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Out of the Ville, part 1

We’re all taught that housing desegregation was a good thing, right? But if you talk to the old-timers in The Ville, they’ll give you a more nuanced story:  They’ll tell you it was a gift that came with a curse. In its heyday, The Ville was the beating heart of black Saint Louis, with historic African American institutions like Sumner High School and Homer G Phillips Hospital.  Desegregation opened the floodgates for a mass-exodus from The Ville, and now the neighborhood is more than 60 percent vacant.  Out of the Blocks travels to the Ville for this special episode, produced in collaboration with the Saint Louis Public Radio podcast We Live Here and the neighborhood organization 4 The Ville.  This episode was 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:

Aaron Henkin: Hi guys, Aaron Henkin here along with my co-producer, Wendel Patrick, and we are popping on the microphone for a quick minute at the beginning of this episode just to say a few words of context, and a few words of thanks.

Wendel Patrick: First, the context: you’re about to hear a very special edition of “Out of the Blocks.” If you’re a regular listener you’ll know that we spend a lot of time traveling around to different neighborhoods in Baltimore, and our episodes are collages of stories from those different neighborhoods.

AH: Well, this episode is also very much a collage of different voices from a neighborhood, but this neighborhood happens to be about eight hundred miles west of Baltimore. We’re actually about to take you along with us to St. Louis, Missouri, to a part of town in the north of that city, called the Ville.

WP: And here’s where the thank-yous come in. We teamed up with our friends Camille Stanley and Tim Lloyd. They do a great podcast out of St. Louis, called “We Live Here.” They hooked us up with a neighborhood activist and historian named Aaron Williams. He's from an organization called “For the Ville,” and we all worked together to create what you’re about to hear.

AH: So, we all owe a debt of gratitude to those guys, as well as to the National Endowment for the Arts, which believed in this idea of collaboration and supported us with the grant funding to make it happen. And, it was a leap of faith, truth be told. We had a lot of questions going into this; questions like, will this work? And if so, what are we going to learn about this historic neighborhood in north St. Louis? How is it going to compare to life in Baltimore? What’s going to be different, what’s going to be the same? And what type of understanding are we going to walk away with at the end of this?

WP: We are happy to pose those questions here at the beginning of this episode, but we will leave it to you to draw your own connections as you listen. Suffice it to say that it was a beautiful experience, and we are really excited to share it with you. So, that said, here’s Out of the Blocks: “Out of the Ville.”

Aaron Williams: Here you have an African-American neighborhood with an overwhelming amount of history that has gone neglected for the past fifty years, really. I’m about to drive you around and show you some of the historic landmarks in the neighborhood.

AH: This neighborhood looks like Baltimore in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of plywood over doors and windows around here.

AW: (laughs) Yeah. The Ville neighborhood is about 60% vacant, and that’s a combination of vacant homes and vacant lots. So, this house right here is the one that desegregated housing across St. Louis and began the exodus out of the Ville. Supreme Court decided that racial restrictive covenants could not be recognized by state and federal courts anywhere in the United States. It was sort of like a gift and a curse. If you talk to a lot of what I call “legacy residents” in this neighborhood—people who have been here forever—they’ll tell you that the demise of the Ville was desegregation, which is crazy, because when we say “desegregation” we speak of it as a good thing, right? We don’t want segregated neighborhoods. But, the Ville was built out of segregation. African-Americans were literally confined to this one square mile, and because of that they built a completely self-sustained community, where you did not have to leave—you were born here, you went to elementary school, middle school, high school. You studied college here, and then you turned around and worked here. So, the dollars recycled in the neighborhood. I mean, your pastor lived down the street from you. Your teacher lived around the corner form you, and they built something that worked. It was a model of resiliency. But when desegregation happened, you know, I guess people got more options so they took advantage of it. You know, one thing that I always try to remind people, especially African-Americans, is that we are still human, so we are gonna do human things. So, when we receive more options, we’re going to take advantage of more options, right? And it’s not out of ill-intent. It’s unfortunate and also good at the same time that desegregation is what allowed people to move out and cause an exodus out of the neighborhood. It started in the mid-1950s, and then progressing on through the 80s and 90s when this neighborhood really started to take a turn and begin to look like what you see now. This is it. This is that gift and that curse.

