My Take on Spanish Lake



Phillip Morton lived in Spanish Lake until the age of ten. On a visit back home to St. Louis from college in California he decided to visit the old neighborhood. He discovered his former home was vacant, his school was closed, and his church was closed. This motivated Morton to do a documentary on the changes in his hometown focusing heavily on white-flight.


First I would like to congratulate Morton on making this film even though, as you will see, I don’t agree with all of his arguments and observations. It’s an honest film that interviews a lot of regular people and it isn’t always pretty.It also talks about an area of the St. Louis Metropolitan area, North St. Louis County, that is often overlooked by the local media. The media is focused on covering trendy or dangerous city neighborhoods or the wealthy western suburbs. North County doesn’t have the wealth of West County or conjure the aesthetic romanticism of  inner-city ghettos.


While this film was about Spanish Lake it did touch on other North County communities and it could have been made about any of them. Having grown up in North County and lived in Glasgow Village, Black Jack, Florissant, Kinloch and Berkeley, educated in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, and having gone to church in Bellefontaine Neighbors and Ferguson, and the mosque today in Hazelwood many of the issues hit real close to home.


A film reel of Glasgow Village and Bissell Hills being promoted as idyllic American Suburbia complete with asbestos was shown. My mother grew-up in Glasgow Village. The community was made up mostly of small 2 and 3 bedroom homes that were ideal for factory workers and their families. Today they are pockmarked with vacant houses, half-empty ghetto strip-malls and are suffering from the fallout of the sub-prime meltdown. These communities, like Spanish Lake, are made up of older white homeowners and young black families ( some striving for the middle-class and many on section 8).



Old Spanish Lake, White-Flight,  and The Beginnings of Suburbia


Spanish Lake was never incorporated as a city like so many of the other useless municipalities in St. Louis County. It had grown into a thriving farming community from its early days as a military-base and rural retreat. Morton gives us some great photographs, old footage and interviews illustrating this history.


All of that changed in the 1950’s. The mix of the suburban-housing boom, the GI Bill, and the interstate-highway system ( this I believe only moderately affected Spanish Lake) meant developers buying up farmland and building up the suburban community of Spanish Lake. A short drive to downtown, close to the rivers, surrounding beautiful Spanish Lake Park, and in the highly-rated Hazelwood School District Spanish Lake was a destination of choice for white residents leaving North St. Louis.


What the film didn’t mention was the fact that it was the desegregation of the city schools that dramatically sped-up the flight to the suburbs. As whites fled North City neighborhoods blacks moved in. That process started in the 1950’s and continues till this day in North County.


“Unions were strong…working-class lived good”


One of the guys interviewed in the film talked about the Spanish Lake he grew-up in was so great because “unions were strong and the working-class earned good and lived well”. That is an aspect of the Spanish Lake story I wish Morton would have dug deeper into. North County was built for the blue-collar American Industrial Economy. The standard of living in North County was only made possibly by the victory of organized-labor in America. Unions were historically all-powerful in North County as residents recognized who was to thank for their standard of living. The Spanish Lake Reunion illustrates this point.


The “Lakers” as they called themselves in the film were a decidedly blue-collar lot. Motorcycles, American muscle cars, beer bellies, AB products in hand, and more than a few eighties hairstyles these reminded me of the North County Hoosiers I grew up with. Like my family I am guessing their families had few if any college-graduates; but were full of hard-working people. In the days when working hard, playing by the rules, and being a member of a union, were the ticket to the American Middle Class Spanish Lake and other places in North County flourished.


The decline of Spanish Lake and the rest of North County isn’t just about white-flight it’s also about de-industrialization and the weakening of organized-labor ( in addition to gentrification which I’ll talk about later). What happens to neighborhoods built for factory-workers when the factories close? What happens to those homes built for union-members of the skilled-trades when their livelihoods are being undercut by non-union and out-of-town labor?

The Pruitt-Igoe and St. Louis Public Housing


The film talked a lot about the infamous Pruitt-Igoe projects and went into the Model Cities program orchestrated by the federal government. It talked about how neighboring Black Jack incorporated and was thus able to fight-off federal lawsuits over discrimination based on income and Spanish Lake was unable to do so because of there being no local government to protect the interests of the community.


The narrative the film set forth was that the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe led to a large influx of residents into the newly built apartment complexes (totaling 3000 units) in Spanish Lake. This is inaccurate. Pruitt-Igoe residents were first and foremost moving to other neighborhoods in the city of St. Louis. If they were moving into the county much more popular destinations would have been those municipalities in the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts as well as Berkeley, Kinloch and Jennings.  In 1990, a decade and a half after the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, Spanish Lake was still only 17% black. The numbers don’t add up.


The Black Middle-Class


While I think the film does an accurate job of portraying blacks first moving into apartment-complexes and white-homeowners fleeing and then blacks moving into homes ( happening in Florissant today) I think the black middle-class gets short-coverage. Of those 17% of Spanish Lake residents who were African-American in 1990 a sizable percentage were middle-class. These black families moved into Spanish Lake to pursue the suburban American Dream just as white families had in the 1950’s.


Spanish Lake kids go to Hazelwood East high school. I went to McCluer North and East was our rivals in both wrestling and football and I knew a lot of kids who went there. Many of them came from black families solidly in the middle-class.


