Laclede: An Experiment In Ethnic Harmony

ST. LOUIS - As a rule, family reunions unite sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, cousins, uncles, aunts. So the family reunion held here recently might have left some folks puzzled - unless they knew about LaClede Town, the late, great housing experiment created here more than 30 years ago.

On a recent Saturday night, about 150 former residents are gathered to reminisce about our own little United Nations, where we could rightfully have sung "We Are the World" if the song had been around at the time.

It's simultaneously jarring and touching that all of these people have gathered just a few blocks north of where, from 1964 to 1995, their little piece of Camelot stood. At its height, it sat on 65 acres of midtown property and consisted of some 1,400 apartments and townhouses with more than 4,000 residents.

But tonight they are gathered to remember the good old days. Like the reminiscences, the music is from the '60s and '70s. There are hugs and shrieks of recognition. Onetime down-to-there hair is mostly shaped and shorn now, and almost everyone is grayer. But they are representative of the original, multiracial, multiethnic population.

LaClede Town was cool, hip, cheap and populated by people committed to making integration work. It grew out of an urban redevelopment plan for the Mill Creek Valley, an area that had been historically black but had fallen on hard times. The redevelopment plan was controversial because so many families were displaced, and some people felt some of that wonderful old housing stock could have been saved. It was crucial that whatever took the place of the demolished homes worked.

The complex was made up of two components. Laclede Park was privately funded and rented apartments at market rates. Diagonally across the intersection of Laclede and Compton was LaClede Town, a community of federally subsidized townhouses. Rent was determined by a formula based on family size and income. What grew out of this was a national model for integrated housing populated by a group of people who felt closer to one another than some blood relatives do.

It brought together a community of people - black, white, brown, Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, lawyers, architects, sanitation workers, actors, athletes, draft dodgers, hookers, social workers, welfare recipients, musicians, reporters, waiters, politicians, doctors.

Together, those of us who lived there changed the way people thought and felt about integration and public housing. LaClede Town was the nation's first public housing complex with a swimming pool. It had a general store, a Laundromat, a coffeehouse, a cleaners, a pub.

Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger once visited just to hang out. People took pride in pretending not to notice.

Folks still remember when radical lawyer William Kunstler came to town to defend a group of black militants and ended up playing softball with the LaClede Town Losers, a team as noted for its antics as for its athletic prowess.

Joe Pollack, who went from being the St. Louis football Cardinals' publicrelations director to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's food and film critic, helped found the Mill Creek Valley Intelligencer, the community newspaper. He was also very serious about softball.

The pub was the neighborhood watering hole, and the coffeehouse was home to poetry readings, improv theater and jam sessions. Musical evenings frequently featured Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett, who later achieved fame as three-fourths of the World Saxophone Quartet.

Jorge Martinez organized the Velvet Plastic Ball, a spoof on the venerable Veiled Prophet Ball - which launched the city's lily-white social season.

Maids in the Veiled Prophet's Court of Love and Beauty wore hand-beaded gowns from London, Paris or Milan. Jorge's multiethnic Velvet Plastic court included some of the city's best-dressed drag queens.

In its heyday, LaClede Town was a part-time home to 7-year-old Eddie Saxon, who would go on to produce "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia," and whose father lived in LaClede Town. Warren Fine, who wrote "The Artificial Traveler," lived there, too.

Leon Strauss, then vice president of the construction company that built LaClede Town, remembers it with bittersweet feelings. There are still times when he feels frustrated that it couldn't be saved.

A lot of effort and energy went into making it work. Carl Dudley and Paul Smith, two Presbyterian ministers - one white, one black - transformed a historically black church with a dwindling congregation into an ethnically diverse institution that often was standing-room only.

"We never lived in LaClede Town, but we were there so much, a lot of people remember us as residents," says Beverly Sporleder, who ran the church nursery school.

"It's hard to believe there was such camaraderie among everybody. People admired differences; they didn't resent them."

It took a lot of energy to keep it that way. Property managers quietly sidestepped rigid adherence to federal guidelines to maintain a racial and ethnic balance. In fact, as Strauss recalls, the complex's management even got sued for it.

"If there were too many blacks in one place and another qualified black applied, Jerry would hold the space for a white family, and vice versa," says Strauss. "It wasn't legal, but he really wanted to maintain a racial balance."