Samuel Louis Moore Jr.: Twelve-hundred and forty-two empty structures. Seventeen-hundred vacant lots. This is a tale of two cities. I am Samuel Louis Moore Jr.. I am an alderman in the city of St. Louis’s fourth ward, where all the African-American history is held. We live like the Jetsons compared to the Flintstones. Yabba-dabba-doo—but we’re not having a gay old time. It is horrific like Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon. It looks like it’s been bombed out. That’s why I do my politics different than the rest of them do, because you get down there with the established core, and get them suits on, and you get the big head, and it’s a poor man’s job. It’s $34,000 and all you can steal. And my colleagues, most of them are lawyers, and they don't wanna work full time because they wouldn't be able to work their regular jobs. But, working this community is a full time position. You have to work 24 hours. You have to work it in your sleep, because the contrast of disparity is visible. I have to govern in an unorthodox way and let the people know, let St. Louis know, shame on you for letting this community get in the condition that it’s in. And I’m a fighter, that’s why I wear this chain on my neck with the boxing glove. I’m in the boxing hall of fame. I know how to fight. I am sixty-eight years old, and I’ve been an alderman for eleven years. When I pass the baton to the next runner, I want him to take it and run very fast with it and have the know-how to run a community such as this and keep working to put it back in perspective. You can’t go down there, just, “I’m an alderman,” and cross your legs and sit down there with a nine-piece suit on with socks and drawers matching, and do nothing. You have to fight for the people that voted you in, because it is a dog fight.

Thomasina Clarke: Never let yesterday take up too much of your today. Thomasina Clarke. I am a lifelong resident of the Ville, when I was brought home from Homer G. Phillips Hospital as a baby. I came home to the home that I am still living in today. I am kind of invested in the neighborhood. I bought the building next door to me, and I am doing a total gut rehab on that building. I like my neighborhood. I don’t like how it has turned out, but I am looking forward to greater things. The building directly across the street from me is hidden by all the overgrowth, which takes us to what makes me not like it now. And, its the fact that the city doesn't take care of my community. When you ask the city for years, and I’ve been on them now for two years to do something about that building directly across from my house, I’m sure that my neighbor who lives next door to that house has all kinds of vermin running in and out because it’s just so overgrown. That’s the part that hurts—when no one is taking care of it. I can’t take care of it because I don’t have the equipment to do it. If I did, it would've been done. But the city’s not doing their job. I would like people to make an investment in my community. I would like people to see it not as the run-down, raggedy neighborhood that it is, but to have a vision. If you could've seen the building that I bought next door, before we started working on it, you probably would've said, “Why are you putting your money into that?” But when you see it in its finished stage, you’re going to say, “Oh my gosh! Look at this lovely place!” And, in my neighborhood right now, my two-story, nine-room building is worth $38,000. If I could pick it up and move it anywhere else, it could be upwards of about $200,000. Location, location, location.

Michael Burns: We’re in the Ville community in north St. Louis city, St. Louis, Missouri. Right now, we’re on Sarah, right at Lincoln, and we’re headed north and we’re gonna go to St. Louis Avenue in the 4,000 hundred block. I’ve been in real estate for about thirty years. I’m a licensed real estate broker in the state of Missouri, as well as Illinois, and one of our inspectors came to inspect the apartment right here at 4042 St. Louis Avenue, first floor, and when I found out that that was an apartment that I used to live in, you know, from the age of three to thirteen, I said, “Whoa! I’m gonna go ahead and do that inspection.” So, I took the packet and I came to the location and went into the unit, and the unit did pass the inspection. It’s been totally remodeled since the time I was here in the early seventies. It’s now a two-bedroom unit, whereas at that time it was three small rooms: a living room, a bedroom, and a kitchen, and that’s where, actually, my mother, and my grandmother, and myself lived. So, all three of us was in one bedroom, believe it or not, at that time.

