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The view from here: The people in your neighborhood

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 27, 2009 - St. Louis remains in the top 10 of the nation's most segregated cities, according to the Lewis Mumford Center.

But that doesn't tell the whole story of what's happening in our region. We have people, both native and new, looking for diverse neighborhoods for themselves and their families; people who live as minorities in communities and make homes there regardless; and people who find that what matters isn't where you live but how you live.

This month, the View From Here tells the stories of four people who have searched, and in some cases are still searching, for home.

DRIVE BY

"Jerry," Tracy Overton said to her husband one afternoon. "You have to go outside so that they can see that there's black people in this neighborhood."

Five years earlier, Tracy and Jerry Overton didn't know much about St. Louis, and so they depended on what they could read and find out about neighborhoods as they got ready to move for Jerry Overton's job.

A lot of good things were being said at the time about O'Fallon, Mo., so the couple drove to town and looked around. They didn't like any of the homes they saw, or the neighborhoods. They seemed all white.

"Which was a concern for us," Tracy Overton says. She's white, her husband is black and they have two children. They wanted a neighborhood like they'd had in Kansas City, where different races lived and it wasn't a big deal.

On their way back west after a visit, the Overtons saw signs for new homes in Wentzville. They decided to take a look. It was, after all, that much closer to Kansas City, where both still had family.

"I'd never really even heard of Wentzville or even knew anything about it," Tracy Overton says.

They went into a neighborhood to see a model home, and a few houses down, an Indian man was outside mowing his yard. Down the street, a black man was working in his garage.

The Overtons bought the home and settled in.

Then, one day a few years later, Tracy Overton saw a black family looking at a house in the neighborhood.

"And I was like, 'Jerry, you have to go outside so that they can see that there's black people in this neighborhood,'" she remembers.

"I don't have anything to do," he said.

But he went out anyway, and the family that was looking that day bought the home.

Wentzville isn't known for having tremendous diversity. According to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, the white population makes up 87.1 percent of the population, while the black population is 9.2 percent and Asian just 2 percent. But the Overtons discovered that more than reviews, community awards or statistics, you have to drive into a place and see it for yourself. They saw different kinds of people living together, and now, they call that place home.

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'They come here for the schools'

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Joan Brannigan remembers her father's words clearly. Growing up in all all-white neighborhood in Lincoln, Neb., he told her if a black family ever moved next door, her white family would move out. She was just a kid, but it made her mad. It didn't seem fair.

Then she grew up and did something about it.

In the 1970s, Brannigan and her husband, Larry, drove through a neighborhood lined with tall trees, searching for their first home.

"I wanted two things for my family," Brannigan says. "I wanted a really good education, and I wanted a diverse neighborhood."

The couple, who had two young girls at the time, looked first in University City and Clayton, but the homes they could afford in University City were too small, and the ones in Clayton were all too expensive. Then, they found Indian Meadows, a subdivision in Olivette.

At the time, the neighborhood was about 50 percent white and 50 percent black. Homes were affordable, and their girls would go to Ladue public schools. The Brannigans bought their first house, a three-bedroom ranch, and later moved into a four-bedroom home in the same neighborhood.

Early on, Brannigan worked with other people in her neighborhood to protest racial steering by real estate agents. She watched the desegregation program start and a school in the neighborhood close, and she watched her daughters grow up with friends of different colors.

Both girls are grown up now, and they got what their mom wanted for them -- a great education and the ability to be comfortable in the world, wherever the neighborhood.

Indian Meadows today is more working class than middle class, like it was when she moved in. And there's much more diversity here now, too -- Asians, Ethiopians, Russians. But the trees still grow tall and the families still come for the same reason, Brannigan thinks.

"Whether they are black or white, they come here for the schools, and that value there has kept the neighborhood together."

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The color red

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Childhood in Barranquilla, Colombia, was filled with family and neighbors, dancing, music and a loyal and passionate love for soccer.

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Carmen Dence's mother was a homemaker and her father was a carpenter, and they lived in a middle-class neighborhood. Her father loved all sports, but especially soccer.

Growing up, he'd take her and her five siblings to see the city's professional team in a grand stadium that sat 75,000, red and white flags rippling in excitement, drummers pounding, music playing.

In 1969, Dence got a scholarship to study in Florida and left her country. She later married an American man, and he soon got the chance to work at Washington University.

Dence knew nothing of St. Louis -- except for the Cardinals. Everyone in her baseball-loving town knew the Cardinals.

After a few months here, she went to Busch Stadium for her first game, thrilled by the red mass of people the same as she had been as a child watching soccer in Barranquilla. And when her father came to visit, she took him, too.

"He just wanted to go see where the Cardinals played," Dence says.

Today, Dence is a research associate professor in the department of radiology at Washington University. She lives in Creve Coeur, is active in folk arts for both Missouri and Latin America and loves classical music.

And in her 30 years here, she's never noticed anyone treating her poorly because of her ethnicity. Maybe they have, but she's been too busy finding the things that connect us, like family, music, science and the thrill of watching your home team, wherever that home might be.

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Over the bridge

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He can't quite say why, but to John Hartfield, there's something a little strange about St. Charles.

Hartfield, a database developer with A.G. Edwards, attended schools in the Walnut Park neighborhood, a mostly black neighborhood in north St. Louis. It wasn't always that way, but he watched white families leave and the neighborhood deteriorate as he grew.

He and his wife moved to St. Charles a few years ago because they found better and more affordable homes there. His neighborhood now is about 80 percent white. There are Indians and other black families, too.

"It's a quiet neighborhood, which is all I can ask," Hartfield says.

And regardless of that hard-to-define weirdness, the quiet matters to him.

"We can wave when we see each other maybe out front," he says. "'Hi, Joe. What's up, Jim?'"

Still, the Hartfields are thinking about moving, not any farther west, for sure, but he does like communities like Maryland Heights and University City.

"They do seem a little more diverse."

One of the feelings Hartfield has about St. Charles comes from a lifetime in St. Louis. To him, this is the place so many white people fled to get away from their black neighbors.

Race can be polarizing, Hartfield knows, and he does understand why some prefer to live around people of their own race. It's just more comfortable.

But there's more than race that matters here, he says, and that's often forgotten.

"I don't want to live around under-class black families because it's too much drama," Hartfield says. The same goes for lower-class white families.

Hartfield isn't sure yet what community they'll chose next. But wherever it is, it should be quiet, people should just do their own thing, and he'll deal with all the rest.

"People do tend to hang with their own race," Hartfield says. "And it's no big deal, but it's like, well, we can live with each other, right?"

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