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I LOVE the history of this road.
In the 1760's the two river community brothers, St. Charles and St. Louis, were bustling with a population of about 2,500 people. The road connecting the two towns, St. Charles Street, was just a horse and wagon-worn path. A hundred years later, after carrying travelers like Lt. Clark, post riders and stagecoaches, the path was laid with wooden planks, and then again with rock in the 1920's. Around that time, the names of the western and eastern portions of the street changed to Easton and Franklin, respectively. This, coincidently, coincides with a period of "white flight" from the area when a neighborhood nearby was involved in a Supreme Court ruling against housing discrimination. As was happening nationwide and repeated so many times in the past, after fighting a war abroad, many soldiers returned to a fight here at home for property and equal rights. Rampant racism was shaping the future of the road.
This despise was seen again when the streets changed to St. Charles Rock Road and Martin Luther King Drive in the 70s. Many were not only opposed to the name change, but refused to have their business on a street with this name and closed up shop.
Where The Line Was Grey
I grew up on the central west end of St. Charles Street in a city called St. Ann. It was a diverse county. The town tried (and still tries) to hold fast to some form of community, and for standard measure it does. As in every large suburban community with cultural co-existence, there are hidden grievances, preconceived notions, acts of polite avoidance, side-eyes, crime. (We even had a kidnapping.) The neighborhood I grew up in saw the most terror, and my house, being at the heart of it all, the most action. Some of my experiences there were very traumatizing and for another thread....but there were many factors that made it the way it was, but eventually the police went "Bad Boys" style ridding the town of most of the newly transplanted inner city criminals and undocumented immigrants and it became a ghost-town. For a while, many St. Louisans refused to enter St. Ann due to the intentional racial profiling and court extortion during that period.
But in the 80's, there was also genuine courtesy, streets filled with laughter and a melting pot of naive and rebellious children. I lived in one of the "coolest" neighborhoods in St. Ann, and those that share my childhood also share a brotherhood made of memories of each other. Much of it is now a parking lot.
A half a mile east down the road was Breckenridge Hills. After moving my brother and I through four elementary schools my mother settled there, not far from our father. A mile further in St. John, was the high school. And in another mile - the innerbelt (I-170) - the highway connecting the north to the south.
Most people from my town never passed under that underpass. But my father frequented the junkyard at Lucas & Hunt and St. Charles Rock Road, and in 1988 we lived a block from there with my mother in Normandy. It was the way to and from my dad's house, the flea market, a few friends of my mother's. And, just as the names on the street signs change to Martin Luther King Drive.... the street vendors.
They weren't really street vendors. The business men and women who sold goods on the sidewalk on MLK Drive in the 80's owned (or rented) the buildings and were making good use of them. They put their merchandise out on the sidewalk so you could see it as you drove by. I furnished my very first apartment in 1998 with items from their stores.They had appliances, bikes, custom rugs, car rims, everything!
And for a little while there on Martin Luther King Drive, another glimpse of COMMUNITY! There are still a few remaining stores open today.
Their businesses were in Wellston, and in order to reach them you had to pass by the Wellston Loop. During my younger years, the Bi-State buses would pick up passengers from there. But in the 1920's, it was the heart of a major transportation hub, shopping district, and industrial area.
Before his death in 1893, Erastus Wells helped develop the first horse drawn streetcar in Wellston, taking the place of the horse drawn stagecoach. With this ingenuity and subsequent increase in property values, St. Charles Street (known by then as Easton Ave.) soon became one of the most important roads in the city "with hundreds of stores and private dwellings", as described by a 1894 visitor, James Cox.
The street remained prominent until the 1940s and according to TheWellstonLoop.com, in the 50s it "reached a golden era – a very dynamic time for the community. During this period, it reached a tremendous height of popularity as a shopping, business, and transportation district."
When giant retailers like JC Penney had to make a decision whether to build in the city, as previously preferred, or in the county, near the residences of their consumers, Easton provided enticing real estate. There were drug stores, movie theaters AND beer gardens in the area! They built an architectural masterpiece at 5930 Easton Avenue.
1949 J C Penney's 5930 Easton Avenue, (Now Dr. MLK Drive), St. Louis, Wellston, MO Summer 1949 Photo
The building has been fought for to be listed in the National Register of Historical Buildings.
As the country began changing and integrating, the population growing and expanding and innovations introduced, things began to change on St. Charles Street. Young white families, such as in the newly ingrained Irish communities, used their newly paved St. Charles Rock Road to move west to St. Ann and up-and-coming developments in St. Charles. As oppressive practices vowed to keep blacks from thriving, The Negro Association was formed. When white business owners "flew" north and west and electrical giants like Wagner Electric closed plants, African American investors began sustaining the community with businesses like Ace Packing Company, Blue Jay and Central Taxi and Ross Furniture & Appliance Company.
The Ville became an elite African American neighborhood in the 20s and 30s and many businesses opened along Easton Avenue for the families buying homes in the area due to restrictive covenants.
But by the time the road had been renamed to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the early 70s, and oppressive inequality in St. Louis still a factor, the lack of opportunity changed the climate so much and few businesses remained.
By the 1980s, buildings began to crumble and the reputation of the era faded away.
As this began to unfold to and from the eastern city limits of St. Louis, the west of St. Charles Street, including my neighborhood in St. Ann and its neighbor to the west, Bridgeton, began to flourish. There were two drive-in movie theatres, as well as, public and Catholic schools in the area.
Northwest Plaza was built in 1963 and became one of the largest malls in the country at that time. I spent almost every weekend there as a teen. From about the mid 70's to the 90's they had a Santa Claus on top that would light up to signal the arrival of the Christmas season.
There is a stretch of cemeteries along most the road, one of which my mother and brother are buried. Cemeteries hold a special meaning to me because of ALL of the history..... in ONE place. A museum couldn't hold all those memories.
Many would say the urban decline from the east end of the road has expanded to the west to areas like Breckenridge Hills and Saint Ann. However, in my view, areas in between such as St. John and Woodson Terrace have been unaffected.
Further down St. Charles Road (now known as St. Charles Rock Road there is a business district that leads to the western edge of the road, St. Charles, Missouri!
Today, most of this road resembles a ghost town. There are many organizations taking the lead in redevelopment of the area. An incubator, development built specifically for the use of start up entrepreneurship, was developed in 2017 just a few blocks south.
"Due to increasing demand, an expansion effort to nearly double the size of STLVentureWorks at Wellston broke ground last fall, and will finish at the end of 2017. A total of $2.5 million has been invested in the project, including $2 million from the US Economic Development Administration (EDA) and $500,000 from St. Louis County Port Authority." (EQSTL)
Interactive Map coming soon!!!