AH: And that is the apartment, the building we are standing in front of right now.

MB: That is correct. So, when I came to do the inspection—and you’re talking about, maybe about six months ago—I was fine, I inspected the unit, I passed it, because they took care of the electrical issues. And then, just tears started flowing, just thinking about all of the memories. So, I can remember one time just looking out that window watching my next door neighbors getting ready to go to a picnic, and they saw me looking out the window and, me being an only child, they knew we didn't have a car and didn't go anywhere much, and she asked me, “Hey, you know, Mike, would you like to go with us on the picnic?” So you know, those fine memories such as those would just kinda come back into my memory and I’m telling you, the tears were just flowing. And I never thought that six months later, the very building in which we’re talking about is one that my company manages. So I can go in any time I want to, now! (laughs) I’m the president of Northside Community Housing Incorporated, and our purpose is to not only develop housing, moderate to low income housing, but we also will connect individuals with empowerment opportunities, so that we can make sure that our residences are connected to whatever resources are needed in the community. You know, that’s the main reason why I’m back in the community now, is so that I can see exactly what I can do and what I can contribute to making it better, and trying to stop what almost appears to be generational curses in the area, especially when it comes to drug-related activity and criminal activity.

Stephen Boda: My name is Stephen Boda. I’m the pastor here at Bridge of Hope.

Michael Robinson: I’m Michael Robinson, and I’m pastor at Destiny Family Church.

SB: Pastor Mike and I are partners in this craziness.

MR: Sometimes, I have to remind him what color he is. (laughs) But he’s a white guy. He’s a little bit older than me. I’m a forty-four year old black male, and he is a fifty-five year old white male with a big, Santa Claus beard, with a heart of gold.

SB: We quickly identify that our mindsets we’re very—not just similar—but almost just like we’re reading from the same book, (laughs) and actually, we are!

MR: We believe in the concept of Matthew 25, that says that, “when I was hungry, you fed me.”

SB: Alright, well, let me pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you for this morning. We thank you for this food, we thank you for the hands that prepared it. We pray that you would nourish our bodies, and nourish our souls as we talk with each other and hang out with each other. In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen.

Unidentified Person: We’ve got sausage, pork, turkey, eggs, cheese-tatters, pancakes.

MR: Well, we are here at a converted elementary school. It used to be Little William’s School, and even further back it was Little William’s School for Colored Children. We’ve converted this into our space. We have individuals who will come from around the corner. They live in vacant buildings, and they come in to receive hot showers, washer and dryer—we have washer and dryer here that they can use. They come for breakfast. We have lunch as well, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. And a lot of them just come in for conversation.

Darrell Hamilton: Oh, I love these pancakes. That made the spot. Darrell Hamilton. In my neighborhood, I’m the go-to guy. I do a little bit of everything—roofing, drywall, plumbing, you know. I have a lot of skills. I don’t have any paperwork behind my name, but I got a lot of skills.

AH: Are you living a pretty stable life right now, economically?

DH: My life is not stable. I am next to homeless. No insurance. Every day is a struggle.

Virginia Savage: Every day is a challenge for me. I pray a lot, and I keep going. Virginia Savage. This is the sign in desk. We have a sheet here, they sign in and they check off anything that they need for the day. If they need a shower, I would give them a towel, face towels, soap, razor, toothbrush, toothpaste. If they need to do laundry, I would give them detergent. If they need to talk, they can sit right here and I would talk to them. I was just like everyone else that comes through this door. I was homeless and I was on drugs. And I stayed right across the street in a shell. I came and I met Pastor Steve here. Steve started pastoring me, praying for me, and I’ve been here ever since.

