This action displaced 459 families and this tiny book described the conditions of the housing before they were evacuated (loose term for forced out) and where they went afterwards.
While the majority either rented movers or had friends and family help them move 4 families moved their belongings on foot. Think that over for a moment. Carrying everything you own to somewhere else. They had a good case for destroying the slums, if you are fine with uprooting generations instead of fixing the poverty and housing.
It was not straightforward. It was a long slide into poverty. It started as Irish immigrants began to arrive into the North Area from 1860-1880. When they saw displaced Jews from Poland and Russia arrive in the late 1890’s the original high society had already fully vacated, and the Irish, who took their place, took off westward just like their predecessors. At one time Biddle Street was the Jewish heart of St. Louis.
By 1910, the neighborhood’s ethnicity took another directional turn. “First came the Sicilians, quickly followed by the rapidly increasing Negro community.”
Why was it rapidly increasing? Because the Civil War displaced everyone including a whole lot of sharecroppers who went north to the city.
I am equally Northern Italian and Sicilian - four generations back. Beyond four generations I’m Spanish, Italian, and a little bit of Greek (and a hint Jewish). For reference, Sicilians do not even consider themselves Italian. They are blobbed together here with the poorest laborers, as tenants, not owners. As definitely less. Just like the African Americans (who, incidentally, did not willingly get on boats like my family did to come here).
This book has a lot of bias and I’m trying to take it for its period-relevance without rolling my eyeballs so hard they pop out of my head.
The highlight to me is in the nuance. The westward drift changed occupancy from owner to tenancy and the landlords, citing a lowering of their property values, were allowed to let the properties lapse into crapholes. Then they could truly embrace their other name: slumlord. So, exactly who caused the slums in the first place...
As of 1941, when this report was complied, the area was described as follows: “...nothing more than the shell remains of many of the once fine old residences of the North Area. Smoke, soot, weather and lack of upkeep have taken their toll. Almost all of the residences have been “converted,” making for more dwelling units in the structures.”
That was caused in part by zero city-oversight and a lack of housing codes, which were not fully developed until later when things like fire codes became top of mind. The book on the history of the St. Louis Fire Department is excellent (and reprinted for almost nothing available on Amazon). A lot of bad stuff (like raging fires that plowed the city down repeatedly) had to happen to drive standardization but way too late to save the City from its white flight.
The Sicilians and Italians left, too. That left the African Americans. A statement describes what they did when they arrived: “They brought with them the simple culture of the plantation and tried to fit it to the ways of the city, often with disastrous results.” They spend a long time going over demographics in pictorial form, which is not so different to how we present data today.
I have been been fascinated by the evolution of housing projects in this area and have read the entire process from the 1950’s when most of the housing projects where established through to the 1980’s mainly to understand at a higher level the impacts to the economy over time, to the people and to the city itself - to answer the questions of why it has struggled to thrive since the 1920’s.
Fascinating stuff. I might go into urban development here for my next career. The lottery is up to a billion bucks and if I win, I’m going to reopen the neighborhood schools with quality teachers paid well to draw people back to live and work in the community again.
Meanwhile, I am continuing to learn as much as I can because you don’t need a billion dollars to start making a difference.