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.




(Videos) Ferguson-Florissant Schools, Race and Dr. Art McCoy

When I heard that Dr. Art McCoy was suspended from his position as the superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District I did not know what to make of it. I had known Art as a teenager: but was unfamiliar with his work as an educator. I know that Florissant, like the rest of North St. Louis County is in a period of great transition. North County was built and grew as blue-collar industrial suburbs and our national economy has changed and factories have closed. TWA is gone, Ford is gone, the GM parts plant is gone, Lambert Airport is nowhere near what it used to be, and McDonnell-Douglas has long since sold to Boeing costing the district tens of thousands of taxpayers ( the district logo is the old company logo) .   There has also been a massive white-flight out of the district towards St. Charles and Lincoln Counties which has caused property-values to decline. Indeed Florissant and other parts of the district were hit very hard by the sub-prime meltdown. Harder than anywhere else in the state of Missouri. Kinloch now looks like a ghost-town, Robertson no longer exists, and parts of Ferguson and Cool Valley are downright ghetto.

I believe the district does has some issues. Like many schools with a large population of kids from broken homes you will be dealing with fighting, drugs, gang-activity and behavior problems. But that’s nothing new.  I went to McCluer North 20 years ago and participated in all four. Those are cultural and spiritual issues that can’t be solved in the classroom or by any educator. To lay the blame on any one person is unfair.

What is clear to me is the divide over Dr. Art McCoy is all about race. Everyone I heard speaking against him was white. Yet they didn’t say much. Art has clearly pissed a lot of white people off but why? The black attendees spoke at length about their support of Art. Why the secrecy from his detractors? Not trying to be funny. I really wanna know. Did he have Farrakhan Day? Substitute pumpkin pie for sweet potato pie? Or is it the whole Normandy and Riverview schools issue?

Again we come back to race. Florissant integrated slow and unenthusiastically. The courts merged the white Ferguson-Florissant  schools in the 1970’s with the African-American districts of Kinloch and Robertson. Berkeley soon became majority African-American afterwards. Ferguson began integrating first with apartment-complexes like Wyndhurst in the late seventies. Florissant held off the longest.

White Florissant officers were ordered to harass black motorists for years . A former drunken chief once confronted a black  man at a party and yelled “get this in your head Florissant is not an integrated city”. My sister once managed a local eatery as a teenager where she was told to put the forms of black applicants into the “do not hire” drawer. In the 1980’s McCluer North football star Dan McKeon was killed in a racial-fight at a house party by a black kid from Kinloch. I personally witnessed numerous racial fights attending Desmet Elementary, Parker Road Elementary, Cross Keys Middle School, and McCluer North. While there were cross-racial friendships and dating for the most part the schools were divided based on race.

The classic liberal logic is integration creates friendship and understanding. I’m not so sure.  Most of the white kids I went to school have said they don’t want their kids going to the same kind of schools they went to and moved out to St. Charles, Lincoln, and other counties.The numbers speak for themselves. The white student population of McCluer North for example has dropped by almost two-thirds since I was a student.

I am not saying all of the problems are on white people and black students are blameless. I am saying that racial issues that go unspoken about and lead to private actions with public consequences can never be good. For sure there are real issues: but deal with them in a public manor.

I am not a pessimist.  Normandy held a big meeting last year about the problems in their schools. Almost nobody showed up. 1500 people showed up last night at the school board meeting! Several-hundred students in the narcissistic Nikki Minaj Instagram era protested yesterday in support of Dr. Art McCoy! That is the sign of a healthy community that cares about education. The crowd represented the new flavor of the district. Hard-working black families. If they show up to vote this change will be reflected at the school board and other elected bodies.

The district has a great future. Not all whites are leaving. Look at what is going on on Florissant Road in Ferguson. Restaurants, coffee shops, a micro-brewery, a farmers market and what is developing into a North County version of the Delmar Loop. Not all white Florissant residents are mesmerized by what is going on west of the Missouri River either. Families are maintaining neighborhoods like Old Town Florissant and local businesses like Old Town Donuts, Fritz’s, BJ’s, Cugino’s, and Mattinglys are still thriving.

In addition to that the district is becoming home to a lot of Arab, West African and Latino immigrants. The 1950’s aren’t coming back: but if everyone works together the next decades can be the brightest for the district. However, for this to happen, a transparent board that can deal with the changing demographics is needed and what I saw last night from the board is far from transparency.  Fighting hard to hold on to yesterday will not create a better tomorrow.

Having a hard problem posting these videos for some reason but you can view of Redditt Hudson, Chuck Henson and school board member Robert Chabot at my Youtube Channel