J. Brad Hicks (bradhicks) wrote,
J. Brad Hicks

Kirkwood and Meacham Park from 1853 to 1990

OK, some of you who are new to the blog may not realize this, and yesterday's entry may have come as an unwelcome surprise to you. See that "Warning: Sanity Hazard: Contains Forbidden Lore" icon? I mean it. I in fact have another icon that I use for when I'm being playful and/or referring to fictional "forbidden lore." When I post something that I know that some people on the Internet just plain do not want to know, and that others may not want to read before breakfast or let their kids see, I use this icon. And the subject of today's entries (and probably tomorrow's, or if not then one not long after that) is one that two centuries' worth of American teachers, editors, parents' groups, politicians, and even professional historians, think that you have no business being interested in. "Boost, don't knock." When studied beyond what they tell you in high school, American history can be a very depressing subject, one that can make it hard for you to remember that other countries have done as bad, and usually worse. That's one reason you aren't supposed to want to know this stuff; it might make you less likely to work for and fight for your country, when needed. Another reason is that most people think that none of this stuff is anything you can do anything about anyway, so why get yourself depressed over nothing? As you might guess, I usually disagree with this analysis.

That being said, if you're thinking of using what I've written here to prove how morally superior the people are where you live, compared to the multi-generational evil of us St. Louisans? You're a fool. Your home town is no better. You just don't know.

Local reporters are doing their job amazingly well, and so the details about Cookie Thornton's suicide terrorist attack on the Kirkwood City Hall continue to come out at a very encouraging rate. See St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Anatomy of a Rampage" (PDF), "Charles Thornton: The legal battles." Former Riverfront Times reporter Randall Roberts, "My Conversation with Charles 'Cookie' Thornton." And one that says about half of what I intend to say when I cover this in more depth tomorrow or the next day, Riverfront Times STLog: "Charles 'Cookie' Thornton: Meacham Park Boils Over." So I think this is the most important thing I can add to the conversation at this point: I can put it in the broader context of history, of US history, Kirkwood history, and Meacham Park history. Then, while we wait to see exactly when Cookie Thornton opened his paving business, and wait to hear why the city singled him out for enforcement of an ordinance that is not enforced against almost any other building contractor, and certainly not in so draconian a fashion and with a total refusal to negotiate, you'll understand why even before I heard the word "Kirkwood" attached to this story I knew that someone from Meacham Park had done it.

Kirkwood, Missouri, has several odd historical claims to fame. The oldest of them is the most fascinating one. Kirkwood, Missouri is the world's first intentional "edge city." Like a lot of St. Louis County, it started out its life as a couple of farms and a market, dating back to homesteads first colonized who-knows-when, barely after the Indian Wars had ended in the area. It may not have even had a name; at the time, most Missouri market towns didn't. The city of Kirkwood as we know it happened when a clever railroad engineer named James Kirkwood bought it all up, because he'd figured out a pretty reliable way to get rich. Worked, too. See, here's what James Kirkwood knew: "decent, proper" people all over the world, and in all times, hate big cities. It shows up in sermons from Hesiod's Works and Days to the New England "divines," in folk tales from Scotland to Baghdad, in songs from Homeric odes to World War I era pop music, in dramatic fiction from Aristophanes to film noir. "Everybody knows" that decent, honest, pious, honorable people live on farms. "Everybody knows" that nobody lives in big cities, at least not intentionally, except for corrupt politicians and other thieves, perverted "artists" and other prostitutes, greedy "priests" and other beggars. "Everybody knows" that decent, honest, pious, honorable folk treat the big city as a necessary and dangerous evil, a place to leave for in the morning, do whatever business you have to do, but make absolutely sure that you're safe at home on the farm in the country before nightfall, before the worst of the corruption can infect you.

But in early industrial America, at the beginning of the urbanization, that became logistically dicey. Rich people carved out their own gated enclaves and posted private armies, but the upper middle class and the middle class had nothing. So here's what James Kirkwood did, in 1853: he surveyed the rural area out past the extreme edges of St. Louis, looking for a tiny little farmer's market crossroad. But he needed not just any crossroad; he needed one where the geography was favorable to rail. He wanted a solid-rock ridge line all the way from downtown St. Louis to that intersection, or as near to one as could be found. When he found one, he bought it all up, secured the railroad right of way along that ridge line, and raised the financing to build a rail line out to his newly founded "rural town" of Kirkwood, Missouri. And he marketed the lots there to, and only allowed to move in, the white upper middle class and middle class from St. Louis. That way they not only paid him for their houses, recouping a big chunk of the cost of the rail line, but they paid him every day so that they could ride his train into their jobs in the city, and ride the train back out to their "rural" house, where they kept their families safe from urban perversion and corruption and sickness, being back there in safety themselves by nightfall, or at least by full dark.

It was so obviously brilliant that everybody copied it. Look at a modern-day map of the St. Louis metropolitan area, Missouri side. Come in just a few miles from what is now Interstate 270, to US Highway 67, which is mostly called Lindbergh Boulevard here. Except, not coincidentally, for the stretch of it that is still called Kirkwood Road. What US67, aka Lindbergh, aka Kirkwood Road, is, is the road that used to connect all of those train stations. Every single major suburban town along that stretch of road, from Florissant down to Kirkwood, is centered on one of them. It was an attempt to build one big long ring of lily-white upper middle class and middle class exurbs: no rich people would want to live there, no working class people or poor people or dark-skinned people or (for the longest time) Irish allowed. But none of them was as successful as the first of them, Kirkwood. That's why to this day, the people of Kirkwood cling like mad to that commuter rail station, preserve it at all costs, and keep it as the logo of their community.