Anthony Jackson: My name is Anthony Jackson. I’m actually homeless at this point. But I do have a little employment that keeps me afloat. Actually, today I have a job that I’m going to go to doing some landscaping work and it’s probably going to be like, four of five hours to do. After that, I usually go to the library and look for other employment opportunities, and after that it’s on to bed and waiting for the next day.

AH: Where are you going to sleep tonight?

AJ: Oh, I sleep in my vehicle. There it is, the little blue Honda. I’ve had it for a couple years. This is a Honda Civic DX. It’s a 1991, so you can do the math. It’s what, twenty-six years old and I think it’s a very, very great vehicle, you know.

AH: How long have you been living in the car?

AJ: I’ve been living in this car for like, five weeks.

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.”

Marianne Tillman: Marianne Tillman, M.D., pediatrician by specialty, and I came to Homer Phillips as a regular intern in July, 1960, and stayed there until it closed in August of 1979.

AH: So, the hospital itself… It was like a segregated hospital, right? Talk about that.

MT: Actually, it was steeped in politics. There was just no place for the black patients in St. Louis to get, really, adequate treatment. This was—at the time—a very modern facility, where we had what we needed to treat the patients, but more importantly, we had the dedicated persons that we needed to treat the patients.

AH: I’ve heard stories about just what a fraught moment it was when they closed the doors on the place. I mean, I heard it was just a real scene. Tell me that story.

MT: Yes, because we had known that it was going to close. If they had tried to close it, and the Homer Phillips people were camped out since it was August, you know, it was hot, camp out and sleep outside on the ground. Doesn’t matter if it’s too hot, if you don’t have air conditioning, you can’t sleep inside. So they were there, watching, to keep them from closing it. So, they did not have sufficient manpower to close it. So, they went back on August the 17th, and the policeman stopped me, and I’m telling him, “I’m trying to go to work. What’s going on?” and he drew the night-stick on me. So, then I turned the car around and drove to the other side and walked back to the hospital. But, there were dogs, there were riot guns. Just really, you know, like you were going over to fight the Japanese in World War II.

AH: What kind of effect did it have on the families that relied on the medical services of that hospital?

MT: Many of them, they waited until it was a real emergency. Then, of course, they’d call the ambulance. And, at that time, many persons were a little bit afraid of going to Barnes Hospital because of the treatment that had been received when the patients were housed in the basement, and so forth. And if you’re in the basement, you’re going to be the last persons that they get down to see. It was inevitable, the closure. Every four years, it would come up. Each election. And as I said, they were closing Homer G. Phillips when I came. So, I really just, okay, you know, “It’s fine, it happened.” It was the kind when you had been expecting something for a long, long time. It was almost that you expect the person to die, and they are going to die soon, but you just continue to live in hope.

Gwendolyn Pennington: My name is Gwendolyn Gloria Williams Pennington, but I go by Gwen. I was born in the Ville. I grew up on Cote Brilliante, and so then we moved from 4300 Cote Brilliante to 4218 East North Market, which was around the corner from Homer Phillips Hospital. Sometimes, we would say, “Well, let's go play over at Homer Phillips.” And at Homer Phillips, on the south side of Homer Phillips, there was a wing where they kept the mentally ill people. You’re not gonna believe this. Our play was to holler up at the people in 2 South. We said, “We’re gonna meddle the people in 2 South.” We were hollering up and the people were hollering back.

AH: And they would holler back at you? What kind of conversations would you have?

