Photo Flood 58: Visitation Park

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photo by Jason Gray

Continuing our exploration of St. Louis neighborhoods just north of the Delmar Divide, Visitation Park is a late-Victorian Era Historic District with some of the northside’s most stately manses. It is a small neighborhood, like The Ville, and is something of an island in comparison to those neighborhoods nearby it.

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photo by Monica Tirre

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photo by Harper Gray

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photo by Sharon Keeler

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photo by Johnny Pelhank

It is a warm, Spring day.  On either side of the treelined street that you are walking upon, manicured lawns lead up to very large homes (6-8 bedrooms in the $500k to $900k selling range).  The birds are chirping pleasantly, and all of the residents that pass you, out walking their dogs or on their way to run errands, smile and nod a greeting.  You decide to share your experience, and type a quick post about it on social media, adding, “This is life in St. Louis City.”  Even among friends, lifelong STL resident friends, you might be surprised by some of the reactions.

**Of course, the following is hyperbole, but one need only look to the comment section of an article on race, or crime, or Confederate monuments in St. Louis for easy confirmation of a point of view shared by a substantial portion of the Metropolitan Area’s 2.8 million people.**

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photo by Vivian Nieuwsma

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photo by Ann Aurbach

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photo by Johnny Pelhank

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photo by Sharon Keeler

Maybe some of the reactions to your post are questions: “Central West End?” “Compton Heights?” “St. Louis Hills?” All south side suggestions.  Perhaps some of the reactions are meant to be affirmations: “Yeah, but try imagining this on the north side.” “More of St. Louis would be like this if the city wasn’t so dangerous to live in.”

Here’s the thing, though most of what is described above has little to do with race on the surface, when you break down each of the comments, what is being said and about who is all about race.  Those south side neighborhoods?  They are a majority (or very near exclusively, in the case of St. Louis Hills) white, so the assumption about a nice neighborhood in St. Louis is that it is a place where mostly White people live.  Those affirmations?  Though they may look to be about crime, and crime is a real problem for St. Louis (as it is in virtually all U.S. cities), beneath the superficiality, they are really talking about St. Louis City north of Delmar, a line that transitions the urban population toward being mostly Black, from mostly White.  While it is true that crime is more prevalent on the north side, the problem with hinging a conversation on this metric alone is that it slips very easily into racial overtone (especially when it is White people doing the talking).  If we want to have healthy conversations about the state of St. Louis and how to heal it, then conversations that compare life across the Delmar Divide should focus on the issues underlying the crime, issues like education, general employment, police profiling, economic advancement, infrastructure investment/improvement (on behalf of the city), and the legacy of segregation in St. Louis.

All of that said, it is probably obvious by the title of this article that the bucolic neighborhood scene described at top is of Visitation Park, a pleasant neighborhood on the north side of St. Louis City, where nearly 100% of the smiling, friendly home owners that we met were African-American.  Hopefully, this begins to illustrate for some that not all of North St. Louis is a dystopian wasteland; in fact, there are many areas here, like Visitation Park, that show what a proud community can accomplish, even while almost completely ignored by its surrounding region.  Who, even in the face of redlining, continue to find the resources to maintain the historic structures that suburbanites covet in their “urban explorations”, or who have to continually lobby the city or their representatives to have problem, vacant properties removed, evidence if ever there was that “urban decay” is a false and offensive term.

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photo by Joe Rakers

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photo by Ann Aurbach

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photo by Mike Matney

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photo by Jason Gray

To longtime PFSTL readers, the history of Visitation Park is a familiar one.  Like most neighborhoods west of Downtown, this community was not developed until relatively late in the City’s timeline.  Its name is derived from Visitation Academy (now located in Town and Country), which moved to the area from a site closer to downtown in 1892.  The Academy, which traces its own origins back to the early 17th century, occupied several structures in what is now Ivory Perry Park (renamed from Visitation Park in honor of local Civil Rights icon Ivory Perry, who was involved in the Jefferson Bank sit-ins and was instrumental in the city’s passage of regulations alleviating certain lead poisoning risks for especially African-Americans).  When the Academy was constructed, the area that is now Visitation Park was still largely rural except for the nearby private place of Cabanne, which was yet under development.  Much of the land in Visitation Park at this time, including that owned by the Cabanne family had been awarded by Spanish Land Grant in the late 18th century, and had remained virtually untouched, except as open pasture, since that time.  The establishment of Forest Park in 1876, and the extension of the city’s limits to include it, were the motivating factors behind the neighborhood’s slow conversion over to urbanity.

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photo by Joe Rakers

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photo by Monica Tirre

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photo by Vivian Nieuwsma

The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World’s Fair), and the transportation infrastructure and economic development that it brought west from Downtown, helped to ensure the popularity of those neighborhoods nearby Forest Park, including Visitation Park, as fashionable places to live.  In the early decades of the 20th century, this neighborhood experienced its greatest boon period, including the full build-out of the Windemere Private Place, where scores of St. Louis’ elite have lived throughout the years.  It is even likely that famous photographer Ansel Adams visited the Windemere home of Charles Nagle, Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum in the 1940’s, when the artist spent several weeks in St. Louis in 1945, leading workshops, lecturing and ultimately convincing the Museum’s Director to order the Institution to begin collecting photography.

Restrictive Deed Covenants enforced who could live in the Private Places of Visitation Park, and when their practice was made illegal in the late 1940’s, many of the neighborhood’s prominent White residents moved on to more exclusive properties outside of the city (for more on this history, check out our article on Lewis Place).

Today, Visitation Park is largely an attractive, walkable neighborhood.  Though there is likely extreme differences of income between those that live in the towering manses of the Private Places, and those that live in the homes and apartments in various states of repair just steps away along Vernon, the neighborhood has a better feeling of communal intactness/integrity than, say, areas of the Central West End where the same sorts of income disparities can also be observed.  We’d highly recommend taking a stroll around this wonderful community, seeing the sites (Windemere’s architecture is especially incredible), and meeting the people.  You may have your preconceptions tested, but you won’t be disappointed.

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photo by Mike Matney

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photo by Jason Gray

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photo by Monica Tirre

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photo by Johnny Pelhank

Map available here.

Our endpoint for Photo Flood 58 was a bit of a mix-up.  We had intended to visit nearby PuraVegan, but hadn’t realized that they were closed on Sundays (the event was bumped from a Saturday date originally).  We took a quick member consensus and decided upon Peacock Diner in University City, just west of the neighborhood.  At Peacock, the food and service were good, and the setting is really unique.  Give them a try!

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image from Peacock’s website

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