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Commentary: Skinker-DeBaliviere house tour celebrates a century of diverse neighborhood living

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: After an absence of 27 years, as part of a centennial celebration, the Mother's Day house tour in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood will be up an running on Sunday, May 11. From noon to 5 p.m., visitors may tour 10 single-family homes and a recently rehabbed apartment.

Like many city neighborhoods, Skinker-DeBaliviere has single-family homes of various sizes, two- and three-family apartment buildings and multifamily structures. Most were built between 1908 and 1920 and have a similar style.

Unlike many city neighborhoods, Skinker-DeBaliviere, which integrated in 1964, defied the odds -- and social science theory -- to remain integrated racially and socio-economically. In their study of American residential segregation, "American Apartheid," Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton stated that once a neighborhood became 30 percent black, it would soon become 100 percent black. This notion of a racial tipping point appears to hold true for many north side neighborhoods in St. Louis as well as some near suburbs. But it has not been true for Skinker-DeBaliviere and several other city neighborhoods.

Residents of Skinker-DeBaliviere by race

Year    % Black % White % Other

1970    55            44           1

1980    64            35           1

1990    56            41           3

2000    50            42           8

So why didn't Skinker-DeBaliviere tip?

That question has a number of answers, most especially a hardy group of dedicated residents, white and black, who have worked diligently to keep the neighborhood vital and alive. Other factors include:

  • The Skinker-DeBaliviere Community Council, established in 1966. Made up of four institutions (three churches and Washington University, which has supported the council financially since the beginning) and two neighborhood groups, the council oversaw redevelopment in the area; its paid director staffed many activities that bound residents together and showcased Skinker-DeBaliviere to outsiders. Over the years, Washington U. has invested heavily in the neighborhood, now owning more than a score of buildings, which provide housing for undergraduate and graduate students. 
  • St. Roch Church. Many parishioners stayed in the neighborhood, providing a core of stability. They were there joined by a number of young white families. In the 1970s, Msgr. Robert Peet allowed non-Catholics to attend the parish school and created the "social Catholics," non-Catholic neighbors involved in parish and neighborhood life. The church was home to meetings and other gatherings that helped breed esprit d'corps.
  • A residential service showed property to buyers and promoting the house tour and art fair from 1969 to 1981 -- a response to the redlining, commercial disinvestment and rising crime that followed integration. Many who worked on these activities were young stay-at-home mothers. Some in this coterie also founded The Paper, which later became the Times of Skinker-DeBaliviere. The Times, appearing originally nine times a year, kept residents apprised of activities and pending development. It was also a strong booster of the neighborhood's diversity.
  • Political support has also been critical. Three residents served as alderman between 1970 and 1997; in addition, a three-term mayor had his home in this neighborhood.
  • Designation as a historic district, in 1978, facilitated architectural continuity. The neighborhood has also scheduled lots of activities: Art Exposed, which showcased the studios of neighborhood artists; a yearly neighborhood yard sale, Rags to Riches, as well as a National Night Out party; dinner theaters; an award-winning community garden and yearly garden tour; outdoor summer concerts; a children's Halloween Party; and an annual dog show.

The neighborhood's upward trajectory has been helped by the new homes of Kingsbury Square in the northeast section, the rehab of apartments into condominiums along Nina Place, and considerable rehab of individual properties. The neighborhood's housing corporation began in 1988 to play a strong role in these efforts. Some rehab will be visible on the house tour. Currently, the 5700 block of McPherson has seen a significant amount of new construction and reconfiguring of existing housing.

The extension of the Loop into the city part of Delmar has been a boon. The Delmar Commercial Committee has worked since 1989 to revivify the commercial area on Skinker DeBaliviere's northern border. Working with the West End Community Conference, it put together a redevelopment plan that was adopted by the Board of Aldermen. Thanks to Joe Edwards, it is a vibrant business sector again.

Skinker DeBaliviere is certainly not problem-free, but it is stable. As the late Greg Freeman, one of its prominent residents, once said, "The neighborhood is a picture of diversity." Although whites have been in a minority for several decades, many did not flee. They worked with their neighbors and created a vibrant community. Residents hope that the centennial house tour will help showcase the fact that diversity can thrive here amid a historic setting.

Want to see more?

See a schedule of other area house tours.

For house tour tickets, contact Venita Lake or Marj Weir at 314-863-7558. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 on the day of the tour at the council office, 6008 Kingsbury. For more info, call 314-862-5122.

Lana Stein, a longtime resident of Skinker-DeBaliviere, is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

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