GP: I don’t know what we were saying to the people! We were hollering up there, “Hey, so-and-so!” And they would holler back and say something to us, and then we would holler back and say something to them. It just seemed like fun. (laughs) And that’s what we called “going out to play.” But on the other side of that same hospital—now, mind you, this was in the forties, so we didn’t have any air conditioning so all the windows were up, so you could hear everything that was going on, wherever. Whoever’s house, so you know. That was also the maternity ward, and in the maternity ward, you could hear the women in labor. So we would say, “Let’s go over and listen to the women having babies.” So, we would listen to the women having babies. (laughs) And, our cousin lived next door to us, and she had thirteen children, and my mother only had three children. And all we knew was Bertie would go down the pathway to the hospital, and then, in another couple of days, she would come home with a baby. So, we thought the babies must’ve been for sale. So, we’d say, “Mama, why can’t you walk down the driveway and bring us a baby?” And so she said, “Well, that’s not the way babies come.” We said, “Yes, it is, ‘cause Bertie’s got a lot of babies and you don’t have but three babies!” So, we said, “We’ll give you a quarter if you go over there and buy us a baby.” We would laugh about that.

Cynthia Kennedy: My career was that I was a flight attendant, and I was a flight attendant for twenty-six years. And, I just want to let you know that when I would fly over the arch and come over the Ville, I would sit next to a passenger and I would point out, I would tell them, “That’s Homer G. Phillips down there! See those four corners? That’s where I was born.” And I’d show them Sumner and I’d show them Turner, and just let them know that was the Ville. What was interesting was that whomever I chose to tell the story to, they listened and wanted to listen. Cynthia Kennedy. My father was from east St. Louis. Actually, he is one of the survivors of the 1917 riot of east St. Louis. The story is, my grandmother built a raft to save her family. My grandfather hid with the children. After she built the raft, they got on the raft and came across the Mississippi River, which took them four hours to get across. And then they ended up in St. Louis and that’s how they were saved from the riot. 

AH: And, when you say “saved from the riot,” help folks understand what was happening over there.

CK: It was a strike, and the white people went on strike, and so they started hiring the blacks and they didn’t like that so a big riot started behind that. Well, they were burning the black families’ homes. They were shooting them, they were killing them. Whenever they saw someone that was black, they killed them. And so, they just had to hide and try to save their family.

AH: That riot that you’re referring to, here on Wikipedia it’s called, “East St. Louis Massacres.” You’ve heard it by that name as well?

CK: Yes, sir, I have.

AH: “May and July, 1917, an outbreak of labor and race related violence that caused the death of at least 40 black people.” So, he came across in a raft to escape the tyranny of what was going on over there.

CK: Yes. My grandmother made the raft out of doors and anything she thought that she can gather and put together.

AH: And so from there, they found there way to the Ville.

CK: Yes. It’s sad to hear things that happened like that. I’m just glad that I’m here.

Oscar Upchurch: My name is Oscar Upchurch. I went to Sumner High School, which is 4248 West Cottage, for all the people that don’t know, and my experience in the Ville was a very rewarding one because the pride that you get being a Sumnerite is just, you know, you can’t take that away. It’s a special fraternity/sorority. Of all the people that went there, Dick Gregory, Tina Turner, Arthur Ash, Four Star General Benjamin O’Davis, Senator William Clay. And, there was a sense of pride and fulfillment, not only at Sumner but in the entire Ville area. Well, I was there from ’74 to ’78, and back then, Afros was the style for everybody. Boys and girls, and whatever clothes fashion was in at the time. But that was a fun time for me because a lot of the friendships that I forged back then, we’re together now.

AH: Tell me about the annual homecoming game. The football game, the teams, the rivalry, and just the festivities that day, that weekend.

OU: Okay. The homecoming game is between Sumner High School, the oldest black high school west of the Mississippi, and Vashon, the second oldest black high school west of the Mississippi. And, back in the day, the early 70s, half-way through the 80s, it was about the football game. But now, it’s more of a fellowship thing. And I don't know but I got a good estimate that there's gonna be close to 3,000 people there tomorrow.

