Photo Flood 76: The Greater Ville

photo by Jason Gray

The Greater Ville is the wheel around the hub of The Ville. Both neighborhoods (originally just one) are extremely significant to the history of St. Louis, having been the nucleus for the city’s “Black Aristocracy” whose influence was known throughout the midwest.

photo by Jackie Johnson

photo by Ryan Stanley

 

photo by Mike Matney

 

photo by Vivian Nieuwsma

Though The Greater Ville’s legacy may be as a center of Black pride, its origins were conspicuously devoid of Black faces. The neighborhood’s distinctive, upside-down “U” shape is the result of racially and ethnically restrictive deed covenants that existed to keep the smaller The Ville neighborhood as African-American, while reserving the larger area surrounding it for Whites.

photo by Mark McKeown

 

photo by Jackie Johnson

 

photo by Isaac Richardson

 

photo by Jason Gray

In our article on the Lewis Place neighborhood, not far south of The Greater Ville, we outlined how Robert Witherspoon used “straw men” to circumnavigate the restrictive deeds found there. However, it was another Black family, the Shelleys who had moved from the deep south to The Greater Ville, that was able to take the fight against these covenants in front of the United States Supreme Court and to win. The landmark 1948 ruling ended the practice of restive deeds throughout the country, and set the tone for another ruling to come, Plessy vs. Ferguson (that would officially spark the Civil Rights Movement). The effect of these rulings meant that African-Americans (and Jewish Americans) in St. Louis were no longer confined to the small pocket communities that Whites relegated them to, nor were they forbidden from attending the same schools as Whites, or prohibited from public pools, etc. Neighborhoods around the city began to change their dynamics as a result.

photo by Vivian Nieuwsma

 

photo by Jackie Johnson

 

photo by Ryan Stanley

 

photo by Mike Matney

Today, a community that is well integrated, racially, culturally or otherwise, is something praiseworthy. In fact, many of the healthiest, urban neighborhoods in the country are defined by this characteristic. That said, in St. Louis, mid-20th Century, diversity was unfortunately not something that was sought after (in many parts of the region, it still is not). The effect of African-Americans moving across the boundaries of their historical communities was “White Flight”, and the impious alternative to restrictive deed covenants that emerged from this climate of repopulation was “redlining” (a real estate practice that sought to control home prices by “directing” people of minority descent away from certain more desirable areas, and made receiving loans for home repairs disproportionately harder in Black concentrated areas). It’s perhaps remarkable then that Chuck Berry, of Rock and Roll fame, was able to cross the boundaries¬†of racial tension that once existed in The Greater Ville during the era of the Shelley verdict, and purchase a home there for he and his wife. It is in this modest one story home that he crafted several of his greatest hits, including “Maybellene”, “Johnny B. Goode”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, and more.

Chuck Berry’s former home, photo by Mark McKeown

 

photo by Isaac Richardson

 

photo by Jason Gray

In the decades that followed, The Greater Ville, like many other neighborhoods in North St. Louis, transitioned over to being predominantly Black, at the same time as it drastically lost overall population. Blocks that, at one time, would rival most any other blocks in St. Louis, in terms of their architecture and commercial amenities, became pockmarked by disrepair, and ultimately, building demolition. In recent years, the neighborhood has been singled out by both local and national media as a poster child of gun violence and murder (though it is incredibly unfair and misrepresentative that these reports compare a single, depopulated, impoverished neighborhood to full cities, or in some cases, full countries). Still, safety is a primary concern for residents and potential developers alike, and likely a principal motivation in the ongoing population decline there. Nonetheless, the community has its champions, who see both the potential of The Greater Ville and appreciate its history. Only time can tell if this will be enough to save it.

photo by Isaac Richardson

 

photo by Mark McKeown

 

photo by Ryan Stanley

 

photo by Mike Matney

Map is available here.

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