St. Louis: City of Gabriels

A city can be known by her sounds.  St. Louis gave birth to so many majestic horn players she earned the nickname, “City of Gabriels.” Homegrown talents like Miles Davis and Clark Terry created sounds that were complex, provocative, and soul-stirring.  Parallel to the rich blare of trumpets, St. Louis was making other music.

During the post-World War II manufacturing boom, the stomp of steel being flattened and formed, the sizzle and buzz of a welder’s torch, and the rhythmic clicks of a conveyor belt mixed it up like jazzy love tunes. These were some of the sweetest St. Louis sounds. As her workers prospered, they bought homes, paid taxes, and fueled an economy that contributed to the rise and vibrancy of middle class communities.

Granite City Mill is located in St. Louis and is one of the shrinking number of employers in the city. (Courtesy photo)

Granite City Mill is located in St. Louis and is one of the shrinking number of employers in the city. (Courtesy photo)

Her black neighborhoods also thrived.  The Ville — once  a beacon of the  black middle and even upper classes in St. Louis — was home to black professionals, entertainers, and elegant mansion-sized brick homes.  Small businesses abounded.  Dentists’ and other doctors’ offices, a movie theater, a hotel, and stores of every type stood proud.  Arthur Ashe, Tina Turner, and Chuck Berry all attended The Ville’s Sumner High School — the first school west of the Mississippi to provide secondary education to black students.

Viable communities like The Ville were largely sustained by the magnitude of manufacturing jobs in St. Louis. Those jobs were secure, paid fairly, and ensured people without college degrees had equal opportunities to participate in the American dream.

That participation engendered pride magnified at workplaces like Granite City Mill, which supplied steel products to industries ranging from construction to container to tubing and piping, and yes, automotive. During her heyday, St. Louis was second only to Detroit in auto manufacturing, with Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors Co. plants located within her boundaries.

As gleaming new cars rolled off assembly lines, factory employees knew what they did mattered; the manifestations of their work literally kept America moving, until it did not. When the sounds resonating from her steel mills, factories, and automotive plants changed — from the stomping, sizzling, click-clack love timbres to the awful cacophony of ripping away, of unmaking, of industrial flight — it broke the heart of the city. It was worse than the blues.

While industrial flight goes back to the 1970s, the pain it caused has become most glaring since the turn of the century. The staggering disappearance of 5.7 million manufacturing jobs between March 1998 and December 2013 rocked many American communities.

St. Louis has grieved over her share of that abandonment. She lost her Ford plant in 2006; the subsequent closing of two Chrysler assembly plants wiped out more than 6,000 jobs. In general, more than 43,000 direct and indirect jobs are gone. More than 43,000 families were left in financial quagmires about how to pay the mortgage, save for retirement, fix the roof, repair the brakes on the car, or take the child to the dentist. It was eviscerating, leaving blight the size of craters, especially in her once regal, storybook community:  The Ville.

Industrial flight has a dramatic impact on everyone. Depleted industrial centers endure the long term effects of unemployment and diminished public services. The declining tax base means less money for schools, roadways, and public safety. But the impact is intensified as it reverberates like ear-splitting sirens through black communities.

That was certainly the case with The Ville. Today, huge swaths of the once proud and stately neighborhood resemble a bombed-out war zone, with few vestiges of its former glory. Many of those elegant brick homes are now abandoned eyesores. Some blocks have been reduced to vacant lots of overgrown grass. Five schools sit idle, like so many St. Louis factories and mills. The murder rate has soared. Unemployment has gone through the caved-in roofs. Many still there feel trapped, hopeless, disengaged — in this, the “City of Gabriels.”

Gabriel, according to some biblical interpretations, is the favored angel who will sound the trumpet to wake the dead. If St. Louis can develop her workforce to meet her changing needs, so even those without a college degree can once again be on a path to live the American dream; if she can reverse the decline of her faltering Infrastructure and invest in major restoration of  profoundly impacted neighborhoods like The Ville; if U.S.  trade policy can stand with her, not against her, ensuring that trade and import agreements do not disadvantage her workers, then it may be possible for St. Louis to have a new sound. She could blow that beautiful extended blare: the sound of awakening, signaling that those parts of her thought dead are coming alive once again.

So, as the song says, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”

The following is a special report about the effect of the loss of manufacturers in St. Louis on Black America. Next week will explore the loss of manufacturers on Black Baltimore. Turn to page A6 for a Commentary about this subject.