Spanish Lake: Another lesson in failed urban planning

spanishlake2“Spanish Lake” is a new documentary film that looks at the physical, economic and social decline of a suburban neighborhood just north of St. Louis, Missouri. It’s told from the perspective of former “Lakers” at a neighborhood reunion, newer residents, and people who have stayed through it all, bucking the white-flight stampede of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a sad story of the downward trend of a once-thriving neighborhood, as a result of a toxic stew of callous governmental and commercial practices, and racial mistrust and misunderstanding. It may sound like a local story, but change the names, dates, longitude and latitude, and you’ve probably got a scenario that fits many other areas in the U.S.

Spanish Lake, we learn, was first settled as a military outpost near the strategic confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. In the 1800s, it was the jumping off point for many military expeditions, as well as the first overnight stop on Lewis and Clark’s journey to map the Louisiana Purchase.

Fast forward to the 1950s, when Spanish Lake’s pastoral environment, within reach of the amenities of urban St. Louis, became a haven for the post-World-War-Il housing boom and the young [white] families who fueled it. In the film, “Lakers” who grew up in the area reminisce about their idyllic childhoods in two-bedroom, one-bath bungalows, running free along lakeside and riverside paths, helping out on farms, and riding their bikes to the neighborhood pizza shop. [It could not possibly have been that idyllic, of course.]

Meanwhile, in the City of St. Louis, urban planners were putting up high-rise ghettos for poor [black] people, the most notorious of which was the Pruitt-Igoe project in North St. Louis. When, because of incredibly poor financial planning and awful social policies, Pruitt-Igoe turned into a nightmare of disrepair, despair and crime, the project was demolished. The buildings disappeared, but the poor [black] people didn’t, and something had to be done. And that’s when the trouble began for Spanish Lake.

What happened in Spanish Lake may partly have been the result of a well-meaning attempt to solve the problem of a shortage of affordable housing. In the 1980s, as federal Section 8 rent support became available, building low-income housing became an attractive [and lucrative, for developers] option. Spanish Lake, an area with large tracts of undeveloped land unprotected by municipal zoning laws, seemed a logical and politically convenient location. [Aware that low-income housing was on the horizon, nearby Black Jack quickly turned itself into an incorporated municipality and enacted zoning laws that pointedly prohibited multi-family housing.] Undoubtedly, most other St. Louis County municipalities–mostly white, more affluent, and possessing more political clout than Spanish Lake–were not welcoming to low-income housing, either.

So, St. Louis County green-lighted developers to begin creating large apartment complexes in Spanish Lake, and low-income, African-American families flocked to them. Unfortunately, the sudden concentration of large numbers of low-income families into a small area, an almost complete lack of social services, and geographical isolation combined to turn the apartment complexes into something resembling the next generation of the failed Pruitt-Igoe project.

At the same time, real estate companies and banks began “redlining” Spanish Lake, steering African-American buyers to the area, while not showing them comparable, available houses in other areas. Real estate companies also engaged in “blockbusting,” buying one home on a block, moving an African-American family in with no rent, and then knocking on neighbors doors to convince them that their neighborhood was “changing” and that they needed to sell as soon as possible.

By the 1980s, the crime rate in Spanish Lake was soaring, the local school district was overwhelmed with new students, property values were declining, and white flight was in high gear.

People interviewed in the documentary blame government for Spanish Lake’s downward slide. That’s understandable, given some of the tone deaf and cynical policies implemented by St.Louis County. But capitalistic incentives, greed, politics and racism played roles, too.

Philip Andrew Morton, who made the Spanish Lake documentary, is a former resident. About 10 years after moving to Los Angeles, he returned to Spanish Lake and visited his family’s former home, where he grew up. He was shocked to find it abandoned and in shabby disrepair. That’s when he decided to make his movie. His sadness about his lost neighborhood comes through in the documentary, and it’s reflected in the words of other former residents–sometimes punctuated with anger.

One omission in the documentary, in my opinion, is the lack of testimony from African-Americans who moved into the Spanish Lake area in the 1980s and 1990s. What was it like for them? Did the newly-built apartment complexes offer an opportunity? Did they feel the resentment of their white neighbors? What was it like for their kids at the previously majority-white schools? Did they also feel a decline in their new neighborhood, as the years went on? I wish this perspective had been part of the film.

I’ve lived in St.Louis County for more than 40 years, and although I know the name Spanish Lake and have visited the park in that area and the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi, I did not know this story at all. It’s enlightening and disheartening. I think my ignorance is part of a kind of white blindness. And I wonder how many other stories like this one remain buried for the same reason.