Friday, August 12, 2011

The Greater Ville Neighborhood

The Greater Ville is a north St. Louis neighborhood bound by Marcus Avenue on the west, Natural Bridge Avenue on the north, Dr. Martin Luther King and St. Louis Avenues via Taylor and Sarah to the south and Vandeventer Avenue to the east:

The 2000 census counted 8,189 residents (27% decline from 1990) of whom 99% were black. There were 4,221 housing units that were 76% occupied, split 49%/51% owner/renter.  Another whopping 24% packed it up and moved as the 2010 census counted only 6,189 residents.  Brutal flight by any measure.  You know what though, the scene was pretty active on my ~3 hour visit.  There are a lot of people still living here, just lot and lots of fallow ground...many gaps of missing teeth in what was once a beautiful smile.  I can only imagine what the Greater Ville must have been like when this was a bustling, successful neighborhood.

This seems to be another neighborhood with an identity crisis, it could simply be called the Ville, no?  In fact, the neighborhood link on the city website does link to the Ville's site for information.

This has got to be one of the most neglected and struggling parts of town.  I love it here and hate it here all at the same time.  I can't sum it up in writing how I feel when I read about the great history of places like the Ville and then go visit them and see the overwhelming decay and negativity.

Here are some words from 4th Ward Alderman Samuel Moore on the subject of the Greater Ville as a once thriving black neighborhood:
“We had black educators at the Sumner campus and Turner schools. We had the Tandy Community Center, a hotel, dentists and doctors, hamburger places, shoe repair shops, a store on every corner and several movie theaters,” Moore recalled. “It was a pretty vibrant community. We never had to leave the area to be serviced.”

During the years of restrictive segregated housing and education, the Ville was a solid black community. Thriving institutions like Sumner High School, Antioch Baptist Church, the Annie Malone Children’s Home, and Homer G. Phillips Hospital provided the neighborhood with robust economic activity and senses of safety, pride and stability.

Homer G. Phillips Hospital, Moore said, was the economic engine of the neighborhood. “That’s where most of the jobs were.” The closing of the hospital in the late 1970s signified the neighborhood’s eminent decline. (source)
I will show examples of the aforementioned "eminent decline" and delinquency as well as try to highlight some of the positive developments.  And for the record, most of the institutions he's talking about are not in the Greater Ville, rather the Ville.  Hey don't blame me, I didn't draw the boundaries of the current 79 neighborhoods...I'm just following the city's designations.

Anyhow, let's start with the positives to help illustrate the point that no matter how bad the recent history and current state of affairs...preservation and dignity are possible with a lot of gumption, workmanship and money.

You've got to start with Dick Gregory Place as the prime positive in the Greater Ville. 

There is an excellent write up from a 2008 VanishingSTL article with the title "Dick Gregory Place on the Brink of Devastation" and then an updated story from April, 2011 titled "Resurrection on Dick Gregory Place".  The differences are a testament to the fact that no matter how bad things get, there can be a saving grace with the dedication, time, money and ambition.  The Greater Ville and many other neighborhoods in St. Louis need this kind of investment and fast if we're ever to turn the tides of massive population losses seen here (4,211 people lost in 20 years).  Many old homes are being tastefully rehabbed and new side walks and other infrastructure being added.

Here's the handsome corner building that will frame the area quite nicely at Marcus Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd:

A couple other bright spots for hope are reported in the excellent Northsider, again with quotes from 4th Ward Alderman Samuel Moore:
Other projects coming soon will further fuel the momentum of revitalization, Moore said. Plans are underway for a new minimall, a Barber and Beauty College, an apple orchard, the construction of new Masonic Temple and a Homer G. Phillips College of Osteopathic Medicine. More said he’s also working to bring a major grocer and bank to the 4th Ward.
A major grocer would be HUGE for this area as the options are limited to mostly junk food snack shops and liquor stores. One of the obvious and unfortunate by-products of run down neighborhoods is the lack of access to affordable, healthy foods.  The Greater Ville is a good example of a food desert; so talk of a "major grocer" would be great for the area.  An apple orchard? Very interesting.  I could not find this orchard and the 3 people I spoke to on the street had no idea where this was going in or is if it even exists.  This is my best guess, but don't hold me to it:
Another sign of positivity is around Lincoln Avenue and Bishop P.L. Scott Avenue.  There are rows of newer homes that are pridefully maintained and there were a lot of people out and about in this section of the Greater Ville. 
Part of this new development built in 2003 is in memorial to Monsignor John A. Shocklee, a community leader, here's a memorial to his life's work:
There are other newer homes sprinkled throughout the neighborhood filling in some of the many gaps:
Say what you will about new construction, I know it's not awe inspiring and probably won't stand the test of time, but it certainly provides for some of the most stable, pridefully maintained stretches of the neighborhood.

