The shopping center known as the Promenade at Brentwood was once a prominent African American neighborhood. The historic Evens-Howard Place neighborhood in Brentwood was home to generations of middle class African-American families for 90 years.
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the history of Evens-Howard Place with local writer Beth Miller, who’s researched the neighborhood. Also joining the discussion were Olivette Thompson, former resident of the neighborhood and Ed Wright, former alderman of the district that included Evens-Howard Place.
Miller, who lives six blocks away from the historic neighborhood, decided to research the community after seeing it featured in a Missouri Historical Society picture book.
“It’s difficult to describe, but I had a feeling come over me that said, ‘I need to tell this story,’” Miller said. She focused on the neighborhood after she realized many people had forgotten the area’s history.
“It was a real tragedy to me that our current Brentwood residents don’t remember that that community was there,” she said.
Listen to the full discussion:
‘One big family’
Various ethnicities, immigrants and migrants made up the neighborhood, starting in 1907. African-American migrants came up from the South to St. Louis during the Great Migration to look for work. The Evens-Howard Fire Brick Company offered jobs and houses to the workers. The houses were two room duplexes with no electricity or plumbing.
“They would leave [the South] … to work in the dirtiest jobs in the fire and brick factory. That meant more to them than what they had had in the South,” Miller said. As time went on, the neighborhood developed and the community expanded.
“It was one of the few places in St. Louis where African-Americans could buy new homes, especially in St. Louis County,” she said. Many immigrants also settled in the area.
Thompson, who is black, said The Evens-Howard Place neighborhood consisted of 800 people and felt like “one big family.
At times she would feel prejudice from some people in the area, but she said the neighborhood and schools welcomed her family with open arms.
“All parts of the Brentwood community have always been very proud to have had the Evens Place as part of the Brentwood community,” Wright said.
From neighborhood to shopping center
But in the late 1990s, proposals were made to turn the area into the shopping center. Wright said many saw the value commercial development would bring to the area and the income potential for the city and school districts.
Thompson said many of the neighborhood’s residents were sad to move, and that their main concern was getting enough money to buy another home. So the residents were offered triple the amount of the value of their homes.
Miller said most of the homes were valued at $35,000 - $45,000 in 1997, and that the families received around $150,000. Most residents relocated to North County, while others remained nearby in other Brentwood areas or University City.
“I’ve cried many tears along with most of my other neighbors at some point of breaking up the neighborhood, she said. “It was just in the writing on the wall, in the future, so we had no other choice.”
Thompson said she doesn’t think the neighborhood was targeted because it was black, but rather because it was a commercial area.
But Wright said it was frustrating to see the neighborhood go. There are often negative stereotypes about black neighborhoods, but Evens-Howard Place defied them.
“This was a neighborhood that was a wonderful model neighborhood, no crime … everybody helping each other out, wonderfully kept homes,” he said. “But I realize that that it was kind of ‘writing on the wall’ because of the location.”
Thompson said she would feel sad whenever she would pass her old residence but that “time heals all.” Now, she said she doesn’t think about it and became an avid shopper at the Promenade center.
“Where we moved, my husband and I and family were very happy,” she said.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.