Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hamilton Heights Neighborhood

Hamilton Heights is located in north west St. Louis:As you can see in the map, the street grid is relatively in place. The westernmost boundary of the neighborhood abuts Wellston.

Demographics wise, this is a 98% black neighborhood that is loosing residents at an alarming rate. From 1990 to 2000, there was a 30.4% decline in Hamilton Heights residents. In 2000 there were 1371 households, 70% of which had 2 or more people. 94% of those were considered "family households". Only 27% were married; and 83% of the family households are female only with no male householder.  The 2010 Census data was not much better, where another 21% left the neighborhood.  Hamilton Heights is still 95% balck per the 2010 Census data.

The scant neighborhood website claims: "Although two-to four-family units are prevalent, a large number of larger single family homes are also present. The vast majority of the housing stock consists of brick architecture built between the years 1890 and 1920. The area offers good opportunities for housing and land redevelopment."

Sounds pretty intriguing to me, since this is my favorite time frame for housing stock in St. Louis. So what does this neighborhood look like today? The architectural styles are of course amazingly beautiful. The housing is widely varied, but overall reminds me a lot of Shaw, Tower Grove East and Fox Park. The obvious and unfortunate reality is that maybe 25-40% of the housing is either burned out, boarded up, or falling in on itself. That's not to say there aren't some beautifully manicured lawns and homes. However, there are no entire streets or stretches that are maintained or rehabbed to give the neighborhood a sense of hope or a beacon of light toward the future renaissance of the neighborhood. The nicer homes sit right next to the not so nice homes. Another thing we noticed is there is a high frequency of corner lots that are vacant. It was kind of strange; it almost looks like an intentional effort to demolish and remove the corner lot structures. Here are some photos of what I'd describe as fairly representative of Hamilton Heights:
And of course there are some parts of the neighborhood with new housing that makes no attempt to fit in with the older homes.
The bleak pictures are somewhat misleading in that there is still quite a bit of activity on the streets. Typical city neighborhood stuff: nice people who wave when you pass, people walking dogs, people working in the 3 community gardens (thanks-Gateway Greening!) and people sitting on the front porch.
Unfortunately, there's also a lot of the bad stuff prevalent in Hamilton Heights that gives the north side it's reputation. Zero racial diversity, few useful businesses, lack of pride/cleanliness and my biggest pet peeve: people walking in the middle of the street that don't get out of the way of cars. It's hard to imagine this part of the city ever being anything like central and south St. Louis in my lifetime. Massive investment, tax credits and an influx of immigrants or something. Who knows, I don't pretend to have the answers. With all that said, it doesn't seem a completely hopeless place. To me, it's still an intriguing neighborhood.

I'm especially fascinated with the commercial stretch of Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. that goes through Hamilton Heights. This must have once been a thriving business district. This stretch must have once had a "main street" feel. There is huge potential here. There are a couple of auto repair shops, night clubs and odds and ends stores; but most of the businesses closed up shop long ago. There is a treasure trove of cool old signs along MLK Blvd.


  1. Still enjoying these neighborhood profiles - very interesting.

    Drove through this neighborhood along MLK for the first time in July. As you stated, it definitely had the feel of a one time bustling urban main street, but now will take much more than a few good tenants to revitalize.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. I love this series as well. Something to look forward to.

    Keep up the great work.

    Thanks too for an evenhanded take on a struggling neighborhood.

  3. ^ Thanks all. I am having a blast. My intention is to get a better understanding of the entire city and be able to mentally catalog each neighborhood. To be honest, if I hadn't set this goal for myself, I'm not sure I would ever have made it to such places as Hamilton Heights. An now when somewhen mentions Compton Heights, I know it means east of Grand, south of I-44, west of Compton and north of Shenandoah.

