So, let me tell you a story. It started in 1962 when my grandparents bought a house on the West side of St. Louis, MO. It was an old, red-brick beauty that stood 3 stories high and was surrounded by trees older than the house itself. It had a long front porch with 3 large white columns, reminding us that although St. Louis is in the Midwest, it’s also quite Southern. It had big, wide windows that were nearly floor to ceiling. 11 foot high ceilings; transom windows over the exterior doors; and a grand staircase with detailed carvings and fancy spindles. This was the house my father grew up in and the best part about it was, the woman who would eventually become his wife and my mother, lived a street away.
As the years went on the house and neighborhood became populated with familiar faces, weaving into the fabric of a community with a school at one end of the street and a church at the other. And a few blocks over, another church, and a YMCA. If you went to the next neighborhood over, you’d be surrounded by vibrant shopping centers and family-owned businesses. Everyone knew everyone and although it wasn’t Mayberry, it was all good in the hood, so to speak.
Photo of my lovely aunts standing on the last landing of the grand staircase
By the time I came along, my grandparents were gone but the house had been passed on to my parents and so the tradition of my whole family coming over for holidays and birthdays still persisted. We lived in my grandparents’ house which became the cool aunt and uncle’s house. The neighborhood started to age, the median income levels of the neighborhood started to dip, and more crime slithered in but it was still a community, despite the best efforts of the redlining that had swept the area when my grandparents first bought the house.
I can still remember spending summers chasing the sound of ice-cream trucks and playing double dutch with the older girls even though I was too scared of being hit with the rope to ever be good at it. I can remember playing night freeze tag with the kids on the block that came to visit their grandparents every summer. And riding my bike from one end of the street to the other until it was time to come in for dinner. I remember snowball fights with the whole street. Being able to walk to school by myself because my mom could watch me from our porch. I can remember the familiarity and the safety of childhood when I’m inside that house.
These are the memories I have of that neighborhood but they stand in stark contrast to the present-day realities of the street I once loved. You see, around 2007 my parents decided to move the kids out of the house because it needed repairs and some sections of the house were filled with enough lead to kill our dogs. My parents thought it’d be a good idea to remove my brother and I while my father did repairs. So my mom got an apartment a few blocks away, that was closer to my new school, and my dad started making repairs. Then the recession hit and he lost his job. Eventually, he also moved into the apartment with us and the repairs stopped.
We used the house for storage and my parents used it as their weekend getaway for date nights. We hosted birthday parties and holiday events there but my dad’s end goal was for all of us to move back in. But it was hard, because even as the economy recovered the workforce didn’t. He ran into an interesting problem as he tried to re-enter the workforce. He had too much experience to get an entry-level job and he was too old to get into the management level jobs because most businesses were pushing out their older workers to give the people who’d recently graduated during the recession a chance. It took him a while to get steady work, which was unusual for him considering he’d been working since he was 13. I went off to college and he secretly started making repairs to the house.
During my freshman year of college, we found out he had pancreatic cancer, and shortly after that, he passed away. My world didn’t end, it crumbled, and we held on to everything of his we could, including the house even though at the time we couldn’t afford it.
The house sat vacant for 8 years. Every spring we would go over to the house, clean up the backyard and make sure the property was secure. We even paid people to keep the grass cut and the grounds clean year-round. We knew we didn’t want to let it go but we also didn’t have the money to repair it.
But in 2021, destiny stepped in. We didn’t go over to the house in 2020 because we were following the Covid-19 lockdown guidelines and when we did go over to the house in the spring of 2021, we found several problems. The front porch had collapsed and the house had been broken into, ransacked by thieves, and beaten down by abrasive wintery weather. We also found some structural damage near the door that had been kicked in. The house was in shambles and so was the neighborhood. The idyllic summers of my parents’ and even my own childhood had long since vanished, but the entire neighborhood now looked devoid of color. Everything seemed desaturated and drained of life. Several houses had burned down; the school my parents and I had attended as children was closed now, and every house on the street was in some stage of decay.