Photo Flood 19: The Ville


photograph by Chris Naffziger

Much like nearby JeffVanderLou, The Ville was a neighborhood shaped by the segregation that gripped St. Louis in the early 20th century, and is still felt even to this day. However, the early history of The Ville, as an African-American community, is not a story of hate, but rather one of a proud community that overcame all obstacles. Tempering the successes of the whole were many individual accomplishments that served to rewrite what was thought possible for Black people living in the United States. Important examples include Chuck Berry (who honed his musical talents in his father’s choir at Antioch Baptist Church), Arthur Ashe (probably the coolest tennis star that ever lived; who first strutted out on the fields in Tandy Park), and Annie Malone (who overcame unbelievable odds to eventually oversee a multi-million dollar, beauty empire), but there were many more. This is a neighborhood literally pulsing with the essence of St. Louis, from its boom period to its bust period, and beyond.


photograph by Jason Gray


photograph by Jarred Gastreich


photograph by Jason Gray


photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk

In any history of the region, it is important to note that African-Americans have contributed to the civic life of St. Louis from the very start. However, their dispersion throughout the city was always, and continues to be, “guided” by the interests of Whites. During the Colonial period, both free-Blacks and slaves tended to live in community clusters nearby where they worked (if they did not already live on site). This placement meant that they could get to work quickly and easily, and hopefully would avoid the troublesome inquests for identifying paperwork made by White passerby. As time passed, some of the original Black housing became tenements for the Irish, German and Italian immigrants newly arriving. After the Civil War and the introduction of the streetcar in St. Louis, African-Americans gradually began to seek new places of residence, far from where they once lived. Unfortunately though, emancipation of slavery did not end racial tension, and the anxiety, caused Whites by the notion of integrated communities, proved to be too much for the Victorian to bear.

During World War I, the practice of segregation was formalized into law by the passage of a Segregation Ordinance, which essentially ordered individuals to live in neighborhoods divided according to race/ethnicity (Jews were also excluded from White neighborhoods). In 1918, the United States Supreme Court overturned a similar ordinance in Louisville, Kentucky, and so the St. Louis law became invalid by precedent. However, restrictive covenants (an exclusionary provision in a property deed) continued the procedure privately, and were not overturned until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s.


photograph by Jason Gray


photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk


photograph by Amanda Miller


photograph by James Palmour


photograph by Ann Aurbach


photograph by Amanda Krebel


photograph by Jason Gray

Both because of and apart from the segregation issues of the city, The Ville grew early on to become the vibrant center of African-American culture in the Midwest. The proclaimed “Black Aristocracy” of the neighborhood existed even before the Civil War ended, and afterward they lobbied successfully for the construction of Sumner High School (the first Black high school west of the Mississippi), a mere 27 years after the formal education of African-Americans was outlawed in Missouri. Already populous, the neighborhood swelled again in the early 20th Century after the nefarious demolition of Mill Creek Valley, an African-American district in present-day Midtown. By 1937, the neighborhood and its surrounding community, the Greater Ville, was thrumming with activity, even as the Great Depression suffered Black city residents with worse unemployment rates than their White counterparts (already >25%). It was evident by the large population that a hospital was needed. The Art Deco-trimmed, Homer G. Phillips Hospital opened in that year as St. Louis’ first Black hospital (one of a small few in the country at the time). Perhaps even more remarkable though is that the institution was a teaching hospital for Black doctors, and by 1960, Homer G. Phillips Hospital had trained more African-American physicians and nurses than any other training center worldwide. Closed in 1979, the Building’s 1982 bid for the National Register for Historic Places stated, “By 1962…there was no sizable black community in the United States that was not served by at least one Homer G. Phillips-trained doctor.”


photograph by Ann Aurbach


photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk


photograph by Jason Gray


photograph by Ann Aurbach

Once home to more than 70,000 residents, The Ville and Greater Ville now house less than 9,000 people (less than 2,000 for The Ville). Once proud, the neighborhood now seems abashed of its many abandoned buildings. In areas where redevelopment has been attempted, last century’s model of brick homes with access intended through the front door has been replaced by vinyl-sided, suburban-looking tract homes where dwellers come and go through the solitary portals of enclosed garages. Once a neighborhood united by community, it now seems wary of people. An example is the story of a resident that we met below:

photograph by Jason Gray

The woman above greeted three members of Photo Flood Saint Louis who approached her along the sidewalk in front her house. “Y’all taking pictures of buildings? Go on and take a picture of mine.” After a brief introduction, she went on to explain her troubling circumstances. About to become a grandmother for the second time, the woman desperately wants nothing more than to leave the decrepit home where she and her daughter and present grandson now live. However, she has no money to afford a move, nor is her nine-month pregnant daughter in any condition to look for new housing. To make matters worse, the woman has lapsed in her property taxes, and the city has levied pressure on her to repair the present state of the dwelling. She can afford to correct neither circumstance. Through tears, she expressed her story, and did not ask for anything from us. She had come outside to cry because she did not want to expose her family to her despair. Still, her faith gave her some hope that things would work out somehow. After each of us gave her a hug and tried consoling her a bit, there was no option but to move on, and maybe to tell her story here, hoping that by now she has received some better news.

Though heartbreaking, the woman’s experiences are likely not different from many others still living in The Ville. However, even in her story, the resilience of the neighborhood is evident in her faith. Many times over, faith has played an intermediary role to suffering for Black residents throughout the city. For it is only through their belief in themselves that many of the greatest accomplishments have been achieved. In this way, maybe there is still hope for The Ville, JeffVanderLou, and many other predominantly African-American neighborhoods on St. Louis’ North Side; after all, destruction often acquaints rebirth.


photograph by James Palmour


photograph by Theresa Harter


photograph by Jarred Gastreich


Our endpoint was Jadens Diner, a WONDERFUL soul food restaurant. There truly is no shortage of good things to say about this place; the food was delicious (highly recommend the fried catfish and sweet yams) and the staff was so gracious and accommodating. Sweetie Pie’s might have a TV show, but do not miss tuning in here.


photograph by Jason Gray

1 Comment
  1. […] the other side, St. Louis Hills is an answer to the question, “What happened to places like The Ville and JeffVanderLou?” That said, there is very little not to like about this place, while […]

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