Ernest Crowder, 60, remembered going to the once-thriving Wellston Loop commercial strip in St. Louis to buy Easter clothes in his childhood and seeing movies at the old Victory Theater.
Andre Cole, 51, recalled the area of a J.C. Penney store where snacks were sold.
“I can still smell the peanuts and jelly beans,” he said.
They were among more than 100 people at a pep rally of sorts Saturday afternoon in the unheated old Penney’s building on Martin Luther King Drive — formerly Easton Avenue — aimed at stirring new interest in reviving the long-deteriorating area.
Neighborhood groups and two Washington University educators teamed up to host what was billed as a family reunion and exhibit.
It featured photos and other memorabilia from the area’s heyday in the 1950s and earlier, historical film footage, food and music.
Participants included people who currently live nearby as well as former residents such as Crowder, of Florissant, and Cole, of south St. Louis. Cole has started a Wellston Forever page on Facebook to connect with others who grew up in the area.
The Wellston Loop runs along Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis and Wellston. The event focused on the part in St. Louis that bordered Wellston.
Also on hand were about 20 Washington U. students and some streetcar enthusiasts drawn by the neighborhood’s former role as the western end of the Hodiamont line, which shut down in 1966. It was the last line in a once-sprawling streetcar system.
A 1946 survey estimated that the intersection of Easton and Hodiamont avenues was one of the busiest in the area — with 12,000 autos and 40,000 bus and streetcar passengers a day passing through the intersection.
Trying to attract people to rehab the buildings was a key goal of the event, said Andrew Raimist, an architect and Washington U. lecturer who teaches a course on community building.
He said many vacant commercial buildings in the area are in danger of collapsing. Windows are missing, the roof is partly collapsed or some other part of the structure is endangered, he said.
“If nothing is done to at least stabilize these buildings, a lot will be gone in the next five years,” he said in an interview.
Bob Hansman, an associate professor of architecture who teaches the course with Raimist, put it this way: “Our hope today is we shine a little spotlight on this community.”
Among other speakers were Wellston Mayor Nathaniel Griffin and St. Louis Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, whose ward includes the area. Boyd is rehabbing a building at Martin Luther King and Goodfellow Boulevard into an event space and used-car business.
“Let’s build new housing, let’s rehab what we have, let’s make this a vibrant community again,” Boyd told the crowd.
The current owner of the old Penney’s building, Fred Lewis, an athletic trainer, said he uses it as a warehouse now but hopes to eventually attract businesses there.
The circa-1948 building, with more than 50,000 square feet, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Historic preservationist Michael Allen, who recounted the neighborhood’s history at the event, said it’s an important part of the metro area’s architectural heritage.