Lois Conley of St. Louis grew up in Mill Creek Valley, where everything was in walking distance, and neighbors kept a close eye on each others’ children.
“You felt safe; You felt protected. Everybody knew everybody,” Conley said.
But in the late 1950s, the area between Union Station and Saint Louis University was condemned in the name of urban renewal. Families moved away and lost touch.
Now St. Louis is a finalist in a national contest that would help fund a public art project documenting the destruction of Mill Creek.
The St. Louis project is among 14 finalists chosen by The Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge, a program designed to foster creative partnerships and economic growth in cities around the country.
“Maybe we can use this as a lesson about how we might do things differently in the future,” Conley said.
‘A great opportunity’
Conley was a teenager when Mill Creek — a place where 20,000 African-Americans shopped, went to school and attended church — was condemned.
“Our family ended up moving from house to house, to house to house,” Conley said. “We lost friendships that were never renewed again, in many instances because most of the people were scattered.”
Conley, founder of the Griot Museum of Black History, has been asked to contribute ideas to a group spearheading the art display focused on Mill Creek.
St. Louis’ $750,000 project called “Facing Mill Creek Valley” would install art along a planned pedestrian corridor — Choteau Greenway — that includes the former neighborhood.
Choteau Greenway is part of the Great Rivers Greenway, which, along with St. Louis’ Regional Arts Commission, came up with the idea for the public art project. It’s a natural fit with the Greenway effort, according to Felicia Shaw, executive director of the commission.
“It’s a great opportunity to build on a large project that's already going to happen,” Shaw said. “They are already going to create this trail through this neighborhood that’s no more, so why not enhance it?”
Next steps include another application process and a site visit by the Bloomberg group. Bloomberg will choose the winners of its public art challenge this fall.
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