back up. They didn’t know why it went out, for starters, but once, if they went through the checklist they just inadvertently found out and started the engine. There wasn't nothing wrong with the other engine, and so we didn’t have to crash that day. So, that was a pretty close call.
Multiple Voices: You're in the Ville in north St. Louis. One neighborhood, everybody's story. It's Out of the Blocks: "Out of the Ville."
Matt Stoyanov: So, yeah, this area is mainly our lettuce, tomato, and eggplant area.
James Forbes: 4057 Evans Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri, 63113 on the corner of MLK and Sarah.
MS: As you can see on this far right, closest to the fence, is where a lot of our basil was grown, in those three beds.
JF: James Forbes.
MS: Matt Stoyanov.
JF: It is what you see. It’s a sustainable, organic farm here in the city. Formerly, it was a gas station, and then it was an abandoned lot for about twenty years. One day I met alderman Sam Moore here, he pointed to this property and said, "If you want this property, I'll give it to you for five dollars." And so I said, "Done!"
MS: This is, as James had mentioned, our aquaponics system.
AH: It looks like there's a bunch of raised beds, almost like they look like giant pool tables, but they're full of gravel and plants.
MS: That is essentially what we have in here. We have four grow beds, and what we have is four five-hundred IVC tank, five-hundred gallons, that is. And they house over three-hundred fish among the four of them. I guess the simplest form to put it is the fish make waste, there's a pump in the water, it pumps it up through the PVC onto that filtering pad, and the remaining waste becomes super-nutrients for the plants. So, it's a closed loop cycle. Very sustainable.
JF: It was one of those things where you kinda wonder, "Is this going to work? Is this something where people are gonna just hop the fence and burn everything down, you know, and start vandalizing and stealing?" And that hasn't been the case, I mean it really would start with people just asking, "What are you guys doing here? What is all this stuff?" And we would tell them about the purpose of it and also for it to be a food access point because we're sitting in a federally-classified food desert.
MS: So, whenever certain crops hit their or are nearing their end, that's the prime time for community members to know they can come here and buy our produce for a dollar or there's days where they just come here and clip it directly themselves and take it home, wash it and have food for the next few days.
JF: The one thing that this part of St. Louis that it does have going for it is an abundance of cheap, affordable property. I mean, like I said, this property was given to us for five dollars, and the city is adamantly saying that they're just trying to give this stuff to anybody who can do anything with it. We're obviously biased, but I mean there is the potential to turn it into a food production area where that demand does exist, and the plants don't care about crime statistics or violence around. They just need water, light, and nutrients, and someone to tend to them.
AH: What a remarkable view it is looking in this direction from your garden. You've got your garden beds, then you've got—you can see all the way down to the St. Louis Arch.
MS: Yep, it's one of my favorite views of the entire farm.
Ivan C. James III: We're on the corner of Maffitt and Bishop Scott in St. Louis, Missouri. It's the Ville area. There are a number of churches around us and we always identify ourselves as the little church on the corner. We're doing great things for the lord. I'm Ivan C. James III, and I am the pastor here at Ashbury United Methodist Church. I've been here about seven years. This is the sanctuary. We probably can seat anywhere from a couple hundred to three-hundred people in here. It was a very large congregation, but with the years it has dwindled a little bit, and what we're about now is trying to figure out how we can do a better job of serving the community, and also to grow our church. I have a social gospel. The other day I talked about how God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing to someone else. And each time we help somebody who was in need, that we are being a blessing and we are fulfilling what God is asking us to do. We had one program which was called Warm Start where we feed kids a juice and granola bar every morning, so when the kids go to school they come by and get a granola bar and a juice. That little snack we give is probably the only meal those kids have in the morning before they get to school, and it might be (in some cases) the last meal because they didn't get anything to eat the evening before. We serve, like today I looked at the figures, and we served about fifty-five kids this morning. When you can help those in hunger, then you're doing what you need to do.
Sheila Steed: Sheila Steed.
Julia Allen: Julia Allen.
SS: We're cousins.
JA: We live in the historic Ville.
SS: I'm sixty-eight, and she'll be sixty-eight.
AH: How long have you guys lived together in the same home?
JA: I think since about 2006. It’s been a while. I used to live in our family home, and then I made the decision that I needed to move away from my family. (laughs) And so I called my cousin, asked her if I could stay with her, and it's actually a way for us to share bills and everything 'cause in this economy it's kinda hard to live off one's salary, especially when you get older and you're on a fixed income.
AH: How is Julia as a roommate?
SS: The best partner ever. We finish each other's sentences. We know each other's likes and dislikes.
JA: When we get mad at each other, she goes to her room and I go to mine. (laughs)
SS: With any two people living together, you have to decide what you can handle and what you can't.
JA: Sheila has a place for everything, and I'm not very good at that.
SS: You had a choice of going to a different place, so why did you decide to come share a house with me?
JA: Well, I used to tell—I told her this one time, because we are blessed that we're cousins, that we've grown up together. We may not have always agreed on things but I love her. If it wasn’t for her—and she may not really understand this—I wouldn’t be where I am.
