stone. Louis – “There’s a hole,” Vivian Gibson said of her memories of Mill Creek. “There are still injuries.”
Gibson suffered this injury in 1959, when she was 10 years old and one of 20,000 people evicted from their homes on the southern edge of downtown St. Louis — moving pieces with ease in the name of progress and the game.
But Gibson’s recent accolades for writing his memoir, “The Last Child of Mill Creek,” gives Gibson some solace.
Published in 2020, Gibson was recently named Author of the Year by the Missouri Library Association. Her book has also won the Missouri Humanities and Literary Achievement Award.
In a recent interview, Gibson said the saddest part of Mill Creek’s destruction was that it was always described as a ghetto.
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“That’s the wording when the city pays for the demolition by issuing bonds: They’re going to ‘eradicate the slums,'” Gibson said.
“But that’s one block. Black people have lived here for decades. When you drive to Market Street, all you have to do is look left or right, and we’re there, the entire black community.”
“We are the people who work in the railroads, hotels, laundries and foundries in the area. We have our schools, churches and shops,” she said.
While the official line is that land must be cleared to make way for Highway 40, Gibson said city planners are taking up far more space than is needed.
Seeing similarities with Native Americans — limiting to unneeded land, then relocating when land is needed — Gibson said highway construction was a secondary factor in the business rebuilding plan.
“So in the name of urban renewal, Mill Creek disappeared.”
Gibson grew up in a three-bedroom house in the 2600 block of Bernard Street, now a vacant space in an industrial area.
Her father, Randle Ross, worked as a highway worker for the St. Louis Public Service Co., which later became Bi-State Development Corp.
Her mother, Frances Ross, devoted herself to raising eight children. “If you count my brother’s friend, who came for dinner one night and ended up staying for three years, that’s nine,” Gibson said.
Gibson admits that some parts of Mill Creek have their rough edges.
“Some of the buildings along the railway are in poor condition. But a lot of the housing stock is not dissimilar to the housing in Soulard,” she said.
She also specifically mentioned the old People’s Financial Corporation building on Jefferson Avenue and Market.
“It’s the offices of all black doctors and lawyers, and it’s the only place where you can lend money to black people to buy a home,” she said.
Gibson stressed that she did not support segregation, noting that it did have a positive, albeit accidental, aspect.
“The city has restrictions on where we live to keep us confined to certain areas. Even successful black people, like doctors and lawyers, can’t live as they please, so they stay in Mill Creek.”
“It gave us all the role models,” she said. “It gives us hope.”
Gibson further spoke about civic leaders’ concerns about “containment” of black residents.
“That’s why the first bond issue in 1947 (to pay for the demolition) failed. Whites were worried about where all the blacks were going,” she said.
But a few years after the defeat in 1947, the city began construction on the Pruitt-Igoe housing project—also in the city center, but north of the Commercial Market Street path.
“So in 1954, when they issued bonds again, they could say That is where we all go,” she said. “That bond issue went through. “
After smoothing Mill Creek in 1959, Gibson and her family moved to the West End, thanks in large part to an accident at work with her father.
“He was working on the South Broadway streetcar tracks, got hit by a car; had to have surgery, and limped for the rest of his life,” she said.
“But he got some resettlement funds and ended up using it to buy a house so we didn’t have to move to Pruitt-Igoe,” she said. “After that, he always joked that losing an inch of his leg was worth it.”
For the past 20 years, the Gibson family has been the subject of the “Ross Family” exhibit at the Missouri History Museum.
After graduating from Vashon High School, Gibson went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees before working in New York’s fashion industry for 10 years.
After moving back to her hometown, she retired after 25 years as a volunteer coordinator at St. Louis Public Schools and then went on to do similar work at Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“I now live in Mill Creek, near 14th and Spruce Streets,” Gibson said, before laughing. “I looked at the rails.”