Yet, clearly new construction is not the silver bullet as some of these said places are already abandoned and boarded up:
Outside of the major improvements around the southwestern edge of the neighborhood, and some stretches of newer homes, you won't find much else going on except formerly proud homes and businesses in various states of decay.  I've used the saying "going, going, gone" before to describe neighborhoods in as bad of shape as the Greater Ville.  I'll sadly use it again as even the beautifully maintained and cared for stretches of homes are within eye shot of boarded up or crumbling property.

But damn it, there are nice stretches of homes, as nice as anywhere in the city.  Especially Sullivan Avenue right across from Farragut School and parts of St. Louis Avenue.  Here's what I mean:
Ever seen one of these?  Is this a tri-plex, or a converted commercial property?
You can just tell this was once a great, self sustaining neighborhood as Alderman Moore suggested above.  There are corner stores on almost every block.  The vast majority of business is long gone:
But some corner businesses remain or have been converted to small churches:
Speaking of churches, there are some beauties.
The Bishop Philip L. Scott Overpass stopped me in my tracks.  I mean, what is up with this catwalk, ever seen anything like this?  I mean why?  Where?  There is little to no traffic around here.  Of all the things to spend money on, how did everyone vote on this thing.
I couldn't find much on the history of this curiosity other than this:
Episcopal Bishop. He founded the Lively Stone Church of God in 1934. His radio ministry program, "Voice in the Wilderness" was heard in Missouri and Kentucky. His ministry spanned over 53 years. He became Diocesan of the 12th Episcopal District of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World during that time. Warne Avenue in St. Louis (a location for two of his churches that were joined by a pedestrian crosswalk known at the "Chapel of the Sky") was renamed in his honor. (bio by: Connie Nisinger)   (Source)
Anyhow, the homes along Natural Bridge are true beauties.  They are in varied states of repair, but man the potential is huge.  Some of these stately homes overlook Fairground(s) Park which I have to say was bustling with positive activity including joggers, dog walkers and people meeting for early morning tennis before it heats up.
There is also a lot of former business that once set up some pretty handsome buildings along Natural Bridge:
Check out the parapets on these storefronts and how the residencies are set back...classic: 
Another Greater Ville story to mention is that of the Shelley House at 4600 Labadie.  This is a National Historic Landmark due to its relevance in the areas of racial housing equality and American law.  From wikipedia:
The J.D. Shelley family had moved from Starkville, Mississippi in 1930, fleeing from racially-motivated violence. After renting for a time, the Shelleys sought to buy the house at 4600 Labadie in 1945. The house was under a 1911 covenant that prohibited the sale of the house to anyone of the "Negro or Mongolian race" for a fifty year period, of which the Shelleys were unaware. The Shelleys were sued by the Louis D. Kraemer family, owners of other property on the street, to restrain the Shelleys from taking title to the property. While the trial court held for the Shelleys, the decision was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1946. The Shelleys appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1947. The U.S. Office of the Solicitor General filed, for the first time in a civil rights case, an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief in support of the Shelleys. The May 3, 1948 decision rendered all racially restrictive covenants unenforceable on the grounds that enforcing them would violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[3]
Amazing history in our fair city!  Here's what the home looks like today (the one to the left):
You've got to admire people who stood up and fought within the system, bettering our nation and our court system and the common rights of all who legally reside here.  Well done!  The troubling fact remains that the Shelley House, which should be on regional school tours, etc, is a sad testament to the Greater Ville's current state.  The homes to the east have been demolished (one after a recent fire) and there are huge piles of fallen debris framing this significant place in the reality of the current sad state of affairs in the Greater Ville.
There is a massive sinking pot hole (that nearly sent me over the handlebars) in the street right across from this National Landmark.

Another institution in black culture, the St. Louis Argus calls the Greater Ville home.  It's an African-American oriented weekly newspaper founded in 1912 by brothers J. E. and William Mitchell. The Argus is the oldest continuous black business in St. Louis. (source).
There are some awesome school buildings in the Greater Ville as well, from the William B. Ittner designed 1904 Cote Brilliante School and Farragut School built in 1906:
To the mid-century modern Philip Hickey School built in 1965:
But again, there is a tremendous amount of neglect and decay in the Greater Ville; here's the evidence:
Check out the 3rd floor patios/dormers:
And I'll leave you with some of my favorite signs:
 My favorite ghost sign in the Greater Ville:
All you ugly gents need not apply:
Now let me tell you, I'm a huge fan of the metal and neon sign...this may be my favorite in the entire city.  If you're like me, go get pictures, because usually those red boards in the last picture mean death....
In closing, I just wish St. Louis would take hold of its history and reverse this trend of negligence and destruction.  There is a proud, strong story to tell here, but it's disappearing.  Many have left, many continue to leave.  The German and Irish Americans who built and settled this place are long gone, the black middle and upper class are long gone...and the old timers and others are leaving in droves as the Census data continues to point out.  I'm not sure the Greater Ville can handle another decade of staggering losses in the mid-twenties percentile.  St. Louis, stop and look at yourself; spend some time and effort to save the history of our city.  It's a damn shame.