by Michael R. Allen
Another photograph from our collection of amateur images of the St. Louis built environment captures a parade moving westward down Market Street into Mill Creek Valley. The view was taken west of 21st street, and shows a panorama of the mid-century downtown skyline. Lacking a date, the image nonetheless offers a major clue: the surging waters of fountains around Carl Milles’ The Marriage of the Waters in Aloe Plaza can be seen at left. That installation was completed in 1940.
The image was taken before 1954, because the photograph shows blocks of vernacular, small-scale buildings between 18th and 15th streets that would be leveled for park space. Eventually this landscape would become the Gateway Mall. The buildings in the foreground would be leveled after 1959 as part of Mill Creek Valley clearance. Later, this area would be rebuilt with depressed on-ramps as part of the stalled North-South Distributor project.
Somewhere between the triumph of early intervention and later, more troubling urban renewal, a parade passed through this scene. The moment captured shows the African-American community of Mill Creek Valley in celebration, right in the heart of the city. By 1965, this community would be forever removed, and its built environment replaced by an uninspired landscape. Today city leaders have embraced the Northside Regeneration project, which calls for reconstructing the urban street grid west of Union Station and building dense infill there. Yet this photograph reminds us that architectural character is only the backdrop for urban cultural experience. Mill Creek Valley’s lively culture will never return to Market Street, and for that this city is worse.