The Gate District Overview
Information concerning the neighborhood history, characteristics, institutions and organizations, planning and development.
The Gate District is defined as the area between Chouteau Avenue and Interstate 44 on the north and south and between South Jefferson Avenue and South Grand Boulevard on the east and west. This area is just south of the central corridor and west of Lafayette Square.
This area came to be known as The Gate District earlier this decade as a result of planning strategies devised to preserve the separate identities of different areas while at the same time creating a unified district. These areas historically evolved distinctly but were brought together with the construction of I-44 in the late 1960s.
The Compton and Dry’s Pictorial Atlas of 1875 gives us some idea of early development in this area. To the north the Pacific Railroad runs along Mill Creek Valley, surrounded by a mixture of industrial and residential buildings. South of Chouteau towards Park, the same pattern of development continues. It was not as developed as the areas closer to the railroads but far more developed than those to the south. The pictorial fits with the notion that the area north of Park was settled by working class immigrants, predominately Germans and Irish, some of whom had become better established through working in skilled trades or for the railroads.
The areas south of Park resemble much of the development surrounding the Compton Hill Reservoir - large homes enclosed by wooded estates and open fields. Both areas north and south of Park suffered from the tornado of 1896. North of Park, the First Church of St. Henry’s, organized as a German Catholic parish, was destroyed. To the south, Compton Hill Congregational Church at Compton and Lafayette Avenues experienced periods of great hardship with the removal of families in the vicinity following the tornado.
By early this century, areas both north and south of Park contained mostly two- and four-family flats. Current residents who grew up in the district describe both the areas earlier this century as working-class but the south being slightly more affluent. The community north of Park was a diverse mixture of residents, including Irish, Italian, Polish, and other immigrants; rural migrants; and some African-American residents. Mill Creek Valley, the area north of Chouteau surrounding the railroads, had become a predominately African-American neighborhood. As African Americans moved south of Chouteau, their children continued attending L’Ouverture School at 2612 Papin, to the north, until it moved to its current site on Hickory in 1950.
Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis in 1928. Eight years later, she returned from out of state to live with her maternal grandparents at 2714 ½ Caroline Street, in what is now The Gate District. She describes here experiences living in the neighborhood and attending L’Ouverture School in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
The area south of Park also comprised many immigrants (but did not include African-American residents) and was part of a separate political ward. Streetcars serviced a number of streets in the area, supporting commercial districts along Lafayette, Park, and Jefferson. Along the blocks of Jefferson between Lafayette and Park, there were a cobbler, dry goods stores, clothing stores, five-and-dime stores, shoe stores, a bar, a diner and a movie theater.
During the late 1960s, a large amount of change took place in the neighborhood. In 1968, the federal government created the 235-subsidy program for home ownership by low-income people. Some unscrupulous real-estate companies took the program as an opportunity for profit. By working on white residents’ fears, these companies bought up homes at a low cost, which they in turn sold or rented to low-income African-American families. This practice, known as "block busting," had a huge impact on the area south of Park as widespread panic ensued. Between 1960 and 1970, the area east of Compton lost 62 percent of its population. By the early 1970s, much of the area’s housing stock had become derelict or been demolished.
Beginning in the 1970s, a succession of different redevelopment plans for the area arose. The first, "New Town" from 1973, suggested leveling the area east of Compton and creating a large lake, surrounded by expensive homes, enveloped by a stone wall. Residents in the area formed the Southside Forum in reaction to this plan and together managed to strike it down. By 1975, they had joined forces with the HomeBuilders Association to devise a workable plan for the community. The HomeBuilders Association sponsored the New Town in Town Redevelopment Corporation and created a redevelopment plan for what was now being calling "Lafayette Towne." The original plan proposed dramatic restructuring of the street grid into a series of cul-de-sacs, demolition of large amounts of the remaining buildings, construction of single-family homes and apartments, and the creation of communal green spaces connected by walkways.
Plans for Lafayette Towne continued over the next decade, but residents’ hopes dwindled as construction and redevelopment lagged behind the pace of demolition. By the late ‘80s, Pantheon, which had development rights in the area, had readied large amounts of land for construction, but only a fraction of the area had been redeveloped. Large amounts of vacant land resulted.
By 1990, there was a new plan for the City to buy the property from Pantheon and redevelop the area as six individual "neighborhoods" making up the Gate District. A highly acclaimed Miami firm was retained by the City to formulate a master plan for the area. The firm’s design incorporated the restoration of older buildings with new construction and created six smaller neighborhoods with distinct entrance gates and tiny parks. Problems of communication and agreement led to revision of the plan, hampering its manifestation.