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Tillie's Corner hopes for preservation in crucial November

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 1, 2012 - Tillie's Corner is close to being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But without the necessary funds, this historic former African-American grocery will be vulnerable to winter, its history at risk in the snow.

Lillie "Granny" Pearson started Tillie's Food Store with $246 from her savings in 1948, the store open for 40 years in the Jeff-VanderLou neighborhood, and her presence expanding to the whole corner. Now, her granddaughter, Carla Pearson Alexander and her husband, Miguel Alexander, have been working to bring Tillie's Corner back into the life of the community. The couple is attempting to raise the $750,000 necessary to fortify and restore the site, via its website.

The couple has done re-enactments of life around Tillie's Corner, with a cousin playing the role of Granny, and schoolchildren shopping in a mock store. They will present the story of Tillie's Corner at the Community Action Fair at the Missouri History Museum at 2 p.m on Saturday, Nov. 3.

"They’re very brave people. They’re very strong people. They’ve pushed this project farther than most people could ever dream to do on almost no budget," said Michael Allen, architectural historian and director of the Preservation Research Office

After receiving unanimous recommendations from the city and the state for historic status, Tillie's Corner is waiting to clear its last hurdle - the federal level - before it can be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If it is listed, Tillie's Corner will be eligible for historic tax credits.

Allen believes the site has a strong chance. The main threat to its application came from recent damage to one of the three buildings in the complex, and that building has been withdrawn from the application.

Founded in 1966, the National Register of Historic Places started with a prejudice toward more aesthetic landmarks that were architecturally significant. But the majority of people's lives are spent in vernacular buildings that accrue their own cultural and social meanings, said Allen.

"The breadth of human experience is a lot wider than mansions, office buildings, and places where famous people slept."

Tillie's Corner is not obviously distinctive in its facade. However, the buildings are testimonies to a time when streetcars ran parallel to sidewalks in St. Louis, when Jeff-VanderLou was thriving, full of African-American entrepreneurs with their own mom-and-pop shops. The stories contained in these buildings are the stories of ordinary people.

"Granny had a wonderful story to tell," said Pearson Alexander. "I always wanted to share it. It’s gotten to the point where it’s going to represent all the mom and pop stores, the heritage back in the day."

But if the Alexanders cannot raise enough money, it will mean the loss of yet another piece of the city's African-American history, Allen said.

"In St. Louis we’ve lost a lot of African American resources. We’ve lost entire neighborhoods, like Mill Creek Valley. Jeff-VanderLou, where this building stands, is very distressed. It’s been slowly erased from the landscape. Most of it’s gone. The parts that are left are a lot more valuable."

Tillie's Corner is within the area developer Paul McKee has targeted for his NorthSide project, which could mean big changes for the neighborhood. With that or without, Alexander still believes in her community, encouraged by new Habitat For Humanity LEED-Platinum houses. With the new houses and new families, Alexander says the neighborhood could use a corner store again.

She has been working to bring back Tillie's Corner for a long time, to fulfill Granny's, and now her own, vision. Her plan includes housing for the elderly in the building adjacent to the store, just like in the old days when Granny rented out rooms and fed her guests dinner.

People would ask Granny why she stayed in the neighborhood in the wake of large-scale flight. Alexander said they'd ask, "Granny, why you wanna stay here? Why you don't wanna leave, everybody leavin'? Why don't you go?"

As preserved on a tape recorder, Granny responded, "No, this is home. This is where I want to be, this is where I started, this is where I have to stay. If I could help at least one child, I’ll feel as if I’ve done something right.”

With Dunbar Elementary School, Vashon High School, and a branch of Harrison Community College all just blocks away, Alexander wants Tillie's Corner to be a part of this small school community, so it can give back, again. Her plan outlines space for a learning or tutoring center, and demolition of the collapsed building would expand the lot enough for a playground.

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