Remembering Mill Creek Valley, once home to 20,000 black St. Louisans
Gwen Moore can rattle off the names of all sorts of characters who once walked the streets of Mill Creek Valley, a historic St. Louis neighborhood demolished in the name of urban renewal in the late 1950s.
General William T. Sherman lived in Mill Creek at one point. The poet Walt Whitman stayed there during trips to visit his brother, and the owner of the Daily Missouri Republican also called the community home.
Moore herself was among its last residents, living there with her parents along with about 20,000 other African-American St. Louisans who were displaced by the demolition that began in 1959.
Located in the city’s central corridor, Mill Creek had been branded a slum by that point. But Moore, who is now the curator of urban landscape and community identity at the Missouri Historical Society, remembers her childhood neighborhood with fondness.
“My memories are very pleasant, and I remember being traumatized when we were told that we had to move,” she said.
Moore joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and two other panelists, Lisa Gates and Terry Jones, at Harris Stowe State University last week for a conversation about the community that once existed between 20th Street and Saint Louis University. The same day, HSSU unveiled a new campus mural, commissioned by Wells Fargo, honoring Mill Creek.
Despite the neighborhood’s nearly 200-year history and the presence of hundreds of business and institutions in the 1950s, St. Louis voters of the period approved the bond issue connected to its destruction.
Jones, a professor emeritus of political science and public policy administration at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, said that the region’s political leaders took advantage of laws that made it easy to deem an area blighted, tear it down completely and start over.
“The elected leadership, particularly Mayor [Joseph] Darst and subsequently Mayor [Raymond] Tucker, along with a new business organization called Civic Progress – now not so new in our memories – had plans for the continued economic development of the St. Louis region,” said Jones, a SLU student at the time. “They realized, from their perspective, it could no longer be just the city – it needed to be the city and the county.
“At the heart of their plans was the central corridor. And in order to make the central corridor work better, many things had to happen, one of which – they had to get rid of this neighborhood that was right in the middle of things.”
As editor of SLU’s newspaper, Jones covered the Mill Creek story and watched it all come down. He said during the HSSU event that he was “not sensitive enough” to some of the issues at play.
“We did not cover the racial dimensions of that story at all,” Jones said, “and I’m very sad that I did not. It was a sign of my insensitivity and not seeing what should have been seen, because it was right in front of my eyes.”
He considers Mill Creek a “missed opportunity” as he looks back on that time and considers what might have been.
“This could have been a successful example, the first in the United States,” Jones said during the discussion, “of taking a community in place and strengthening it with a mix of private and public funds – possibly doing a few things that would require trimming or reshaping it, but not dramatically rooting it out and throwing it away.”
Gates’ father, Clifton Gates, co-founded Gateway National Bank, the first black-owned bank in Missouri, in 1965, shortly after Mill Creek’s demise. Now the director of St. Louis’ Office of Financial Empowerment, she said she still has people come up to her and recall how her father helped them get their first loan to start a business or buy a home.
“All of the co-founders of that bank were professional black businessmen … They saw the need, and they came up with the solution, investing in Gateway National Bank,” she said. “They were very courageous, and pioneers back then, to create such a bank during that time, and I can’t imagine the obstacles and the setbacks they may have had along the way.”
Gates added that she’s amazed at the “strength and the commitment” her father and others demonstrated in “making changes for us, so that we can make better choices and we can live where we want to live and we can have businesses throughout the city wherever we want.”
HSSU now sits on part of the land that was once Mill Creek Valley. At one point Marsh asked the panel if, despite all that was lost in the demolition and the thousands of people who were scattered and relocated 60 years ago, the developments that have cropped up in the decades since have in any way been “worth it.”
For Moore, the answer was still a resounding no.
“Mill Creek became sort of the poster child of how not to do urban renewal,” she said. “You cannot wipe out 5,000 buildings. Well, they left a couple standing. There were 43 historical churches, and they wiped those all out … To me, it was not well thought out and definitely not well done.”
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, Evie Hemphill 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.