The New North County: The 1950’s Aren’t Coming Back

North County is Better Together With St. Louis City Series Post 1

Message to Old NoCo: The 1950′s Are Not Coming Back

Hollywood, novelists and the media have been a little slow in catching up with the new realities in American suburbia. I suspect a reason for this may be the fact that most writers grew up in lily-white affluent suburbia. The image of suburbia in their mind is that of places like they grew up. They associate suburbia with whiteness, mono-culture and boredom. On the flipside they associate the city with racial and ethnic diversity, poverty and excitement.

Those perceptions do not reflect the modern realities of many metropolitan areas in America. Upwardly-mobile ( and overwhelmingly white) populations are moving in two directions and taking their money with them; Exurbia for the more traditional and family-oriented and the city for different folks. So, in city after city you see revived downtowns and gentrified neighborhoods and an explosion of home-building and construction in exurbia. In the middle you’re seeing the formation of suburban slums.

My focus is on North St. Louis City and County. The two are connected by proximity and people. Most North County residents have their roots in North City. That is not just true of the African- American residents today it is true of the white residents who left North City in the 1950’s and 1960’s pursuing the suburban dream in places like Glasgow Village, St. Ann and Florissant.

North County was built for the American blue-collar industrial economy. A mix of hardworking people driving Mustangs and Harleys to the taverns and bowling alleys of NoCo and those God-fearing folks filling church pews on Sunday. Clean, affordable and sprawling North County had everything the working people needed. Simple houses were built for factory workers and laborers and subdivisions with larger homes catered to those with UAW, McDonnell-Douglas or higher-paying jobs.

Allow me to sue sports as a metaphor. Sports flourished in North County. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch used to run a feature on NFL players from the metro area and 90% would have came from the Suburban North Conference. Even today many of the football stars of the West County Catholic schools are poached from NoCo or North City JFL programs. When people talk about St. Louis being a great soccer city they forget the prominent-role NoCo played. Not only did NoCo schools win numerous soccer championships; but you had Twellman Soccer, Scott Gallagher Soccer, the Jamestown Sports Complex, Dellwood Rec, and CYC teams out of Florissant who produced laods of soccer talent. The St. Louis Steamers star Donnie Ebert came from Florissant. I went to middle-school with former MLS player Matt Mckeon.

I come from a wrestling background. From the 1940’s to the turn of the 21st Century the St. Louis Northland was dominant in wrestling. My coach Charlie Sherertz Sr, led dynasties at Northwest (Walnut Park) and McCluer North (Florissant), Ritenour won more state championships than any other school, Hazelwood East and Riverview Gardens both had eras of domination. Hap Whitney, one of the greatest wrestlers the state ever produced and a former Mizzou coach, graduated from Normandy.

North County Rec on Redman Road once boasted some of the best youth hockey teams in the Midwest. North County had a vibrant sports culture. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. I attribute it to the blue-collar union nature of NoCo. Hardworking dads who in an era of prosperity made good money. These were tough blue-collar men who loved sports and naturally wanted to get their kids playing sports. Their parents physically worked hard for a living  and the children emulated that.

So, what is the situation today?

There are still a few decent football programs left in NoCo, but the Suburban North Conference is a shadow of its former self.  Twellman and Scott Gallagher Soccer have left NoCo ( as have almost all of the youth teams) and anyone hearing you say NoCo is strong in soccer today would laugh. North County Rec converted its hockey rink into basketball courts. There are no hockey teams left in NoCo. While you have some folks working real hard to revive wrestling in NoCo such as Jeremy Guyton of St. Louis Warrior wrestling, Coach Jake Lapinski at McCluer North, and Coach Conye at Ritenour North County is no longer a wrestling powerhouse. Just like soccer and hockey the families who fueled the sport moved out to St. Charles County taking the coaches with them.

The sports where North County is still strong are basketball and Track and Field.

In St. Louis there is the tendency to sugarcoat when it comes to matters of race. Local journalists like to dance around the subject even while everyone knows in St. Louis 9 times out of 10 race is the real issue.

North County has been defined by race. First by the fact that a big portion of the whites who left North City in the 1950’s and 1960’s were fleeing integration. Outside of the black communities Kinloch and Robertson they moved to nearly all-white suburbs hostile to integration.

When my father graduated from Riverview Gardens High School in 1970 the graduating class was ridiculously large ( I think he told me 2000). Anyway the point is there was only one African-American student at Riverview at the time. Today it is nearly 100% African-American. When I attended McCluer North in the early 90’s it was over 70% white and most of the black students bussed in from the black communities of Kinloch, Berkeley and Robertson. Today McCluer North is around 80% African-American. Just as whites once moved to North County fleeing integration they’ve now left NoCo for St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties fleeing integration. That’s just the reality.

