Mark Twain Neighborhood Overview

Information concerning the neighborhood history, characteristics, institutions and organizations, planning and development.

Location

The Mark Twain neighborhood is one of several communities that comprise northwest St. Louis. It is bounded by West Florissant Avenue (Bellefontaine and Calvary Cemeteries) to the northeast, Interstate Highway 70 (I-70) to the south and southwest, and Emerson Avenue to the northwest.

History

The Mark Twain neighborhood is the innermost (closest to downtown St. Louis) of a cluster of three historically related communities that includes the adjoining Walnut Park East and, in turn, its neighboring Walnut Park West. This portion of what is now northwest St. Louis was not developed when it was incorporated into the City of St. Louis in 1876. At that time, the area included various farms as well as nonagricultural but undeveloped properties. By this time, Baden, to the east, was already an established community, forever separated from what would become the Mark Twain neighborhood by Bellefontaine Cemetery (founded as a nonsectarian burial ground in 1949) and Calvary Cemetery (established in 1853 for Roman Catholic burials). Most of the population of the then City of St. Louis lived east of Grand Avenue.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, a number of factors coalesced to spur local development and urbanization. St. Louis was growing so rapidly that by 1900 it was America’s fourth largest city and near the peak of its national prominence. In 1893, the first of several streetcar lines was extended to the area as the Bellefontaine line provided service to the cemeteries from downtown. Around 1892, the Saint Louis Terminal Railroad Association began assembling land for the railroad lines that would eventually give rise to a large industrial corridor extending from beyond the southern end of Bellefontaine Cemetery westward to the city limits. During the mid 1890s, Bernays Avenue (Union Boulevard) was extended through the area. By 1898, the first residential subdivisions were being platted southeast and northwest of Bernays.

The first wave of single-family frame residential structures was built on Bernays (Union) and along parallel streets such as Geraldine, Claxton, and Arlington. By 1911, there were enough children in the vicinity to construct the Mark Twain Elementary School at 5316–26 Ruskin. Subsequently, when North Kingshighway Boulevard and its landscaped median were created, residential development accelerated. This residential development, however, tended to be brick and more dense with duplexes, four-family flats, and some apartment houses. Some of the neighborhood’s best single-family homes were constructed along and off Kingshighway.

Union developed as the commercial strip of the area, with commercial nodes scattered along West Florissant, Lilian, and Kingshighway at various intersections. There was significant industrial development either side of Shreve Avenue, including the Quality Dairy complex on West Florissant.

The Mark Twain neighborhood had a large percentage of German stock initially but soon attracted working-class people with other European roots. The construction of I-70, which began service in 1961, took numerous local homes and businesses and, moreover, sped suburban commutes and accelerated north St. Louis County’s residential development. At the same time, north St. Louis’s African-American population was growing and seeking more and better housing. By the mid 1960s, the Mark Twain neighborhood was transitioning from a white to a African-American population. This process was largely completed by the early 1970s. Since then, the relative socioeconomic status of Mark Twain has slowly eroded as middle-class African-American households have relocated to north St. Louis County and elsewhere.

Although much of the neighborhood remains sound, the oldest areas—such as a corridor several City blocks wide along Union Boulevard—is severely distressed. Blight, board-ups, and demolished sites pockmark most of the rest of it, although not to the extremes seen elsewhere in St. Louis. Some blocks are in average condition. Commercial activity is minimal, however, with numerous storefronts vacant, demolished, or occupied by marginal businesses. The industrial portion of the community remains active at reduced levels.

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