In city of neighborhoods, names matter

Dec 20, 2011
Originally published on December 20, 2011 12:04 pm

No laws set the names of the 79 neighborhoods crammed into the 66 square miles of the city of St. Louis. Some grew from urban legends, others from a distinctive landmark. Some date back decades and are instantly known to any St. Louis resident. Others have changed as landmarks fell, highways reshaped boundaries, or people felt the need for a fresh start.

Lunch time on a chilly November afternoon finds Mike Goeke sitting in a booth at the Atomic Cowboy on Manchester enjoying a fajita and reflecting on names that have come and gone for the neighborhood he’s called home for 40 years.

In 1947, the area now known as Forest Park Southeast was officially known to city planners as Ranken, likely after philanthropist David J. Ranken, who founded the eponymous technical college in 1907.

Goeke doesn’t remember what the area’s "official"  name was when he and other members of a lay Catholic organization moved in in 1973, but he says residents had their own unofficial names.

"The area that we moved into, which was the western part of the neighborhood north of Manchester, was called Gibson Heights," Goeke says. "The very south end apparently had a race course on it, and so that area was known as Race Course. The neighborhood was divided up into several mini neighborhoods, that all had different names, mostly attributable to the attempt to do some community organizing around the human development corporation."

Goeke says the current Forest Park Southeast moniker took hold in a similar way. The Washington University Medical School and the area’s alderman created a housing development corporation in the 1980s and named it for the neighborhood’s general location.

"Most of the people that live in this area will say I live in Forest Park Southeast. In the sense of owning the name, I don’t know that people get that engaged," Goeke says.

Goeke, a university professor by trade, takes pride in being an engaged citizen. And that’s why he’s dismayed by another transformation underway – this one centered on the very street where he’s sitting down for lunch.

Going viral

"I have no problem with the [Manchester] strip being named 'The Grove,'" Goeke says. "To the degree that people want to say that the neighborhood is The Grove, I have a big problem. The strip has a completely different set of priorities."

Atomic Cowboy owner Chip Schloss got on board with the rebranding concept when he opened the restaurant six years ago. The name, he says, goes back to an old map of census tracts that called the area Adams Grove. (Forest Park Southeast has three other distinct enclaves within its borders – Gibson Heights, New Boyle and Ranken East).

Originally, he says, The Grove was meant to refer just to the stretch of Manchester between Vandeventer and Kingshighway.

"But as the people moved into the neighborhood and more merchants came along, it really started to catch on and people started to embrace it," Schloss says. "Today, it’s really kind of taken on a universal reference. They might say, 'Gibson Heights in the Grove.' Part of that has been helped by the media who have gotten on board with that reference."

Schloss made a good decision when he chose to reach into the neighborhood’s past to help define its future, says historian NiNi Harris, who has written nearly a dozen books on St. Louis neighborhoods.

"It’s so important for any community, just as for an entire nation to know our history, and names are one way we can encourage that," she says.

Using the past to shape the future

And history is exactly where Ald. Charles Quincy Troupe is looking in his effort to rebrand part of the First Ward – an area known as Mark Twain that’s bounded roughly by Union Blvd., Interstate 70, the Archer Daniels Midland grain silos and Florissant Ave.

It’s not clear when Mark Twain became a separate neighborhood. In the city’s 1947 comprehensive plan, the area appears to be part of a section called Harney, named for the area’s first developer. Until at least the 1980s, it was part of the Walnut Park neighborhood, but city planners list it as its own separate entity in 1995.

Troupe’s not offended by the Mark Twain name in the way some constituents are. He just doesn’t think it’s relevant.

"We needed something that we could recognize that was a part of our experience. And in that, we had these two black women, Evelyn Walker and JoAnne Wayne," he says.

Mark Twain is doing better than other areas of north city. But you can tell that this enclave has seen better days, as demonstrated by vacant industrial buildings searching for a reuse and the locked doors at the William B. Ittner-designed Mark Twain School, closed due to falling enrollment.

Troupe wants residents to know that it wasn’t always like this. Walker and Wayne, who are now both dead, were leading community activists who got residents to care about where they lived, and could use their clout as Democratic powerbrokers to get services the area needed.

Troupe says changing Mark Twain to Wayne-Walker gives his constituents a reason to own the area again.

"When you hit Kingshighway and Southwest and Vandeventer, and you look up on the bank, and you see the Hill, that means something," he says. "It gives them pride, it gives them dignity, it gives them ownership. That is the same thing I’m trying to do for north St. Louis."

NiNi Harris doubts the top-down approach Troupe wants to take will be effective.

"Name changes are often the result of a grass roots organization doing something as basic as saying, we’re going to clean up this park every Saturday, or we’re going to have regular neighborhood clean-ups," she says.

Herschel Parks was a friend of both JoAnne Wayne and Evelyn Walker, and says a name change would be a good way to remember the women, whom he calls "anchors" of the area. But the 92-year-old, who lives in a tidy brick duplex on Queens Ave., just down the block from the school, doesn’t think the neighborhood has the spirit to make a name change stick.

"I’ve been here 44 years, and I’ve noticed that besides one other person, I’m the only one that goes out in the alleys, sweeps the alley up, pulls weeds, or try to keep things going," Parks says.

And because neighborhood names aren’t set by law, Troupe’s legislation is, for all intents and purposes, moot. The alderman remains undaunted. He says he’ll keep trying to change the name, but considers starting a conversation a victory, too.

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