Almost all of the homes in the 100-acre swath north of downtown are empty now.
The number of houses lining the streets to the north of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing site had been dwindling for years. People moved. Buildings crumbled. Vacant lots stayed undeveloped.
But in the houses that remained, dozens of residents continued to call this corner of the St. Louis Place neighborhood home. When others left, they chose to stay, trying to improve a neighborhood where their families had deep roots.
For many in the neighborhood, it was their first property. Some bought houses after living in the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex just across Cass Avenue. As the demographics of St. Louis shifted, it became a proud black neighborhood that was home to respected African-American community members in segregated St. Louis.
Now, only a handful of residents remain. The city has bought nearly all of the property or has options to do so within weeks.
By the end of the year, demolition will start on the remaining structures in an area bounded by North 22nd Street and Jefferson Avenue and Montgomery Street and Cass Avenue, making way for a new western headquarters for the federal government’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
“I’m hurt by it, because I loved the neighborhood, I really did,” said Teresa Reynolds, who lived in the Howard Street house her parents owned — where she grew up — until her family sold to the city. She was back on a recent afternoon to sift for books and pictures in the house where her parents raised her, now crumbling and ransacked by thieves.
A block south, the Rev. Jonathan Davis recently finished moving the pews, cross and piano from Grace Missionary Baptist Church on Cass Avenue to the congregation’s new worship facility at Cole and Seventh streets. His father, the Rev. Joel Davis, started the church when Pruitt-Igoe was still standing and preached on his 100th birthday on Easter Sunday last year. He died in May.
“That’s all we’ve known,” Jonathan Davis said of the church his father led. “That’s been our home. That’s been our worship facility.”
Otis Williams, who as head of the city’s economic development arm has led the project to assemble the land for NGA, said it was “not ideal to take anyone’s home.” But that neighborhood in St. Louis presented the best opportunity to keep jobs in an area that will have a regionwide impact, hopefully spurring investment in the city’s beleaguered north side.
“As we looked at retaining the 3,100 jobs we had [at NGA], the only location that was feasible was the area there,” Williams said.
And through months of negotiations, the city has tried to be fair in the compensation it offered residents, he said.
“You will find some who will argue differently, but I think you will find many who are happy,” Williams said.
Hard to leave
As an alternative to the spy agency’s current antiquated home south of downtown, the St. Louis Place neighborhood made sense as a location.
It was closer to downtown and the burgeoning tech hub in Cortex, where NGA already has an outpost. The city already owned a significant amount of abandoned property there, and a large portion was in the hands of developer Paul McKee, who had himself purchased much of it from the city for what he says will be a massive north St. Louis redevelopment project.
When St. Louis edged out St. Clair County and Scott Air Force Base in its effort for the $1.75 billion construction project, most of the city breathed a sigh of relief and hoped the project might attract investment to an area that has seen precious little of it.
But it meant moving for the people still living on the patch of North Side real estate.
The area includes big structures, such as the historic Buster Brown Blue Ribbon Shoe factory, which owner Jim Osher still hopes to save. He filed a federal lawsuit Friday, seeking to block the city’s eminent domain action. The city also will have to spend some $28 million to relocate Faultless Healthcare Linen, a large commercial laundry operation in the footprint that has contracts with area hospitals.
It also included residents, although the city isn’t quite sure how many people lived within the NGA footprint when it started contacting owners to buy property last year. Of the 551 parcels the city had to acquire, only 136 structures remained intact, Williams said, and the city estimates 88 of them were inhabited or used for business. St. Louis eventually had to commence eminent domain proceedings on 44 properties when it couldn’t reach an agreement with owners.
Some are upset they have to leave. One is Sheila Rendon, whose family has owned the house on Mullanphy Street since the 1960s. Born in 1972, she has lived there much of her life.
“There was good going on here,” Rendon said from her living room recently, as she and her husband, Gustavo, prepared to move in the coming weeks. “This was not a neighborhood people were afraid to come to.”
Others are more ambivalent.
“I guess it was better than nothing,” said Beth Ann Reynolds, Teresa Reynold’s sister, said of the payment her family received for the house her parents moved to from Pruitt-Igoe in 1962.
Beth Ann Reynolds lives in University City now, but she has many memories of the house where she grew up. Everybody knew everybody.
“It was one of those ‘it takes a village’ kind of neighborhoods,” she said.
Her father, Josepheus Reynolds, was an accomplished boxer who qualified for the Olympics in 1952. Rendon said many in the neighborhood were proud to say he hailed from there.
“Her dad was instrumental in this neighborhood,” Rendon said. “People have neighborhood pride because of people like that.”
The Rendons have bought a new property from the city nearby, but it doesn’t make up for the process.
“We were forced to leave,” Gustavo Rendon said. “You can never be happy when you are forced to leave like that.”
It’s often difficult to quantify “just compensation” when acquiring property through eminent domain, especially when residents and their families have lived in an area for decades, said Patricia Lee, a law professor at St. Louis University. She heads the SLU School of Law Legal Clinics, which offered free representation to residents who had to sell their property to the city. SLU represented about 17 families, four of which the city initiated condemnation proceedings on.
