This evening, a friend brought to my attention a proposal someone made for North St. Louis on the Rally STL website, entitled Jefferson Lake, posted by user cooperpriess. It is a proposal to replace substantial parts of the St. Louis Place and Jeff Vander Lou neighborhoods with a giant urban lake.
The pitch for the idea describes the area as “kind of a blank slate,” a phrase that people actually wince at here in Detroit. Simply put, we are used to it being used by white not-from-here people to describe plans for black neighborhoods, that do not include the residents of those neighborhoods.
The footprint of the proposed lake includes:
-Occupied nice 19th century housing (including a house where my friend’s family has lived for 51 years)
-Occupied new housing
-At least one entire school (The way the rendering is done, the road clips a corner of another SLPS school which I attended, which was built less than 20 years ago)
-The Griot Museum, as pointed out by @PubPolWonk on twitter
-The St. Louis firefighters’ training center
-Numerous businesses, including a large pigment factory, a sponge company, a medical laundry company, a granite countertop company, an operating ironworks, and small shops owned by people of color
This is a partial list, dashed off quickly from the top of my head.
Suggesting that a big hole in the ground would be better than black homes and businesses is not okay. Suggesting that my friends’ homes should just be wiped away is not okay. This idea would literally erase these places and resources if implemented, and the suggestion of it erases them in the metaphorical sense. Do Rally STL and cooperpriess not see how harmful it is for white people to suggest the wholesale removal of black neighborhoods in a city as hurting and divided as St. Louis? Do they not understand that this would be a continuation of the city’s history of urban renewal, including the Mill Creek Valley project that intentionally wiped out the black business district of its time?
The St. Louis Place community has been through a lot. They have survived urban renewal, redlining, the under-provision of basic quality of life services at Pruitt-Igoe, the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe, fallout from the savings and loan crisis, massive under-servicing from the City of St. Louis (one summer the grass was person height), and Paul McKee. The US Army tested toxic chemicals on the community from sprayers atop Pruitt-Igoe, something that was known about by the neighborhood for a long time but only officially acknowledged in 2012.
And yet, people stay. They live, they work, they have cute puppies and amazing block parties. The people who can make it through all of that are the heartiest, most resilient residents, the kind of people a city struggling with population decline should want to hang on to. They deserve reparations. At the least, they deserve the same availability of capital, insurance, and public services that home and business owners elsewhere in the city get, something resembling a fair playing field. They deserve respect, not urbanist spins on Paul McKee’s shtick. This is a new face on old racist planning.
And how would this idea be implemented, anyway? Would the budget for the lake include relocation costs for households, resources for them to build roots in their new spots? How would it account for the fact that people of color in St. Louis, including many in this footprint, have already survived relocations before this one? Would it support businesses as they found new buildings, and make sure they stayed open years down the line? Working ironworks can’t exactly shut down at night and then have all their equipment installed elsewhere by the next morning, and they are legally obligated to fulfill their contracts. Where does this plan propose that the firefighter training center be rebuilt, and how would that get paid for? How would it account for the loss of regal 19th century historic buildings, including some of the last stone facade homes on the North Side?
I understand that the person who suggested this was probably well-meaning. But as someone who lived on the Near North Side for five years, I have a hard time distinguishing it from any of the other myriad proposals of things-that-will-never-be-built for that same footprint. Others that have not happened have included a golf course, a subdivision, a warehouse hub tied to shipping from China, a subdivision again, and now the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. None of it has been built. But every addition to the list is insulting and hurtful. It’s as if the region is fumbling for any excuse, now including a big wet hole in the ground, to replace black communities. They would rather have a pit than to simply leave St. Louis Place residents’ homes alone.
Black neighborhoods are not problems, and they are especially not problems to be solved by clear-cutting with a bulldozer. They simply are neighborhoods, as valid and deserving of resources and continued existence as white ones.
The Jefferson Lake proposal describes the area as “vacant” and “dilapidated,” which is not true for the entire area. Again, there are residents, institutions, and value, something anyone who has spent quality time there would know. The vacancy and dilapidation that exists is due very significantly to the efforts of intentionally destructive property owner Paul McKee, who has used every trick in the 1950s blockbusting handbook to pressure people out of their property, and torn blocks asunder for his own gain. The proposal does not mention this elephant in the room once, and that’s because it is not actually interested in addressing the causes of neighborhood decline, but rather in a false, silver-bullet notion of urban planning.
The proposal also notes that the area is “lacking access to services.” As a former resident, no quibble here! But the solution to an area being underserved isn’t to drop a bomb on that area, it’s to serve the area. Want to kickstart development, the stated goal of this project? Great, put good quality grocery stores in several locations, and hire North Side residents at good wages in the stores. Implement a project that collects data on the quality and timeliness of city service provision in both black and white neighborhoods, and then use the findings to press for fairness. Talk to people giving small business loans and training in other cities and bring their ideas to help existing and new businesses in North City. Create an informational resource on funds for home repair and home insurance, and help people apply for those things. Teach a GED class or mentor a teenager. Serve the area, and the improved quality of life will help it flourish.
I have tried to be patient with this idea, but it’s hard to be charitable when someone looks at your community and suggests that nothingness would be better. This is that McRee Town eminent domain logic, the thought that white eyes should be relieved from having to look at black neighborhoods, and that that relief should be the focus of urban policy and resources. This logic does not care for black homes or black lives. It does not care what happens to anyone in their new community, once their old community has been replaced with something visibly new and twee.
In closing, Rally St. Louis, I call on you to pull Jefferson Lake from your site. Take it down. No, it’s not going to get built, but leaving a proposal to eliminate black neighborhoods up reinforces that this kind of thinking is not only acceptable, but somehow positive. It is also a harmful thing to do read for those who live in such neighborhoods–A friend who lives there once remarked, “Do people think we don’t have the Internet?” Rally Saint Louis’s own site says that you “[ask] that you do not submit ideas that contain or revolve around” a list of things, including “racism.” Eliminating entire black neighborhoods and (as twitter user @PubPolWonk notes) St. Louis’s only black history museum seems like it ought to meet that guideline.