St. Louis Blues: The Broken Heart of America

The cover of The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson features a nearly complete St. Louis Arch, known as the Gateway to the West. It was completed about six years before my family moved to St. Louis and my memories of it consist of squeezing into an egg-shaped elevator and tilting our way up to the top, then gazing down at the muddy Mississippi: Missouri on one side, Illinois on the other.

I loved visiting the Arch, but I never thought much about the land underneath the arch. I did not know that the land was once known as the Greenwich Village of the West, a dense neighborhood of manufacturing, dive bars and cheap rentals. Home to the poor, minorities, creative types and those agitating for social and political change. An area that the leaders of the city saw fit to bulldoze in 1939 under the auspices of progress. The Arch itself, which came about many years later, was more afterthought than motivation.

The Broken Heart of America tells a sobering history of St. Louis, beginning in 1764, when fur traders first set up shop along the Mississippi, through to 2014, when Michael Brown was fatally shot on the streets of Ferguson.

While this book may not seem at face value to be a book about the environment, it is very much a book about the land. The story of St. Louis, and America as a whole, is the story of land taken and land denied. And how land functions as a foundation for structural racism.

Structural racism, unlike so many other structures that comprise a city, is not so visible to the eye; it can be found in exclusionary deed covenants, capricious zoning laws and, when all else fails, eminent domain.

To be fair, exclusionary covenants were by no means unique to St. Louis. But St. Louis does have a unique and fascinating history, first as the staging point for the fur trade, followed by countless homesteaders. It was also the city from which the US Army waged its brutal war against Native Americans. A city that saw some of the first battles of the Civil War, including one that featured the future generals Grant and Sherman as spectators. And a city that in 1877 separated itself from the county, a divorce that remains to this day, and has fostered massive inequalities between those who live in the city and those who simply work there. And, today, as the Missouri governor does battle with St. Louis over the prosecution of the gun-waving McCloskeys, I am reminded that in the early days of the Civil War the governor went to battle, quite literally, with the city of St. Louis.

What we don’t resolve we reenact.

Walter Johnson, was inspired to write this book after the death of Michael Brown, noting in the introduction:

From the Lewis and Clark expedition to the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 and the launch of Black Lives Matter, many of the events that we consider central to the history of the United States occurred in St. Louis.

Johnson does an admirable job of covering (and uncovering) hundreds of years of history. For example, many Americans are now well aware of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921. But there was a race massacre in East St. Louis in 1917, one that left 6,000 blacks homeless and as many as 250 dead. And it was corporations that actively inflamed white versus black hatred, all in the interests of suppressing wages. At the time, companies such as Monsanto and Alcoa had established their own private towns along the banks of the Mississippi, free from environmental regulations, taxes, as well as any qualms over pitting white workers against black workers. Johnson documents again and again how racism was used not only to suppress minorities but laborers as a whole.

As one raised in St. Louis, I can’t help but wonder why so little of the history in this book was not taught to us in school. I was told many things about William Clark but I was not told that he was complicit in stealing vast swaths of land from the natives. I was not taught that in 1916 St. Louis became the first city in the country to pass a racial segregation ordinance by voter referendum.

Details like this matter. Because structural racism is all about the details. And it is by knowing these details we can begin righting the wrongs.

Johnson documents the many ways that St. Louis neighborhoods used rules and blurry legal maneuvers to punish and exclude people they did not want around. There’s the 1956 case of Dr. Howard Venable, an African American doctor who built a home in Creve Coeur, a white suburb of St. Louis. The neighbors hired lawyers to try to buy him out, multiple times, but each time he refused. So the locals formed a committee, led by John Beirne, who got the city to threaten to condemn his property unless he sold it, which he ultimately did. The land was turned into park, named after, who else, John Beirne.

The park was renamed the Dr. H. Phillip Venable Memorial Park just a year ago. Better late than never.

But I also believe that small steps such as this really do matter. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it and we can resolve to do better.

And there are many hopeful moments in this book. Stories of resilience and persistence, stories of blacks and whites uniting in the first organized strike in the history of the United States. Stories of Dick Gregory, Chuck Berry, Maya Angelou and others who grew up in the city, persevered and succeeded. Stories of activists like Ora Lee Malone, a woman who led a successful rent strike against the ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe complex in 1969. And Percy Green, who fought tirelessly to create a more equitable city; he and a white accomplice, Richard Daly, climbed the under-construction Arch in 1964 to protest the lack of minority hiring on this federally financed project.

And, yes, local issues sometimes have national enablers. Time and again Johnson documents instances where St. Louis leaders used federal dollars in the name of eradicating “blight” only as an excuse to line developer pockets and raze poor neighborhoods. The federal government, in its lack of oversight, is just as complicit in maintaining this toxic structure.

Sometimes I think the best thing to come out of smartphones was that little camera. A camera that has shed light on the violence toward minorities that so many white Americans had long believed was a relic of the past.

Like those cameras, this book shines a light on the darker recesses of our history, but in ways that can help us move forward. Like paying close attention to what goes on in our city council meetings. Asking who benefits and who loses when a new development is proposed. Asking if the police are incentivized to write tickets simply to help pay the city’s bills (a major factor behind the deep-seated issues in Ferguson). These are questions that people in St. Louis (and many other cities) are asking. And there are many people in St. Louis working to unite the city and county once again, which will go a very long way toward not just erasing a border but erasing long-held misconceptions about neighborhoods and one another.

This is a book I wish I had when I was living in St. Louis and I hope it becomes required reading now. Because it would go a long way towards righting the wrongs of this city and, perhaps, our country as a whole. It’s long past time we resolved to do better and to stop reenacting the past.

The Broken Heart of America
The Broken Heart of America

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