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Mill Creek Valley

Feb. 16, 1959--Three-thousand-pound "headache ball" swings through the air and smashes into wall of tenement at 3518 Laclede avenue, marking start of demolition on Mill Creek Valley redevelopment project. Mayor Raymond R. Tucker (in light coat) and officials of city's Land Clearance Authority beside the crane and watch the first building crumble. The 465-acre Mill Creek area will be cleared by stages to make way for new housing ,stores and industrial plants. Post-Dispatch staff photo

ST. LOUIS • In the years after World War II, civic leaders believed in solving big problems with sweeping projects. That sort of thinking, after all, had won the war.

They regarded old, decaying neighborhoods — slums — to be the city's biggest postwar challenge. Their answer was to fire up the bulldozers.

On Aug. 7, 1954, Mayor Raymond R. Tucker announced plans to demolish commercial buildings and 5,600 dwelling units across 465 acres of the Mill Creek Valley, running west from Union Station to St. Louis University. For three more days, front-page headlines spread praise all around for Tucker's bold vision. It would become the city's biggest urban-renewal project and, for a time, the largest in the nation.

The Mill Creek area dates to 1765, when Joseph Miguel Taillon built his stone grist mill along a creek that ran from present-day Vandeventer Avenue to the Mississippi River. A man-made lake called Chouteau's Pond was a local attraction until pollution and cholera epidemics led to its draining in 1852. Railroad yards and smoky factories moved in, although some of the neighborhoods remained fashionable into the 20th century.

By World War II, Mill Creek's tenements and faded town houses were home to nearly 20,000 people, many of them poor blacks who had migrated north from the cotton fields. More than half the dwellings lacked running water, and 80 percent didn't have interior bathrooms.

Tucker proposed knocking over nearly everything and starting over. In 1955, city voters overwhelmingly approved a $10 million bond issue for demolition, on the promise that the federal government would reimburse most of it. The local NAACP endorsed the idea. Work began on Feb. 16, 1959, at 3518 Laclede Avenue, where a headache ball smashed a house that dated to the 1870s.

The bulldozers swiftly transformed the city's "No. 1 Eyesore" into an area derided as "Hiroshima Flats." Among the few buildings spared was the old Vashon High School, now part of Harris-Stowe State University. When work began in 1961 on University Heights Village apartments, only 20 original families still called Mill Creek home.

The LaClede Town apartments opened in 1964 and became a bohemian village of sorts, but fell into another round of decay within two decades. They were demolished to much less fanfare in 1995.

The area never attracted the investment that Tucker sought. SLU and Harris-Stowe gobbled large tracts.