SS: It's wonderful to be able to say that family—no matter what their differences—they're family, and you’ve gotta remember that. It's just that simple.
William Brooks: I was truly a soccer mom when it came to my kids' education. My wife worked during the day, I worked at night at different jobs, and I kept them during the day. William Brooks. I have been in the neighborhood for 28 years and I use a measuring stick of the ages of my two sons, which are twins. Both of my two sons are very well-rounded men. I have one who is a first lieutenant in the army and also a St. Louis County police officer. My other son, who is Alex, is a mechanical engineer.
Alex Brooks: It pays to pay attention. That is one of my father's mottos. I'm stealing all his stuff, but it pays to pay attention. My name is Alex Brooks. I'm William Brooks's son.
AH: One of them. One of the two twin boys.
AB: Yes, one of the sons. I am the second son.
AH: By how many minutes?
AB: By one minute, but he kind of holds it that it's a mystery how many minutes it was, so, "We don't really know," is the official line.
WB: My philosophy on family, on raising kids, is that it requires a lot of paying attention. You know, you really have to pay attention to your kids and be devoted to them and know that you are the first teachers.
AB: He raised us in a very deliberate way. That a lot of the stuff he did is a piece of some sort of master plan. One of those would be... my brother and I didn't ride the bus.
WB: My wife and I, we took our kids to school every day of their lives. What that afforded us was the time to communicate to our kids about real life situations, simply because as we drove through the city, you would see different types of people on the street. And I would speak to, "Why do you think that person is doing what he is doing?" Okay, it could be someone staggering on the street. Or it could be someone collecting cans. And that would become part of the socialization of our kids as to what was going on in life.
AB: I realize now that a lot of the things he said—as much as it seemed like I was just waiting through those fifteen minutes before I could get out and go onto the schoolyard—a lot of that stuff stuck. And even now, I think that he's been doing a good job to lead us from afar. Me and my brother, we've moved away, we're living separately, and he's doing his best to guide us, not let us get too far off the good path here, but allow us to make mistakes as long as they're not too big and to do our own thing.
WB: I'm jealous of them, okay, as such that they have accomplished things that I wish I could've at their age. They have turned out to be the sons that I always wanted.
Janet Roberson: Janet Roberson. I live in the Ville neighborhood, and I've been living here for eight years this past August. And what caused me to come? This location was. I heard that they were having houses built for families of low income and I was able to qualify for it. It gives you a sense of having something of your own, even with my children, we have our own backyard, the own front porch that we're sitting on. And I could grow my flowers and I couold cut my own grass, and that's to me—some people might take for granted that that’s just something you do all the time—but if you’ve never had a home before, it's just different having your own home that you can call yours. I chose this house, and when I came to the door, they were still fixing on the house, doing construction, and I came in and the fellow looked up and said, "Twin!" And I said, "James!" We had went to kindergarten together and grown up together. He had actually built my house. And he went, "Is this your house?" And I said, "Sure, it's my house," and I hadn't signed anything or had papers on it. I claimed this house to be my house. He said, "Go on and look at it," and I went upstairs, and I actually had some—I'm a very spiritual person and I love the Lord—and I had some oil and I put it in each room in my house and I said, "Thank you for my house, Lord. Thank you for my girls' room, and..." I'm sorry. I just believed this was gonna be my house. And I left and then maybe by the week after they called me and told me I had the house. The excitement and the joy that me and my children had, when we came in the house we jumped up, we just went all through the house and said, "This is our house." It was an exciting moment, a moment I'd never forget, and I love it and I think I'll be here until I go to heaven.
Multiple Voices: You've been listening to a special addition of Out of the Blocks, produced by Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, in collaboration with We Live Here from St. Louis Public Radio, and the community organization For the Ville. Special thanks to Camille Stanley and Tim Lloyd of We Live Here, Aaron Williams of For the Ville, Northside Community Housing, and WYPR's Katie Marquette. You can learn more about the Ville online at 4theville.org. Aaron and Wendel want to thank all of us that took a leap of faith and shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR and PRX, this is the Ville signing off.
AH: Hi guys, Aaron here, with one more important thank you at the end of this episode. Our trip to St. Louis and our partnership with We Live Here and For the Ville was made possible by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. So we want to say thanks to the NEA for supporting us, as we embark on our mission to bring Out of the Blocks to cities around the country. And I can let you know that thanks to the NEA's support, Out of the Blocks is headed to three more cities across the country in the next six months. Next stop, Seattle, Washington. Stay tuned for that episode in March, and please know also that we remain committed to sharing the stories of our own city, Baltimore, Maryland, block by block and one story at a time. As always, thanks for listening. Out of the Blocks is produced with grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and from the Cohen Opportunity Fund, the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, Patricia and Mark Joseph, Jonathan Melnick, the Andy and Sana Brooks Family Foundation, the Hoffberger Foundation, Associated Jewish Charities, the John J. Leighty Foundation, the Kenneth S. Batty Charitable Trust, and the MuseWeb Foundation.