History, Hidden in Plain Sight (post)

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My parents often told the story of how they came to settle in Creve Coeur upon moving to St. Louis in 1986.  Quite simply, their realtor told them that Creve Coeur was the location of the Jewish community in St. Louis, and that other communities would be a “long walk to shul.”  (Shul is a yiddish word for synagogue, and though our family always drove to synagogue, observant Jews typically walk on Sabbath, so proximity is of importance.) And, if you look at a map today of buildings that are and used to be synagogues in our region, you can that it’s true that the Jewish community was concentrated in U-City and then moved progressively west over time through Creve Coeur and Chesterfield.  And there’s also a truth that many of the communities where Jews don’t live in large numbers have a history of not allowing Jews to live there through the same racial covenants that kept Black residents out. So on the one hand, I always knew that there were restrictions and patterns in place that limited where various groups could live in St. Louis. And yet, I also held a very thin story of how the Jewish community’s settlement patterns sits within a larger story of St. Louis’ history of segregation.

It was not until I moved back to St. Louis in 2014 and made decisions about where to settle with my own family that I picked up these stories again, and looked at them more critically for what I didn’t know.

Within our first year of living here, my husband, who is not from St. Louis, called me on repeating the claim that certain communities are not welcoming to Jews, even though I haven’t really updated or tested that information for myself.  Then, I read an article called “The Making of Ferguson” that makes a strong case that segregation in St. Louis was supported and reinforced by government entities and not simply the result of personal prejudices and social patterns.  There were references to parks in Creve Coeur that were formed by deliberate efforts to force Black residents out of the area. It made me wonder if the author was describing the parks I grew up going to: Beirne Park, where my elementary school held its Halloween parade, and Malcolm Terrace Park, where I hiked with my mom and kids as recently as this fall.

Recently, at the recommendation of several We Stories leaders, I began listening to the audiobook of “The Color of Law” also by the same author, Richard Rothstein, in which he builds out his argument that segregation is the direct result of government action in numerous aspects of American life.  It wasn’t until I came to the part of this book where the author again references these parks in Creve Coeur that something shifted for me. I started googling and confirmed that one of the parks that has been personally meaningful to me and my family was created by seizing land from an African American family that moved into the neighborhood.  First, a group of citizens tried to buy the homeowner out, and when he refused the group approached the city. City officials who were responsible for upholding laws that prohibited segregation instead used their power to condemn the home and seize it for parkland. And, this was a pattern that happened not once, but many times over in the St. Louis region and across the country.  

Malcolm Terrace Park is “25 wooded acres with a mile and a half of nature trails” situated smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood.  It's a hard park to find unless you have to know it’s there. In other words, the question of “why is this here?” had occurred to me and probably many other park visitors and yet… we didn’t attempt to connect the dots.  Knowing this piece of Black history … or American history writ large … flipped the script for me as to how segregation impacted my life in Creve Coeur and how I inadvertently benefited from our region’s investment in racial inequity.  I always feel like once I know I am part of the problem I have a greater sense of responsibility to be part of the solution. Reflecting on how many times I needed to be exposed to this information, and how the journey of other We Stories families pushed me along the way, this story is one example of #ThatsWhyWeStories.