Fast forward to 1892. That's when Memphis real estate developer Elzy Meacham, for no reason recorded to history, came up to St. Louis, went out just past Kirkwood, bought up those farms, and founded the all-black settlement of Meacham Park. But it's really not that mysterious. Go look at the article I wrote yesterday about lynching. Now look up the original street names in Meacham Park. It's pretty obvious what Elzy Meacham was thinking. He and his customers were thinking that it would never be safe for black people to live anywhere where the local mayor, and/or the chief of police, and/or the local minister, and/or the municipal judge were white. So he went out to maximum practical business commuting range of what was at the time one of America's farthest west large cities, grabbed some land, and set up a town where black men could raise their families, comfortable in the knowledge that if they built a home, or a farm, or a business, and if they and their families invested money and labor in them, that they would not have it taken away from them by a mob with a noose and various implements of torture, a mob that usually didn't even realize that they were being played by corrupt white officials.

But there was a flaw in that plan, one that may not have been obvious to him. From the country's founding as British colonies in the 1620s up until the year 1888, no African American had ever been given a banking license. Nor were very many given after that. And those African Americans who did get banking licenses have had them yanked away from them, en masse, by corrupt white governments at every opportunity. Without a broad network of black-owned banks, there was no way for an all-black city in the United States to thrive without going hat-in-hand to white banks, and submitting themselves to white city governments and courts. Meacham Park chose to do without. Well, it wasn't entirely a free choice. Nobody in Meacham Park was ever going to get a banking license, and no white bank wants to do business of any kind in an all-black neighborhood. (Still.) Now, it's possible to live without banking. But it's impossible for an economy to thrive without some way for people to pool their savings for investment purposes, for people to take out loans to open or improve businesses, for local craftsmen and businessmen to transfer money to suppliers outside the area and for customers outside the area to transfer money in. So while Kirkwood thrived, Meacham Park stayed, for all practical purposes, trapped in the 1880s. But there are worse fates; they could have been lynched and the survivors run out of the area at gunpoint. And some people are perfectly comfortable with an 1880s standard of living, or else nobody'd still be living in the mountains of Appalachia, the plains of Kansas, or the Louisiana bayou.

Even before Elzy Meacham came to town, the city of St. Louis had been bringing freed slaves up from the rural south to work in St. Louis's factories. But initially, except for the people who bought into Meacham Park, almost none of them were allowed to live on the St. Louis side of the river. They were told that there was no housing available for them at any price on this side of the river, and "encouraged" to settle on the other side of the Eads Bridge, in East St. Louis, Illinois. But that quickly became impractical. Fortunately, James Kirkwood's experiment had accidentally shown the way out of this dilemma. Kirkwood didn't buy into this idea, much, but all of the suburbs north of Kirkwood, the ones that were unsuccessfully trying to copy James Kirkwood's formula, revamped themselves as working class communities. Then the city of St. Louis not-to-gently encouraged the entire working class population of the north half of St. Louis to evacuate to north and northwest county, to make room for all-black tenements. To this very day, if you're black, and you want to live in a neighborhood that happens to be less than 10% black, good luck getting a realtor anywhere near St. Louis to show you a house, or a landlord to admit that there are any apartments for lease. The federal government and private charities have spent thirty years suing realtors and landlords over this, but to this day, St. Louis is near the top of the list of the most segregated cities in America, only barely less segregated than Johannesburg under apartheid. (Reminder: ABC PrimeTime Live's famous and award-winning 1991 news special "True Colors" was shot in St. Louis.)

But population distribution started to change incredibly rapidly, starting when the Supreme Court handed down their famous ruling in the case of Brown v Board of Education, and accelerating like an out of control wildfire after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 put the first real teeth into anti-bigotry law. This set off a wave of mass panic flight, as those all-white working class suburbs were forced to accept black Americans into their neighborhoods and their schools. There's a magic number at which the average American concludes that an area is "all black," around 10%. So as one by one, those neighborhoods passed about 5% to 7% black, each suburb evacuated to the safety of across the county line into what was, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the fastest-growing county in the United States, St. Charles County. Then the federal government got serious about enforcing anti-discrimination law in St. Charles County, which is now up to almost 3% black. And instantly, population growth in St. Charles ground to a halt, and now poor-white-trash Jefferson County is growing as fast as St. Charles County used to be, proving that once they're faced with the prospect of letting more than one black kid into their kid's school, there are thousands of St. Louisans (maybe tens of thousands) who'd rather live in the area that contains about a quarter of the methamphetamine labs in Missouri, maybe around 5% of all the meth labs in the world. They'd rather live next door to a world-famously toxic lead smelter, because they're less worried about what that would do to their property values than to have more than one black family living within half a mile of them.

But almost all of this passed Kirkwood by, thanks to its initial concentration on only allowing in the upper middle and middle class. There simply was no place within Kirkwood city limits to build any affordable housing, and housing turnover in Kirkwood has always been slow. People who grow up in Kirkwood (proper) love it there, with few exceptions. In interviews with TV reporters over the last couple of days, some have gone as far as to compare it to the legendary perfect kingdom of Camelot. Because black America gets its accumulated savings cheated out of it every 20 to 30 years, very few black people could afford to live in Kirkwood, even once the realtors were forced to show them houses there; so few that Kirkwood stayed well over 95% white. And almost all of this passed Meacham Park by, too, even as the rest of the county expanded right around them, because, well, it was Meacham Park: nobody cared about the suburb that time forgot. And that's where things stood, right up until 1990 -- when today's troubles began.
Tags: forbidden lore, history, race, st louis
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