Even today while portions of North County look like a suburban version of the East Side of Detroit and vacant house and unkept properties are common most of Spanish Lake and the rest of North County is still in good condition. People are maintaining their properties and driving through the neighborhoods you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were in south or north county. The vast-majority of the new homeowners are African-American.

The Apartments and Section 8


Once again I must voice some disagreement with the narrative of the film. The film correctly pointed out that apartment complexes such as Countryside and Oak Park apartments were havens for crime, drugs and violence. It incorrectly gives the impression these places have been cleaned up. My daughter just moved out of one of these complexes. They signed leases with 18 year olds, daily police raids, fighting, drug-busts, domestic-violence, shootings. Absolute shitholes. As of today. While the white residents comparing these apartment complexes to Somalia in the film is outrageous it is equally absurd to suggest they have been cleaned up.


Not all of these complexes are section 8. Some just specialize in cheap rents for people with bad credit. I’ve been there myself. Others thrive on the guaranteed money from section 8. While I agree with the social-worker interviewed in the film who said the problems of section 8 beat the problems of homelessness I also recognize there are problems.


Most section 8 vouchers are supposed to be for single-mothers and their children ( structurally problematic but OK). The drama usually comes from the teenage or grown sons or the baby-daddy/ boyfriend. It is not uncommon for both to use the woman’s section 8 apartment to hustle out of. There is even something known as “section 8 pimpin”   where men only date women with section 8 vouchers in order to not have to pay rent.


With the sub-prime meltdown and few wanting to buy in North County many real-estate companies and homeowners took to renting out houses to section 8 tenants. Some of these section 8 tenants were good and some caused the “for sale” signs to go up all around them.

The Schools


More than crime there is nothing that drives white-flight more than schools. In community after community in St. Louis white residents have demonstrated they have an unnatural fear of their children going to school with black children. There are many examples of integrated schools in the area that are both safe and academically-sound.


However, let us not sugarcoat. The film discussed race-riots at school ( guessing it was Hazelwood East) and a number of white-students came forward telling stories of either fighting or being jumped and beaten by black students. I applaud Morton for including that in the documentary.


My experience growing up in racially-mixed schools was overall positive. Having said that not a week went by when a white kid was not jumped by black kids. I saw numerous incidents growing up of white kids being beaten and stomped by groups of black students. It was not uncommon and I never saw any black kids getting jumped by white students. I grew up in a family that encouraged the mentality of fighting back and being “down for your ground” (combined with the fact I had few white friends) so it was never a problem for me; but if that happens to some white kid from a square-family headed by a soccer mom I’m guessing that move to St. Charles County just got a little bit easier. There is a history and psychology to this of course of black students feeling the need to stick together in an oppressive society in order to survive. Still, that does little to calm the nerves of the nerdy white kid getting his ass beat.


The race-riots in local schools happened with more frequency from the 70’s to the 90’s than the local media reported. Northwest High School in the 1970’s, all of the north county high schools having riots at one time or another, and in the 90’s Bosnian-black riots at Soldan and Roosevelt. Members of the local media who grew up in West County or New York before moving to some trendy city neighborhood may not even be aware of this history.


White Fear


While incidents such as school-violence can scare people what the film does a good job in illustrating is White Fear is irrational. This is not to minimize. There are some dangerous streets and complexes in Spanish Lake and the rest of North County and crime is very real if you’ve been a victim ( as many in the film have). Still, as I stated before, most of Spanish Lake is still quiet and safe. One of the guys interviewed in the film makes a powerful point saying that for most white-residents crime is not the issue. Race is the issue. Even if the community became full of wealthy-blacks white people still wouldn’t want to live there.

St. Charles County and Keeping Up with the Jones’s


If everyone else is moving out to St. Charles County ( and to a lesser extent Lincoln and Warren counties) and you are into keeping up with appearances and image it becomes hard for you to explain why you remain in North County. A few of those interviewed allude to this. I will go even further. I’ve talked to numerous people from North County now living in St. Charles County who’ll either lie and say they didn’t grow up in North County or are ashamed to admit it. Just as in some circles it is fashionable to have a “City” bumper-sticker on the back of your foreign-car it is fashionable to live in St. Charles County for many.


Liberal Hypocrisy


One of the men interviewed in the film raged at “liberals in Clayton and Ladue” referring to two wealthy suburban communities in St. Louis. I will second that. Liberal, white and wealthy municipalities in St. Louis County have shown zero interest in bringing low-income housing to their communities or pursuing other policies that would increase diversity.


The urban progressives in the city, like those in other cities, are for the most part pursuing policies of gentrification which will drive low and moderate income people out of the city and into North County worsening the already severe problems that exist. I’m sure those viewing Spanish Lake from the coffee-shop or gastro-pub may look down on the “Hoosiers” in the film; but with regards to race the two are more similar than they want to admit. There aren’t too many examples (if any) of neighborhoods not becoming whiter and less-diverse after the arrival of hipsters.

Suburban Poverty Worse Than Urban Poverty

The film makes the point that Spanish Lake is not an ideal place for poor people to live. Not much shopping, not pedestrian-friendly.not close to many jobs. and hardly anything in the way of social-services operating in the area. All of these factors are true in a number of North County communities who simply don’t have the resources or expertise to deal with these problems. Detached from all of the things that can benefit poor people poverty in suburbia is more akin to the poverty of Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta than the inner-city. That is why I firmly believe a city-county merger would bring tremendous benefit to places such as Spanish Lake and I stand against policies of gentrification in the city.


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.