“This idea of being uprooted is quite devastating,” Lee said. “So there really is no amount of money you can put on that to give up your home, give up your business.”
It was daunting for Charlene Bell to face the prospect of selling the house she’d owned on North Market Street since the 1970s. Bell, 76, raised four children there and owned it outright when the city approached her to sell. She didn’t know the first thing about the real estate market.
She loved the area. She loved her neighbors. She felt safe on her street. Bell prayed.
“He touched their hearts to treat me well,” she said.
The city ultimately paid her enough to buy a new condo, even throwing in a little extra when its initial offer didn’t quite cover the cost. Bell was able to afford a new car and put some extra money away. She now lives in Florissant, with a view of a lake. She loves it.
“It’s mine, and it’s beautiful,” Bell said.
She’s sad to leave, but hopeful for her old neighborhood.
“The way it came about, it was unfortunate, but it had to be,” Bell added. “I’m glad, because something better is going to be done in the area.”
Change in the air
Change seems to be a constant in St. Louis Place. In the mid-20th century, whites left as blacks began buying houses in the area. The Pruitt-Igoe housing complex was built in the 1950s and razed 20 years later. Rumors of new redevelopment plans have persisted since the fallen housing high-rises again opened up 33 acres for development.
But that development, long rumored and discussed, never happened.
The city had made no secret that it saw the St. Louis Place neighborhood as a prime spot for large projects. Over the years, it banked dozens of abandoned properties in the neighborhood. During the administration of Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., development officials said the amount of city-owned land in the area made the St. Louis Place neighborhood perfect for a proposal calling for hundreds of homes and a golf course.
A few years after that project fizzled, McKee, the developer, began buying up land, pitching plans for a massive redevelopment. Other than the NGA, those plans, too, are still on the drawing board.
When the NGA opens in the early 2020s, Robert Green, who lives on St. Louis Avenue, will finally have a new neighbor.
“That amount of vacant land adjacent to Pruitt-Igoe in the city of St. Louis, you knew something was going to happen,” Green said.
He grew up in Pruitt-Igoe, and his wife and sister-in-law grew up in a house that the city bought for the NGA project. He said he thought they were treated fairly by the city when they sold the property. But his wife still cried when they went to see the now-vacant structure recently.
“They’re very sad they had to lose their family home,” Green said.
As for the NGA, his apprehension is fading, and others on the periphery seem hopeful.
“Most of my neighbors seem to be pretty OK with it,” Green said. “Like I said, it’s a desolate wasteland behind us.”
Remembering St. Louis Place
On a Saturday afternoon last month, residents who grew up in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, just across Jefferson Avenue to the west of the proposed campus, and those who lived in St. Louis Place gathered near Yeatman Square Park for a reunion.
The “Old Neighborhood Reunion,” as organizers call it, has been going on since the early 2000s, offering an opportunity for residents who grew up in the area to come back and see their old neighbors, many of whom have moved away over the years.
Sandra Harrell, 76, was one of the former residents who came back for the gathering. Now living near North Kingshighway Boulevard, her mother raised her in Pruitt-Igoe. Harrell, who once was a backup singer for Ike and Tina Turner, is one of the citizens people are proud to say came from the neighborhood. She hopes the NGA is a good thing for the area, but called it “bittersweet.”
“It’s going to change the whole neighborhood,” she said.
Lois Laster, one of the gathering’s organizers, grew up on Howard Street just west of Jefferson Avenue, but she was one of the first blacks to attend elementary school in St. Leo’s Catholic Church in St. Louis Place. Originally built for the Irish who used to live in the neighborhood, it was razed in the 1970s.
“It’s a double-edged sword, I guess,” Laster said of NGA’s impending move. “Obviously it’s a good thing for the city, and obviously it’s heartbreaking to see everything demolished like it is.”
Like others, she has since moved away, and her family’s former home is crumbling. She hopes there is an effort to preserve the memory of the area, once far more intact than it is now.
“That neighborhood and surrounding areas have produced a lot of very, very successful African-American families throughout the years,” Laster said.
The federal government does require some historical documentation. A citizen-led committee is working on projects that include interviews with residents and collecting artifacts. A monument of some sort could also be built, depending on what the city agrees to pay for.
One of the committee members is Lois Conley, who founded the Griot Museum of Black History just to the north of the NGA footprint. She doesn’t live in the area, but she empathizes with those who have had to move. Back in the late 1950s, she too, was displaced by urban renewal efforts. She was a child when her mother and siblings were forced out of Mill Creek Valley, at the time one of the city’s larger black neighborhoods that stretched from Downtown West to St. Louis University.
She hesitates to say the process has improved since then, but at least there’s a nod toward history.
“What’s unique about this project is there is a history component, there is an effort,” Conley said. “That didn’t happen with us. They just told us it was happening and you saw the bulldozers.”
It would be a mistake for the city not to fund the history component well, Conley said. Documenting residents’ stories will hopefully provide some consolation.
“Once you tear down a structure or a landmark or something, then the memory sort of fades as well,” Conley said.