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St. Louis' Spanish Lake, White Flight, and the Shrinking of the American Middle Class

06/18/2014 11:28 am ET | Updated Aug 18, 2014
Spanish Lake

Phillip Morton lived in Spanish Lake until the age of 10. On a visit back home to St. Louis from college in California he decided to visit the old neighborhood. He discovered his former home was vacant, his school was closed, and his church was closed. This motivated Morton to do a documentary on the changes in his hometown focusing heavily on white-flight.

First I would like to congratulate Morton on making this film even though, as you will see, I don't agree with all of his arguments and observations. It's an honest film that interviews a lot of regular people and it isn't always pretty. It also talks about an area of the St. Louis Metropolitan area, North St. Louis County, that is often overlooked by the local media. The media is focused on covering trendy or dangerous city neighborhoods or the wealthy western suburbs. North County doesn't have the wealth of West County or conjure the aesthetic romanticism of inner-city ghettos.

While this film was about Spanish Lake, it did touch on other North County communities and it could have been made about any of them. Having grown up in North County and lived in Glasgow Village, Black Jack, Florissant, Kinloch and Berkeley, educated in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, and having gone to church in Bellefontaine Neighbors and Ferguson, and the mosque today in Hazelwood many of the issues hit real close to home.

A film reel of Glasgow Village and Bissell Hills being promoted as idyllic American Suburbia complete with asbestos was shown. My mother grew-up in Glasgow Village. The community was made up mostly of small two- and three-bedroom homes that were ideal for factory workers and their families. Today they are pockmarked with vacant houses, half-empty ghetto strip-malls and are suffering from the fallout of the sub-prime meltdown. These communities, like Spanish Lake, are made up of older white homeowners and young black families (some striving for the middle-class and many on section 8).

Old Spanish Lake, White-Flight, and The Beginnings of Suburbia

Spanish Lake was never incorporated as a city like so many of the other useless municipalities in St. Louis County. It had grown into a thriving farming community from its early days as a military-base and rural retreat. Morton gives us some great photographs, old footage and interviews illustrating this history.

All of that changed in the 1950s. The mix of the suburban-housing boom, the GI Bill, and the interstate-highway system (this I believe only moderately affected Spanish Lake) meant developers buying up farmland and building up the suburban community of Spanish Lake. A short drive to downtown, close to the rivers, surrounding beautiful Spanish Lake Park, and in the highly-rated Hazelwood School District Spanish Lake was a destination of choice for white residents leaving North St. Louis.

What the film didn't mention was the fact that it was the desegregation of the city schools that dramatically sped-up the flight to the suburbs. As whites fled North City neighborhoods blacks moved in. That process started in the 1950's and continues till this day in North County.

"Unions were strong... working-class lived good"

One of the guys interviewed in the film talked about the Spanish Lake he grew-up in was so great because "unions were strong and the working-class earned good and lived well." That is an aspect of the Spanish Lake story I wish Morton would have dug deeper into. North County was built for the blue-collar American Industrial Economy. The standard of living in North County was only made possibly by the victory of organized-labor in America. Unions were historically all-powerful in North County as residents recognized who was to thank for their standard of living. The Spanish Lake Reunion illustrates this point.

The "Lakers" -- as they called themselves in the film -- were a decidedly blue-collar lot. Motorcycles, American muscle cars, beer bellies, AB products in hand, and more than a few eighties hairstyles these reminded me of the North County Hoosiers I grew up with. Like my family I am guessing their families had few if any college-graduates; but were full of hard-working people. In the days when working hard, playing by the rules, and being a member of a union, were the ticket to the American middle class Spanish Lake and other places in North County flourished.

The decline of Spanish Lake and the rest of North County isn't just about white flight, it's also about de-industrialization and the weakening of organized-labor (in addition to gentrification which I'll talk about later). What happens to neighborhoods built for factory-workers when the factories close? What happens to those homes built for union-members of the skilled-trades when their livelihoods are being undercut by non-union and out-of-town labor?

The Pruitt-Igoe and St. Louis Public Housing

The film talked a lot about the infamous Pruitt-Igoe projects and went into the Model Cities program orchestrated by the federal government. It talked about how neighboring Black Jack incorporated and was thus able to fight-off federal lawsuits over discrimination based on income and Spanish Lake was unable to do so because of there being no local government to protect the interests of the community.

The narrative the film set forth was that the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe led to a large influx of residents into the newly built apartment complexes (totaling 3000 units) in Spanish Lake. This is inaccurate. Pruitt-Igoe residents were first and foremost moving to other neighborhoods in the city of St. Louis. If they were moving into the county much more popular destinations would have been those municipalities in the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts as well as Berkeley, Kinloch and Jennings. In 1990, a decade and a half after the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, Spanish Lake was still only 17 percent black. The numbers don't add up.

The Black Middle-Class

While I think the film does an accurate job of portraying blacks first moving into apartment-complexes and white-homeowners fleeing and then blacks moving into homes (happening in Florissant today) I think the black middle-class gets short-coverage. Of those 17 percent of Spanish Lake residents who were African-American in 1990 a sizable percentage were middle-class. These black families moved into Spanish Lake to pursue the suburban American Dream just as white families had in the 1950s.

Spanish Lake kids go to Hazelwood East high school. I went to McCluer North and East was our rivals in both wrestling and football and I knew a lot of kids who went there. Many of them came from black families solidly in the middle-class.