Unknown Person 1: Really, it’s the tailgate, man. We don’t—I don’t even know if anybody really goes in the game too much. We just hang out right here. And I mean, actually, what I’d say is it’s good to see the school is still here, but there’s really no neighborhood anymore. So, what the Ville organization hopefully is doing is bringing residential back to the community so that it can be built back up.

AH: It feels like a neighborhood today, though, doesn’t it?

Unknown Person 1: Oh, yeah. Well, that's why we come out like this. It’s because we remember what Sumner was.

Unknown Person 2: I was graduating in 1981. I ran track and played field hockey and did pom-pom.

Unknown Person 3: I graduated from Sumner in 1968!

Unknown Person 4: 1959.

Unknown Person 5: 1978.

Unknown Person 6: 1984.

Unknown Person 7: 1975.

AH: I’ve been wandering around, everyone’s tailgating. You guys have kicked it up a notch. You’re under this tent. Tell me what you’ve got on the menu today.

Unknown Person: Fried fish, chicken wings, barbecue, rib tips, hot dogs, rotwurst, sausage, baked beans, string beans, potato salad, and spaghetti.

AH: And you literally have got a portable deep-fryer right out here on the yard. What’s boiling in there right now?

Unknown Person: Catfish nugget.

Chris McNeil: My name is Chris McNeil. I’m the principal at Sumner High School. It’s an amazing, amazing place to be a part of, just historic. If you just walk through the halls and you see all the famous alumni that came to Sumner High School and walked these halls, man. It’s just an awe-inspiring thing, man. To just be in the school and serve as a leader is incredible. You could just see, man, just around. There’s nothing like this, nothing like this anywhere else, man. This is a special, special place. Just hollow ground, almost.

AH: Tell me about the game today. Oh, first let me hear you commentate on what’s going on.

CM: Yes, so our football team is coming out, hopefully to get a victory against the Vashon Wolverines. We’re the home of the Bulldogs, so they’re getting ready, they're pumped up, they’re jacked, and they're ready to go.

(cheering in the background from the crowd)

Multiple Voices: You’ve been listening to a special edition of Out of the Blocks, produced by 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. Special thanks to Camille Stanley and Tim Lloyd of “We Live Here,” Aaron Williams from 4 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 who took a leap of faith and shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR an PRX, this is the Ville signing off.

AH: Hi guys, Aaron here on the mic for a quick minute as we get ready to wrap this episode up. I just wanted to say thanks for coming along with us on our first Out of the Blocks road trip. And I want to let you know that this episode was made possible by the good folks at the National Endowment for the Arts. They put their support behind this adventure, and they're actually going to make it possible for us to visit three more cities across the U.S. over the course of the next year, so stayed tuned as they say in the radio biz. And, by the way, if you enjoyed this episode and you want to hear more voices from the Ville in St. Louis, you are in luck. We ended up recording so many beautiful interviews there, we simply could not fit them all in just one episode. And so, our next installment of  Out of the Blocks is back in the Ville, where we are due to meet—among other people—Harry Thurston Jones of Harry’s Barber Service. This is a man who has been cutting hair for a long time.

Harry Thurston Jones: This young man here, I knew his mother when they maintained a restaurant across the street called A House of Fine Food. His mother was one of the waitresses there 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. 

AH: Fifty-eight years, he said. End of story. Join us next time for Out of the Blocks, “Out of the Ville, Part Two.” I’m Aaron Henkin, 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 Sauna Brooks Family Foundation, the Hoffberger Foundation, Associated Jewish Charities, the John J. Leighty Foundation, the Kenneth S. Battye Charitable Trust, and the MuseWeb Foundation.

Aaron creates and produces original radio programs and podcasts for WYPR. His current project is The Maryland Curiosity Bureau. Aaron's neighborhood documentary series, Out of the Blocks, earned the 2018 national Edward R Murrow Award. His past work includes the long-running weekly cultural program, The Signal, and the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings series, Tapestry of the Times. Aaron's stories have aired nationally on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.