Photo Flood 80: The Gate District

photo by Sue Rakers

The Gate District is a once historic neighborhood that fell victim to decades of misinformed strategy from both urban planners and developers alike. It is actually laid out to act as several “gated neighborhoods”, which is where the moniker comes from. Maya Angelou’s childhood home is located in the neighborhood as well.

photo by Joe Harrison

photo by Vivian Nieuwsma

 

photo by Jeff Hirsch

 

photo by Sue Rakers

The Gate District is a pretty large neighborhood, and perhaps because of this, its whole has never been quite like its parts. The area owes its character to two distinct groups of people, those who immigrated from Europe (predominately German or Irish) and the African-Americans who mostly first moved into the area from Mill Creek Valley, just to the north, in search of work. That said, these two groups of people didn’t necessarily integrate well, which is what kept the neighborhood north of Park Avenue as primarily Black and the buildings as heavily industrial, whereas south of Park, the neighborhood hosted more large, single-family dwellings, with many more bakeries, shops, Catholic churches, etc.

photo by Jason Gray

 

photo by Mike Matney

 

photo by MarySue Rosenthal Gee

 

photo by Joe Harrison of Maya Angelou’s former home

St. Louis was a new kind of hot and a new kind of dirty. My memory had no pictures of the crowded-together soot-covered buildings. For all I knew, we were being driven to Hell and our father was the delivering devil.” –Maya Angelou, who moved into a house in The Gate District, from Arkansas, as a child

The St. Louis that Angelou describes in her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is perhaps not the most glowing endorsement of STL city life, but it is certainly one that is full of activity and full of people. Today, that “fullness” is unmistakably diminished, and there are myriad factors for why.

St. Louis’ trajectory throughout the 20th Century is something that everyone should study more closely. It summarizes acutely the effects of both good- and ill-natured public planning and business practices, when they lack proper foresight, and the corrosive effects of outright racism. In The Gate District, blockbusting, or the practice of selling property to minorities in order to convince a majority to sell their own property out of a fear of cultural upheaval (a buy low, sell less low strategy), was widespread, and rapidly transitioned the neighborhood racially, but more importantly, economically. Combined with the detachment from more prosperous neighborhoods further south, as the result of the Interstate’s construction, The Gate District seemed condemned, along with other nearby neighborhoods like Lafayette Square, Tiffany and McRee Town, to an unfortunate fate of blight, disinvestment and depopulation.

Several different plans were proposed to attempt to revitalize the area, both by the city and private developers, beginning as early as the 1970s, though stops and delayed starts stymied each. By the early 1990’s, most neighborhoods along I-44 were undergoing some form of reinvention. It was during this time that the city landed upon the proposal to convert this neighborhood into “The Gate District”, a set of six, gated “neighborhoods”, each one distinct. Unfortunately, stops and starts (as before), plagued this redevelopment, which never quite fulfilled its promise.

photo by MarySue Rosenthal Gee

 

photo by Jennifer Mishra

 

photo by Joe Rakers

All that said, not all is sour in The Gate District. It is quite fortunate to still possess some of the rich architecture that would have once made it really stand out. From row houses, to ornate facades, to behemoth red brick factories, to historic homes (like Angelou’s), the neighborhood has many fine buildings, though some of the infill housing leaves something to be desired.

Another bright point is Florist Row, which relocated here from Pine Street in the 1920’s. This long corridor of wholesale greenhouses, flower shops, and design centers is something that you really ought to experience if you haven’t already. On any given day, flowers from every corner of the world arrive to Florist Row for redistribution to the area’s flower sellers. It is certainly something uniquely St. Louis.

photo by Sue Rakers

 

photo by Jeff Hirsch

 

photo by Jackie Johnson

 

photo by Jason Gray

Today, The Gate District is largely a quiet neighborhood that commuters pass through on their way north or south. That said, on the warm evening that we visited, residents seemed content to enjoy what they have, whether that’s a basketball game or family reunion in Terry Park, a meeting of the Dominican Friars at St. Dominic’s Priory, or medical students taking evening classes at St. Louis University. For a group of photographers, it was definitely a visually rewarding visit.

photo by Mike Matney

 

photo by Jennifer Mishra

 

photo by Jackie Johnson

 

photo by Sue Rakers

 

Map available here.

 

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