Even today while portions of North County look like a suburban version of the East Side of Detroit and vacant house and unkept properties are common most of Spanish Lake and the rest of North County is still in good condition. People are maintaining their properties and driving through the neighborhoods you wouldn't be able to tell if you were in south or north county. The vast-majority of the new homeowners are African-American.

The Apartments and Section 8

Once again I must voice some disagreement with the narrative of the film. The film correctly pointed out that apartment complexes such as Countryside and Oak Park apartments were havens for crime, drugs and violence. It incorrectly gives the impression these places have been cleaned up. My daughter just moved out of one of these complexes. They signed leases with 18-year-olds, daily police raids, fighting, drug busts, domestic violence, shootings. Absolute shitholes. As of today. While the white residents comparing these apartment complexes to Somalia in the film is outrageous it is equally absurd to suggest they have been cleaned up.

Not all of these complexes are Section 8. Some just specialize in cheap rents for people with bad credit. I've been there myself. Others thrive on the guaranteed money from section 8. While I agree with the social-worker interviewed in the film who said the problems of section 8 beat the problems of homelessness I also recognize there are problems.

Most Section 8 vouchers are supposed to be for single-mothers and their children (structurally problematic but OK). The drama usually comes from the teenage or grown sons or the baby-daddy/ boyfriend. It is not uncommon for both to use the woman's Section 8 apartment to hustle out of. There is even something known as "Section 8 pimpin" where men only date women with Section 8 vouchers in order to not have to pay rent.

With the sub-prime meltdown and few wanting to buy in North County many real-estate companies and homeowners took to renting out houses to Section 8 tenants. Some of these Section 8 tenants were good and some caused the "for sale" signs to go up all around them.

The Schools

More than crime there is nothing that drives white-flight more than schools. In community after community in St. Louis white residents have demonstrated they have an unnatural fear of their children going to school with black children. There are many examples of integrated schools in the area that are both safe and academically-sound.

However, let us not sugarcoat. The film discussed race-riots at school (guessing it was Hazelwood East) and a number of white-students came forward telling stories of either fighting or being jumped and beaten by black students. I applaud Morton for including that in the documentary.

My experience growing up in racially-mixed schools was overall positive. Having said that not a week went by when a white kid was not jumped by black kids. I saw numerous incidents growing up of white kids being beaten and stomped by groups of black students. It was not uncommon and I never saw any black kids getting jumped by white students. I grew up in a family that encouraged the mentality of fighting back and being "down for your ground" (combined with the fact I had few white friends) so it was never a problem for me; but if that happens to some white kid from a square-family headed by a soccer mom I'm guessing that move to St. Charles County just got a little bit easier. There is a history and psychology to this of course of black students feeling the need to stick together in an oppressive society in order to survive. Still, that does little to calm the nerves of the nerdy white kid getting his ass beat.

The race-riots in local schools happened with more frequency from the '70s to the '90s than the local media reported. Northwest High School in the 1970s, all of the north county high schools having riots at one time or another, and in the 90's Bosnian-black riots at Soldan and Roosevelt. Members of the local media who grew up in West County or New York before moving to some trendy city neighborhood may not even be aware of this history.

White Fear

While incidents such as school-violence can scare people what the film does a good job in illustrating is White Fear is irrational. This is not to minimize. There are some dangerous streets and complexes in Spanish Lake and the rest of North County and crime is very real if you've been a victim (as many in the film have). Still, as I stated before, most of Spanish Lake is still quiet and safe. One of the guys interviewed in the film makes a powerful point saying that for most white residents crime is not the issue. Race is the issue. Even if the community became full of wealthy blacks, white people still wouldn't want to live there.

St. Charles County and Keeping Up with the Joneses

If everyone else is moving out to St. Charles County (and to a lesser extent Lincoln and Warren counties) and you are into keeping up with appearances and image it becomes hard for you to explain why you remain in North County. A few of those interviewed allude to this. I will go even further. I've talked to numerous people from North County now living in St. Charles County who'll either lie and say they didn't grow up in North County or are ashamed to admit it. Just as in some circles it is fashionable to have a "City" bumper-sticker on the back of your foreign-car it is fashionable to live in St. Charles County for many.

Liberal Hypocrisy

One of the men interviewed in the film raged at "liberals in Clayton and Ladue" referring to two wealthy suburban communities in St. Louis. I will second that. Liberal, white and wealthy municipalities in St. Louis County have shown zero interest in bringing low-income housing to their communities or pursuing other policies that would increase diversity.

The urban progressives in the city, like those in other cities, are for the most part pursuing policies of gentrification which will drive low and moderate income people out of the city and into North County worsening the already severe problems that exist. I'm sure those viewing Spanish Lake from the coffee-shop or gastro-pub may look down on the "Hoosiers" in the film; but with regards to race the two are more similar than they want to admit. There aren't too many examples (if any) of neighborhoods not becoming whiter and less-diverse after the arrival of hipsters.

Suburban Poverty Worse Than Urban Poverty

The film makes the point that Spanish Lake is not an ideal place for poor people to live. Not much shopping, not pedestrian-friendly.not close to many jobs. and hardly anything in the way of social-services operating in the area. All of these factors are true in a number of North County communities who simply don't have the resources or expertise to deal with these problems. Detached from all of the things that can benefit poor people poverty in suburbia is more akin to the poverty of Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta than the inner-city. That is why I firmly believe a city-county merger would bring tremendous benefit to places such as Spanish Lake and I stand against policies of gentrification in the city.

Umar Lee writes a blog at umarlee.wordpress.com