In 1959, the city of St. Louis demolished more than 5,500 housing units in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood, which stretched from St. Louis University to Union Station. It was the city’s largest urban renewal project — or, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it at the time, "slum clearance."
But for Vivian Gibson and her seven siblings, Mill Creek wasn’t a slum. It was home. Gibson’s new memoir, “The Last Children of Mill Creek,” explores growing up in the bustling African American district, where indoor plumbing wasn’t a given but close connections thrived. The eight siblings and their two parents shared 800 square feet of space, living in Mill Creek until a year before it was razed.
“It was a thriving community, it was a segregated community, and within that community was a strata of society and a culture,” Gibson said Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air. “We had teachers and doctors and our lawyers and pastors, all of our churches, all of our schools, all of the stores were in that little enclave. And so you did have very, very poor people like us, and you had other people who were college-educated professors — well, high school professors.”
Gibson also discussed her remarkable journey to becoming a published author and having her first book debut at age 71. She joined a creative writing workshop for seniors soon after her retirement five years ago — and was encouraged to write a memoir by Belt Publishing after three of her shorter pieces were published in its book “The St. Louis Anthology.”
“It wasn’t the traditional path, for sure,” she said. “I wasn’t out there promoting a book proposal.”
Instead, she said, her writing started out “frankly as a housekeeping chore” — a way to make sense of the scraps of stories and spiral notepads of paragraphs she’d written over the years.
“I decided that I would try to compile them in some way,” she said. A creative writing workshop for seniors led by St. Louis Oasis gave her the encouragement she needed to share her work and receive meaningful feedback.
“I decided to go mainly because it said, ‘No writing experience necessary,’” Gibson explained, laughing. “And a writing workshop ended up being the most fun I have had in so long.” It also led to a remarkable accounting of life in midcentury St. Louis, before “urban renewal” erased an entire neighborhood.
She recalled being stopped at a stop sign at Market Street and Jefferson Avenue within the footprint of her former neighborhood.
“I realized that I lived there, just a block from there, and a lot of my life took place there, and I went to school there,” she recalled. “And nobody knows that we were there, that 20,000 people lived here. So I thought it was important to write about it.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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