Jerry Berger, the community's flamboyant manager, was affectionately dubbed "the mayor of LaClede Town." He left just before a convergence of economic circumstances forced the complex's demise. There are various versions of what happened to make Camelot disappear, but the perennially upbeat "mayor" has his executive summary:

"It had a beginning, a middle and an end," he says. "I only want to remember the good times, and there were a lot of those."

LaClede Town lives now only in photo albums, memories and newspaper clippings. Every apartment building and townhouse is gone. The property is being divvied up between St. Louis University and Harris-Stowe Teacher's College.

Former residents have come to the reunion from all over the country. Most are in their 50s and 60s; many remember their old addresses.

Rosemary Schmid and her husband, Joe, lived at 202 Cardinal Place. They've come from Raleigh, N.C., to visit with old friends and neighbors. They read about LaClede Town in Better Homes & Gardens while they were living in New Jersey.

"The article talked about this bold experiment in interracial living, and I said, `Hey, I want to be part of that,' " she says. "Joe was originally from St. Louis, and he was retiring from the military. Joe's parents weren't real enthusiastic about our moving to that part of town, but we did. We didn't think we'd ever leave."

The Schmids lived between an organist, who was black, and a medical student, who was white. An African family lived across the street.

"One day one of my kids came in and said he wanted to go over to his new friend's house to play," she says. "I looked out the window at a group of kids and asked him which one he wanted to go home with. He told me it was the orange one. I looked again and saw this little brown-skinned child in an orange T-shirt. My son didn't know to identify him by race."

He turned out to be one of the Ituen twins, whose family was from Nigeria. A second Schmid child went on to study drumming with yet another neighbor, Mor Thiam from Senegal.

Lowell Hey, 64, is here from Hawaii, where he retired on a mountainside in 1989. It's his first return visit to St. Louis.

"I had always meant to come back to St. Louis to visit friends, but the real lure was LaClede Town," he says. "I learned a lot about myself by living with people who were not like me. Without LaClede Town I might have been just another redneck. But because of the experiences I had there, I can now live where I'm the minority - and it's OK."

Barb Riley, an illustrator, came from Colorado Springs, Colo., temporarily leaving behind her multiracial family of adopted children. She lived at 3165 Lawton Place from 1968 to 1974.

"What I remember most was being able to sleep with doors and windows open and never having to worry about your kids. You knew that wherever they were, they were safe. It's so hard to get anyone to understand what this place meant."

John and Adele Harris are among the former residents who couldn't come to the reunion. They now live in Arizona, where she is director of community relations for the Arizona Cardinals. Her husband, John, is an accountant.

"I remember our two-story, three-bedroom town house at 3121 Lawton," she says. "It faced Percy Green's house. The next building was the pub. Some nights, after the pub closed, people would pour out onto our patio and the party would continue. Sometimes we'd look up and it would be daybreak. Folks would go home and get whatever they had out of the refrigerator, and I'd cook breakfast. Whether you had a steak or a pound of bologna, we'd share it."

Percy Green, who served as LaClede Town's manager before determining that the plug had to be pulled, sits at a nearby table with his adult son, Percy Jr. Percy Sr. is in a subdued version of his usual paramilitary attire, looking every bit the '60s black militant he was. He is reminiscing about his popularity with the St. Louis Police Department. A definite thorn in the side of the power structure, he was a gentle bear to those who knew him.

Leon Strauss recalls the Doberman pinscher Percy walked. The dog, which was supposed to have been an attack animal, loved everybody.

Bob Blackburn was one of the first tenants to move into Laclede Park, the yellow brick complex diagonally across from the townhouses that made up LaClede Town. Although they were separate entities, over time it all became generically known as LaClede Town. Blackburn, who retired as director of government relations for Washington University, lived in the area for 10 years.

"I know it sounds corny, but I think we were all attracted by the idea of building a new community," he says. "People who didn't live here came around just to be part of the ambience, if you will. There simply wasn't anything else like it - certainly not in St. Louis."

"It broke my heart when I realized the community couldn't be saved," says Margo Garvin, the primary force behind the reunion. Her husband, Paul, is director of abdominal transplant surgery with St. Louis University Hospitals. He was a medical student then. Her Boston accent is as thick as it was when she moved here three decades ago.

"Over the years, I kept saying we needed to get together and celebrate what we had. A group of us decided to stop talking about it and do it. We lived there when it was wonderful, and we stayed when it wasn't anymore. I was angry, I cried over it and then said, `OK, life goes on.' "