There is more to the story than race though. That vibrant American industrial economy and strong Labor Movement that made the lifestyle of NoCo possible no longer exists.  No wonder NoCo is today littered with vacant-houses on pothole filled streets in modest subdivisions built for factory workers and skilled-tradesman.

The signs of decay are everywhere. Jamestown Mall and Northwest Plaza are closed (or partially closed) in perpetual talks of a new plan for rejuvenation.  Half-empty strip-malls are everywhere. I counted 15 NoCo movie theaters that have closed since the 1980’s. NoCo only has one movie theater  left (St. Louis Mills) and it’s barely in NoCo.

Payday loans stores, dollar stores, check cashing stores, liquor stores, barber shops, braiding and weave shops, big-box stores that will never be able to compete with St. Charles County and churches opening in former restaurants and stores, make up the bulk of the new NoCo economy.

Yet many are slow to recognize this reality. When I talk to older white residents all they want to do is complain about their new black neighbors. When I talk to black residents many have the same complaints and much to the chagrin of many tell me they also wanna move to St. Charles County. Both tell stories of the golden days of a vibrant NoCo. The reality for both is the old days are not coming back and the new days are not so good.

It is time for everyone in North County to face the music and plot a sustainable vision of the future. One that embraces the reality that what is in the past will remain in the past.

There are many in NoCo who are already heading in the right direction. Ferguson has distinguished itself as the most visionary municipality in NoCo. Creating a pedestrian area on Florissant Road, working for the preservation of historic Ferguson and curbing big-box development . Florissant, suffering from decades of poor leadership, has now finally got the message that investing in Historic Old Town Florissant ( not tearing down) is the way to go. The Ritenour School District has become one of the most diverse districts in the state with a Mexican-American community much larger than Cherokee Street in South City. There are good things going on in NoCo.

Yet acting alone fragmented by so many poor and dysfunctional municipalities NoCo will be hard-pressed to successfully address the challenges. Working with St. Louis City NoCo stands a much better chance.

One of the reasons I am so opposed to gentrification is I don’t want our cities to look like Johannesburg. If you go to NoCo many already do. Suburban townships isolated from services, transit and opportunity with workers moving in two directions to sever the affluent. Suburban-poverty is worse than urban poverty in many ways. My next post in this series will cover that issue.




3 thoughts on “The New North County: The 1950’s Aren’t Coming Back

  1. Mr. Lee,
    I read your article on Spanish Lake on Huffington Post website and followed the link to your blog. I was born in St. Louis, and lived in Moline Acres for nearly 30 years until 1982. I graduated from Riverview Gardens HS in 1972. My recollection is that there was one black student at that time. I found your article very well thought out. The racism you cite was the norm when I was growing up. I saw For Sale signs go up in Moline soon after the first black family moved into the neighborhood, which was probably the early 70’s. My neighbors were mostly working class families, predominantly union, as you state. There was little tolerance of African-Americans, however, my experience was that all of St. Louis was a deeply segregated city. I think you make a good connection between the loss of union and other industrial jobs, with the decline of North County. I haven’t been back to St. L since 1984. My family and friends are mostly gone from there. I left for personal reasons, but to be honest I found St. Louis to be quite an oppressive place to live for just about everyone. For me it wasn’t about getting out of North County. I saw little opportunity in St. Louis as a whole. Everyone seemed resigned to an oppressive, segregated existence. I hope that has changed, or is in the process of changing. I very much appreciated your thoughtful, reasoned article. It was very thought provoking, and I will consider my past in a bit different light, I think. I viewed the trailer of “Spanish Lake”, and while the tenor of the clip made it seem a little like a horror film, I’ll hold off judgement until I see the film.

  2. Two points:
    1. Whites didn’t leave North city to escape “integration” per se, as you claim. They left to escape the rising crime and blight (which unfortunately follows once neighborhoods become overrun with poor, Section 8 residents…which happen to be overwhelmingly black). But putting a racial spin on it is a convenient ploy for many to either push a race-bait agenda, or to comfort their overwhelming white guilt. The residents knew what was going to happen to North St Louis, though even they were surprised it happened so fast and the decline would be so severe.
    2. The same thing that happened to north St Louis is happening to Ferguson…which has been in decline for 20 years. And was as easy to predict. The fact that crime and demographics are so interlocked does allow one to use integration as a warning sign to get out. But that is not “racist”, it is a self-preservation instinct (not to mention economic self-interest) that has served self-sufficient people of all races well for centuries. Note I mentioned “self-sufficient”. Those are the folks most sane people want to live amongst.

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