  4. I LOVE that old JC Penneys on MLK.

  5. Nice piece Mark. Believe it or not we are teaching a class on the city of St. Louis at my school. We toured parts of this neighborhood via Welleston in the summer. I'm also attending the "What is a City" conference at UMSL on Thursday and Friday October 29 and 30.

  6. I mentioned this neighborhood to my co-worker and he related that he has done a lot of work in that neighborhood. He is a socialworker/counselor. We have a student working in that neighborhood tuckpointing for a group called Harambe. This organization teaches young men to learn a valuable school for a city like St. Louis. Harambe also teaches the young man about himself.

  7. Hey Mark,
    I ran accross your blog just now while trying to get some more info on Hamilton Heights.
    I am working with a non profit called "Mission: St.Louis" which is working to connect churches with neighborhoods in need.
    ALL THIS to say - Your post on both HH and FPSE provide fantastic visual and factual information for these targeted neighborhoods.
    I was wondering if you had a flickr stream or something that I could connect with to share some of your images?!
    Feel free to contact me at your convenience:

  8. I lived in this neighborhood in the early 1950's and went to school there until 1960. MLK Blvd was Easton Avenue and had a streetcar line, which would account for the vibrant commercial activity there. We lived on Semple in the first block north of Page. I walked to the barber at Belt and Delmar every week or two, and went to the two neighborhood movie theaters on the south side of Page weekly.

    The Will Rogers was on Union at Bartmer. There was a diner called Mammy's on the north side of Bartmer. The Plaza was at Etzel and Clara. It had a glassed in enclosed crying room with a couple rows of seats and speakers up a small stairway at the far left as you entered the auditorium from the small lobby.

    There was a confectionary (old style convenience store) at the end of the block on the east side of Semple and south side of Minerva. The Page end of the south side of the block was Emerson School and playground. The next block east was a Catholic Convent (St Ann's?) that sold out the Page frontage to Rapp's supermarket. Rapp's would later get bought by Bettendorf's, and when Schnuck's bought Bettendorf in the early 60's, it marked Schnuck's entry into the big time. I think the Rapp purchase left Bettendorf with too much debt, paving the way for Schnuck's.

    Eddie's cafeteria was on Easton west of Belt. We ate there occasionally after church. I think I alternated between fried chicken breast and pork and dressing. It was a small place that a distant relative who's daughter was in my grade school class owned. He opened Eddie's Loop Cafeteria mid 1950's at the Wellston Loop, which was thriving with the move of people to the suburbs. The Hodiamont and Easton streetcars and Page Wellston buses were among many of the city lines that ended there, where you could transfer to lines that ran to the county suburbs like Normandy, Pagedale, Berkeley.

  9. Born in the 70s I was raised in this neighborhood. My Grandmother bought the house in the mid 60s. Teas built in 1904. We still own the home. I wish I had the patience to discuss the transition on this mobile device but most of the home owners are no longer living. This was once a beautiful productive neighborhood. I would love to play a role in its revitalization.

  10. Born in 1940, grew up on Roosevelt Place just east of Hamilton Avenue. The area was half city and half country! Our four-family flat was the last building west on Roosevelt; the rest of the black was pasture, and across Hamilton there was an enormous pasture which stretched to the Leschen Rope Company rail spur connecting o the Terminal Railroad and just west of that ran the City Limits streetcar to Ferguson. A neighbor in our flat has a stable next to the flat with horses, a swing set for kids and an enormous vegetable garden and blackberry patch. North of our building was nothing all the way to the Terminal Railroad. A great place to grow up. Wellston was a bustling, exciting business and entertainment center, jammed with people on weekends, two movie theaters (Victory and Wellston), tons of place to shop and dine, fashion stores, 5 and 10s,, doctors' offices and a gigantic Katz Drug Store which had begun as a Nugent;s Department Store. Our family dentist had offices in a building still standing at Goodfellow and Easton (not MLK Drive). We never dreamt anything could happen to this unique enviornment, but it did. By 1965 Wellston was on the skids.