Local Film Maker Doesn’t See his Film About Spanish Lake as ‘Controversial’

 by Tom Anselm

In his novel, “Look Homeward, Angel”, author Thomas Wolfe wrote “you can never go home again.”  But former Spanish Lake resident Phillip Andrew Morton tried anyway.   While working as a visual effects line producer on a major motion picture in Los Angeles, Morton, 32, has also been laboring as the developer and director of a documentary about his old neighborhood.Spanish Lake Community Association's summer community garden

The film is a result of a visit to his boyhood home, where he was greeted by a shocking view of this home in great disrepair after foreclosure.  He was so disturbed by this and the surrounding decline of the neighborhood that he decided to chronicle the story in a documentary entitled “Spanish Lake”.

“I was devastated at first by how the area had deteriorated.  Houses abandoned or in poor shape, businesses gone, just the poor general upkeep of the community I grew up in,” said Morton.  “When you see the church and school you attended closed, the ball fields abandoned, it was almost like your entire past was erased.”

Spanish Lake Community Association’s summer community garden  at the right:

Morton had attended St. Aloysius School while living on Maple Street in unincorporated Spanish Lake, moving to the Country Village neighborhood before graduating from Rosary High School in 1997.  He began researching the history of how this decline may have come about, going back to near-landmark decisions of Jones versus Mayer in 1965, and United States versus Black Jack, Missouri in 1975.

The latter Supreme Court ruling upheld an earlier Circuit Court ruling that said the city’s zoning ordinance preventing multi-family housing was in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1963, thus opening up the entire North County area to potential Section 8 housing.

Morton, along with the producer of the film, Matthew Jordan, arranged for interviews with former and current residents and local political and educational leaders with the goal of getting a balanced treatment of what happened and why.  He notes that some of those whom he met with and appeared in the trailer for the movie were concerned that they came across as racist.  He said that this was not his intent, nor his conclusion

“The purpose of the trailer, any trailer, is to peak interest, ask questions, leave things unresolved” so there is interest in the film, he said.  He hopes viewers will make their own judgements on what caused people to leave, and how the neighborhood became a target for subsidized housing that appealed to people with lower incomes.  One report he referred to, however, indicated that the African American people who first came into the area were better off financially  than some of the white people who eventually left the area.  His said his work seems to show how a combination of factors led to the changes in the community, not the least of which was a desire of then-current residents to improve on their housing options.

“A lot of people wanted to move up from what my dad used to call “cracker boxes”, you know, the 2 and 3 bedroom, one bath home, to larger homes with big yards and two-car garages.  But some real estate companies did practice some sort of fear tactics to aid in the process, according to people we talked to. We got hundreds of emails from people who had experienced some type of block-busting,” said the filmmaker.

He added that, unfortunately, people who had less discretionary income available to maintain their property coupled with the arrival of inhabitants to the Section 8 rental properties led to what has been come to be known as “white flight”, followed by a downturn in businesses and a decrease in property values.  From there, he said, “economically, things continued to spiral downward.”

Morton, a Webster University film school graduate, cautioned that his documentary is not biased toward any conclusion.

“We do treat, although not to a great degree, the fact that there remains very nice housing in Spanish Lake, such as Francis Farms, Northgate, Country Village and others”, such as the bluff mansions and gated communities off Strodtman and Spanish Pond roads.  He emphasized, however, that the story is not about what is still good about the area, but more focused on what might have gone wrong.   And he wanted to also explain that the story is not just about Spanish Lake.

“This can be seen as a tale of what happened all over the country during that time as a result of government action as it tried to provide fair housing opportunities and peoples reactions to that action.  And it also had something to do with the fact that residents of areas like Spanish Lake who didn’t want to incorporate were maybe taken advantage of by the political powers seeking to push their agenda,” said Morton.

A recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Paul Hampel stated that a 1975 report by the Citizens Advisory Committee of St. Louis County on Section 8 housing may shed some more light on what occurred during that time.  It stated in part that “it becomes apparent that the most affluent areas are being considered off-bounds for any housing-assistance activities.  A total of 20 units of rehabilitated housing are projected for the first year for the west-central and southern areas of the county compared to 1577 units of assisted housing in the inner-suburban planning areas.”

Spanish Lake was considered one of those “inner-suburban” areas, despite the fact that it is  several miles from St. Louis’ city limits. But regardless of the focus on Spanish Lake, Morton said “we feel that we have done a story that could be understood by anyone, not just someone who had knowledge of the St. Louis area or North County.”

As to when the film will be completed, Morton noted that he is in the final editing stages, including development of a new trailer.  He hopes to have a summer release in 2012, focusing on film festivals, with premiers both in St. Louis and elsewhere.  Distribution plans are pending.

“We are coming to St. Louis in April for the “Open/Close” event, and I am the keynote speaker at the Equal Economic Opportunity Commission meeting in April as well.  We will be showing clips of the film at those events.”

There is a final piece of this story of how the movie was made which has been reported locally but bears retelling.  Morton and producer Matt Jordan, wanting to seek out more voices for the film, advertised on Craigslist for current residents to contact them.  They received only one response.  The person was an author who lived in the Countryside Townhomes, one of the focus points of the story.  But as they were preparing to visit her, Jordan told Morton that the woman had moved.

“He said ‘she still lives in Spanish Lake, but now she has a house.’  I looked at him and said ‘it’s 1238 Maple, isn’t it?’  Matt said ‘yes, why?’  I said ‘that’s the house I grew up in’.”

“I was amazed by the sheer coincidence of this,” he said, adding that it was heartening to go back to his former home to find that the owner had made extensive renovations to the house.  He said it made him feel there was hope for this area.

Morton has high hopes for his documentary as well.

“I’d like the film to spur conversation, maybe new ways of thinking, as to how communities can work and live together.”

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