Documentary on Spanish Lake Hits Home For Filmmaker & Participants

Tom Amsel. pg 2jpg

A Boomer’s Journal

By Tom Anselm

About a year ago, we ran a story about a young film maker from Los Angeles who spent his early years in Spanish Lake and was planning on doing a documentary about how his old neighborhood had changed.

Well, today, Phillip Andrew Morton has had his film “Spanish Lake” not only viewed by thousands of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) employers during a Washington, D.C visit, but also extended for three weeks at The Tivoli Theater in University City, as the beginning of a multi-city tour. I talked to Morton the first week the film was showing. He was thrilled by the response that it was getting, noting that people were genuinely touched and affected by the story.

The premise of the documentary is that, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a push in our country to provide affordable housing for people who were living in poverty.

In our region, the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex had proven to be an abject failure. So what was to be done, asked the people then at HUD? Their answer was to relocate many of these people to multi-unit housing somewhere else. And a very large part of that somewhere else became the extreme northeast portion of St. Louis County. Also known as Spanish Lake.

Now, this area was unincorporated St. Louis County and had no real governmental entity with which to put up any opposition to such a maneuver. And this mostly bedroom community with no links to major highways was zoned by the County favorable to multi-unit housing.

The film uses many interviews with current and former residents of the area. The former were more or less represented by a group that calls itself the NoCo Lakers. They have a website, by the same name.

The current, of whom some were identified and some were not (really, the only criticism I had with the content of the film), included former state senator Tim Green and current State Sen. Gina Walsh, local lawyer, historian and author David Naumann and Trinity Catholic High School president Sr. Karl Mary Winkelmann (both of whom were among the unidentified.)

Also interviewed was former HUD official Raphael Bostic, who was instrumental in directing the attention of HUD to the film, Will Jordan, of Equal Opportunity Housing Council of St. Louis, and Tanya Parker, director, Participating Council Outreach Services. Dora Gianoulakis, who is president of the Board of Directors of the Spanish Lake Community Association was also among the many who provided very articulate insights into what really happened.

So, what did happen, you may ask?

Well, it seems that with the coming of non-whites to a predominantly white area (in 1970, the ratio was 99%white to 1% African American in Spanish Lake), and with the help of what many corroborated in their recollections as fear-mongering and ‘block-busting’ by certain realtors, the very affordable homes in the area went up for sale like skyrockets on the 4th of July.

There likely had been other reasons, such as some wanting to get a larger home, but the general consensus is that the phenomenon of ‘White Flight’ was a major determiner. It was heart-rending to hear from some of the former residents who had their brothers and sisters beat-up, saw the neighborhood begin to decline, and feel their sense of the real fear of “what’s next?”

But the film was very careful not to lay blame solely on those who left the area. The decline and change was a combination of factors: such as the multi-unit zoning, the actions of realtors, the laxity in screening residents, the flood of Section 8 funding that went into the multi-unit complexes, and what appears to be St. Louis County’s targeting of this North County community as the location for so many of these apartment units, which was far in excess of South or West County areas. The result was that by 2010, in the 40 years after the start of the push, the racial make-up changed to 77% African American, 19 % white.

Morton was quick to point out in his conclusions that this was not just a racial situation. He considers it as much a social and socio-economic concern as the other.

There was a huge coincidence that reinforced to him that this film was destined to be made. When looking for people to interview, he and his producer Matt Smith advertised on Craigslist. One person responded, an author named Paris Drake. She lived on 1238 Maple Street.

1238 Maple Street happened to be Phillip Andrew Morton’s boyhood home.

The movie ends with some hopeful news, however. There are some dedicated property managers, notably David Krantrovitz and Andrew Katzmann, of Oak Park Apartments who say they are tightening up on properly screening residents. The Countryside Apartments, once a crime-ridden complex, is also cleaning up its residency and it’s property. Notable, however, is the film’s postscript that a number of real estate companies declined comment for the film.

To get some perspective on this story, I took a ride back to my own boyhood home in Bissell Hills. The house looked fine, really, smaller than I remembered, but that was not unexpected. The neighborhood was, well, okay. But directly next door, on the corner, the house was vacant, with a sticker on the door. And in the next block, a fire-damaged home. Another door sticker.

The lovely Jill played out her youth just a few miles to the east, in Glasgow Village. That community was unincorporated, and has had it’s struggles, with unconcerned landlords, the loss of the Glasgow Village Shopping Center (it is a vacant lot now) and more than it’s fair share of dilapidated homes. And door stickers. Her house still looks good. But next door, to the right, a vacant home sits. And so it goes.

We have been North County kids for most of our lives. Bissell, Glasgow, then married and in Normandy and Bridgeton, Seven Hills, Paddock and now Barrington Downs.

As I pulled into my neighborhood, I took a deep breath. What a great area this is, I thought. But, could what I saw today ever happen here? I think not and I hope not.

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